There’s More to Burma’s ‘Success Stories’ Than Meets the Eye

Burma's economic and political opening has enabled the "cronies" to get even richer -- but hasn't done much for ordinary people.

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The BBC recently published an article about Burma that was loaded with promise. Headlined “Myanmar’s diving scavengers and other working lives,” its opening paragraph suggested a gritty, dirt-under-the-fingernails look into the lives of everyday people who have been left out of the country’s much-heralded democratic and economic reforms. “Some have done very well since the lifting of international sanctions and the opening up of Myanmar’s economy,” it observes. “But what about those at the bottom of the pile?”

Indeed, how have the lives of the country’s ordinary citizens changed? Has the country’s opening made any tangible difference? How does everyday life in Rangoon feel and smell and taste to those who struggle through it? These are questions that, until now, had been addressed mostly by academics, escaping the attention of mainstream audiences. On that level, articles like the one published by the BBC should, in principle, offer a useful corrective. Unfortunately, in this case author Jonah Fisher completely misses the bleak truth of Burma’s persistent inequality.

The article opens with a compelling vignette about a man who makes his living scouring the bottom of the Yangon river for resalable debris. But after this introduction to the “bottom of the pile,” the author takes us, bizarrely, to the rarefied air of society’s peaks. The remaining four “normal” lives featured are: the foreign-educated owner of a restaurant empire (who was able to operate at a loss for years); the scion of a banker who became obscenely wealthy under the military regime (landing the founder on the U.S. and EU sanctions list); an internet entrepreneur who quit university in Singapore to become a millionaire upon returning; and an astrologer who makes $1,000 per day (nearly as much as the average person in Burma makes all year). These people are the bottom of the pile? No — they are the nouveau riche who have benefited most from the end of sanctions. The success of their enterprises in Burma’s opening economy depends on wealth and elite contacts that are, needless to say, out of reach for the man dredging the river.

The videos embedded in the article double down on the absurdity, allowing their subjects to promote themselves unchallenged (the banking heiress touts her firm’s humanitarian efforts, adding another layer to the whitewash of a company whose founder has long featured prominently in western sanctions lists). Meanwhile, scenes of actual street life in Yangon — a poor woman sells pigeon feed on the side of a road as barefooted monks walk past — feature as colorful background for the elites pontificating about their society’s future.

But it precisely is here that the article stumbles upon something interesting. It manages to ask in images what it fails to in words: in a country emerging from destructive, kleptocratic military rule, how do the elites “earn” their money? And what is their relationship with ordinary people?

The Burmese state dodges such questions by focusing on images of development successes that ostensibly benefit both rich and poor: see the dams, bridges, and ports comically portrayed in this video recently released by President Thein Sein. In the BBC videos, however, the striking juxtaposition of the poor and the wealthy in the new Burma demands comment. Building a fortune from gem extraction backed by a military junta, as the featured banker has done, does not benefit the country’s ordinary people. Burmese gem traders are notorious for smuggling their wares out of the country with the help of corrupt officials, meaning that the state sees minimal tax or custom revenues from the industry.

And while BBC asserts that the tech start-up owner’s “fortune … is entirely self-made,” the images challenge that premise: “entirely self-made” is no way to describe anyone in Burma who is able to get an education abroad. Gaining access to that privilege requires massive resources — both material and social — that elude, for instance, the woman selling pigeon feed.

Burma’s society is acutely aware of these tensions between the wealthy and the excluded, exploring the terrain through the figure of the “crony,” an ubiquitous topic of discussion in Yangon today. While crony — a loanword from English — defines for many Burmese those tycoons who extract rents through their relationship with the generals, others I have talked to go further, describing a crony as “anyone who does not care for the people’s benefit,” or “people who only care for their own group.”

Whether those who only care for themselves can benefit the collective good is being hotly debated. Some foreign analysts and the head of the ruling party have gone so far as to insist that “cronies” are essential for the country’s development; some average people I have talked to grudgingly agree. Yet many Burmese have told me that the entire economy is a “crony economy,” and that despite the transformations that have swept the country in recent years, the current model will continue to profit only the elite. In other words, contrary to the BBC article which lumps banker and river scavenger together, the Burmese themselves clearly understand who is at the bottom of the pile — and who is at the top.

In the photo, pilgrims walk past an elderly woman begging in Myanmar’s biggest city, Yangon, on March 1, 2012.

Photo credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images

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