Stiglitz and the Master of Puppets

Dec 7, 2009 (DVB), The long list of dignitaries with whom Burma's junta chief has played 'engagement' attests to his masterfully strategic use of iconic figures for public relations purposes. Stiglitz may be next.

How exciting that Joseph Stilglitz, the high priest of post-Washington Consensus globalization, will be traveling to Rangoon next week to give Senior General Than Shwe's deputies a crash course in poverty reduction and rural development! But this misplaced and premature excitement, if that is what it is, shows how desperate for change we as Burmese elites and our international supporters have become, and how pathetically inadequate our understanding of the nature of the beast we are dealing with is.

Stilglitz's journey to Naypyidaw is seen as newsworthy by star-struck Burmese and Burma media who think that the regime, which has not and will not budge a political inch despite repeated calls for engagement by Aung San Suu Kyi, our home-grown Nobel, may finally bend to the economic advice from another Nobel.

In his Prize Lecture delivered at Stockholm University in 2001, Professor Stilglitz expounded, "Problems of information (asymmetry) are central to understanding not only market economics but also political economy." In contrast to his own theory, neither he nor his handlers seem to have any real strategic understanding of the Burmese regime which they are trying to fix.

It is not only Stilglitz who "doesn't get it" when it comes to the regime, its nature and its modus operandi. There is a whole industry of Burma-changers, who after years of involvement in "the cause" still don't get it. Senior National League for Democracy member, U Win Tin, the man who has long understood what the country is up against and hence spent nearly 20 years behind bars, summed it up when he recently said "the regime has no intention of change"; that is, real change for the better.

One reason for the new found fervor for Stilglitz's policy input may be that Burma has become a new commodity for UN agencies; a potentially lucrative client of their consultancy and/or a new market for their experimental ideas.

Meanwhile, I wouldn't be surprised if Senior General is feeling very confident about the fact that both local and global engagers can be had easily, a dime a dozen, all wagging their tails like cute puppy dogs at the half-opened door of Generals' Abode. Who can blame the general if he is pleased with his own ability to bring the once cold and hostile world to his doorstep, strictly on his own terms, and in his own time?

Allowing the establishment of Tripartite Core Group (between the UN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and itself) for cyclone Nargis aid delivery is a classic example of the regime's manipulation of engagement. The move initially raised expectations about expanding "humanitarian space" on the ground while in reality the continuing strict control over the aid industry in Burma still prevents aid from reaching the bulk of the vulnerable population. Further to this, and according to the Euro Burma Office Election Monitor Number 8, there are growing concerns that nearer to the elections the regime will shut down even this limited space of humanitarian engagement.

But despite Than Shwe's new-found engagement with the West, he has been ignoring the icon at home. Engagement must begin at home, as Aung San Suu Kyi has correctly pointed out.

To understand Than Shwe's "game of engagement" with the world, one needs to understand that the general knows very well he has been at war with the world; the world tha wishes to see change in "his" Burma and, ideally, remove him from office.

Whether they are polished, respect-feigning engagers or crude, die-hard sanctioners, it matters not. To him, all those who clamor for change are like tropical mosquitoes which need to be taught a hard lesson in how not to bother a Senior General who merely wishes to be left alone.

Indeed Burma has become a graveyard of luminous engagers, figuratively speaking. Among them are Wall Street's John Rockefeller Jr., Professor Jeff "End-of-Poverty" Sachs, UN's "Kim-Chi Chief" Ban Ki-Moon, American senators John McCain (Republican) and Jim Webb (Democrat), former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, Malaysia's ambassador Tan Sri Razali, Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and most recently Nigeria's Dr Ibrahim Gambari, who folded his Burma shop and moved onto the new mission of saving Darfurians.

There are also locals, dissidents and generals, who got buried in Than Shwe's ghostly "engagement graveyard." I know; I was one of them. General Khin Nyunt was another. I feel we have all run fools' errands, having opted for the easy route of engagement over a decisive overthrow of what is beyond reform.

Historical change is a bloody affair, whether through the capitalist route of "creative destruction" or good old fashioned violent revolutions and assassinations. No self-confident tyrant with the army's loyalty remaining has in history been known to have negotiated their own retirement! So why do we think that Than Shwe would behave any different?

There is something patently false about this ill-informed engagement with Than Shwe. Only recently, US officials publicly announced that they had detected "the regime's seriousness in engagement" for the first time in a long while. I doubt Washington's heart is still beating with such excitement after hitting the dead end following two rounds of high level talks with Naypyidaw's pseudo-engagers, such as Prime Minister Thein Sein, Science and Technology Minister Maung Thaung, and the like.

The truth of the matter is that the Senior General sees nothing wrong with either the country's economy or the state of the Union. After all, he views himself as the last in the long line of victorious warrior-emperors.

He thinks he is building the 5th Burmese Empire, unified, prosperous and preferably nuclear-armed. From where he sits, no other Burmese leader, soldier or civilian, since the country's independence has ever presided over the inflow of revenues in billions of petrochemical-dollars. He attributes all this wealth and might to his unparalleled strategic brilliance and leadership.

With every major challenge he (and his regime) has been able to ride out – be it the threat of "humanitarian intervention" by Western warships; the challenge posed by a massive number of venerable Sons of Lord Buddha; the worldwide outrage against the farcical trial of Aung San Suu Kyi; or his own intelligence chief's "insubordination," – Senior General Than Shwe's confidence seems to have grown rock-solid.

In the fast-stabilizing new geo-economic and strategic equations, both senior and junior generals appear to have concluded that their regime has finally gotten the world exactly where they want it. Nobel or not, Than Shwe and his deputies couldn't care less who the engager is.

Finally, there is something bizarre and colonial about a New York-based Nobel who charges exorbitant fees for sharing his wisdom on world poverty, flying in on a big jet plane to the opulent Abode of the Kings in central Burma to hold seminars with the military leadership that knows not the difference between micro- and macro-economics.

In the past Burma has produced world class economists. Some are still alive, in the country or in the neighborhood, such as Bangkok. If the regime is serious about poverty alleviation and rural development, I am sure these Burmese experts would happily dispense their advice free of charge. Some names spring to mind: Professor Hla Myint who helped found development economics, taught at Oxford and the London School of Economics and served as Vice Chancellor of Rangoon University in the 1950s; Dr Ronald Findlay who holds an endowed chair in development economics at Columbia University; and others such as Berkeley-trained Dr U Myint who retired as Professor of Economics in Rangoon and R.M. Sundrum who emigrated to Australia and taught at the Australian National University.

To think that the regime, which holds the rabid nationalist view that the proverbial White Man is always up to no good and their ideas and actions lie at the root of Burmese woes, will take on board Stilglitz's expensive policy advice is just plain mad. But I suppose as long as some donors foot the bill for Professor Stilglitz’s journey to Than Shwe’s surreal capital, the regime doesn't mind playing engagement. Engagement with the generals has indeed become fools' errands.

Dr Zarni is Research Fellow on Burma at the Center for the Study of Global Governance, London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).

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