Myanmar has been in the news for about six weeks now. Myanmar, you ask? You would not be alone in asking that question, and I would have joined you if it were 2017 and not 2021. But on March 8th and 9th of 2018, my wife Cathy and I visited the capital of that country, Yangon, as part of the around-the-world cruise we took. Those of us of a particular vintage knew the country better as Burma, and the capital as Rangoon. Aaahhh, you say. Now it is coming clearer. A brutal theater in WWII, with “Vinegar Joe” Stillwell as American commander. That is probably the only reference Americans might have of the place.
The other reaction you might have when you read “Myanmar” is: Okay, where is it, and what does it matter to me? Those are fair questions for most Americans, and I certainly asked them. It is in South East Asia, with Bangladesh, China, Thailand, India and Laos as its neighbors.
But I have chosen this as my column topic because 1) I would like to acquaint you with this country so you will have some perspective on why you should be interested, and 2) I want to relate just some of the things we observed and statements from the guides to whom we listened and from whom we learned during our visit.
As you have read, the military staged another coup on February 1st, and, in the ensuing protests, dozens of young people have been murdered by Myanmar soldiers. This is not the first military takeover. They first took over the country in 1962 and created an authoritarian state, severely subjugating the citizenry, with isolation becoming their primary foreign policy. It should come as no surprise to anyone that China became their closest ally.
This backward and inward-looking regime held complete power from 1962 until 2011. By then, while the economies of the rest of Asia boomed, Myanmar stagnated. While the rest of the continent became the Asian Tiger, largely due to international investment in those nations’ economies, Myanmar languished as a backwater. The socialist, authoritarian government ignored its responsibilities to modernize as its corrupt leaders stashed away billions.
Here’s a perfect example of their mismanagement: Rice is grown in great abundance in the delta region around Yangon. Prior to the establishment of the socialist, authoritarian paradise in 1962, Burma was southeast Asia’s greatest rice exporter. In the ensuing glorious fifty years, the country became a net importer of this important staple. (By the way, it will not surprise you to learn that post-war, Communist-managed Vietnam managed the same feat. Some things never change.)
The economy of the country degenerated such that even the dictatorship had to relinquish total control in order to stave off a revolution. Aung San Suu Kyi, one of the leaders protesting against the regime (who spent nearly 15 years in detention for her efforts, even receiving a Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her courage) led her NLD party to victory in the country’s first openly contested election in decades in 2011.
In the following years, citizens of Myanmar were finally meeting people from outside Myanmar. Finally, international corporations were looking to invest in growing the country – warily, to be sure, because the military still had way too much power. Finally, the outside world was getting an introduction to this fascinating land full of engaging, friendly and welcoming people.
This long introduction to this amazing country Myanmar is necessary as a backdrop to the conclusions that Cathy and I drew from our on-the-ground observations and one-on-one conversations with our young guides while we were there:
■Myanmar serves as a textbook example of the failure of total government control (read: socialism). It left the military elites rich and untouchable, the infrastructure dilapidated and inadequate, and the people poor and discouraged.
■The only countries that will ever be able to improve the lot of its people must utilize the capitalist, market-based economic system. Even China and Vietnam eventually discovered that. Myanmar desperately needs a stable, democratic government if it is ever to join the rest of the burgeoning Asian economy.
■The ordinary, middle class (or those aspiring to join the middle class) people of a country have all the intelligence and ambition to become prosperous if the ruling elites will just get out of the way.
It has been noted that almost all of those murdered in protests in Myanmar are young. Why? Because they have had a taste of being free. Many have tasted success. Once you have suffered autocracy and then experienced freedom, you will despise the former and never, ever give up the latter.
Get to know Myanmar a little better. We Americans have a lesson to learn from their experience — a lesson we should heed every time we vote.
Stephen Knight is a former Wallingford town councilor.