Sunday, 3 June 2012

Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi’s and the Benazir dilemma

Myanmar is the latest poster child of global democratic and economic reform. The world's capitalists are beating a path to Yangon's door hoping to get a piece of the pie. Much of the new found optimism is due to the legitimacy granted recent changes by celebrated human rights activist Aung San Suu Kyi. Her participation in the last elections is the most visible example of change in process.
Surely, there is ample reason to be sanguine about Myanmar's future but is the world getting ahead of itself? Media reports suggest Suu Kyi herself seems to think so – she cautioned the world against 'reckless optimism' at a recent speech in Bangkok.

I can appreciate Suu Kyi's sentiments. I was in Pakistan in 1988 when Pakistan's own 'beacon of freedom and democracy' – the late Benazir Bhutto - returned after many years in self-imposed exile. After a decade of stifling pseudo-Islamic rule by the late President Zia ul-Haq, Pakistan's democratic era was to lead the nation to freedom and prosperity.

Instead, the 1990s are lamented as Pakistan's lost decade, much like the 2010s look like becoming. Democracy brought nothing but instability.

Yes, Pakistan had democracy – much like today's circus comprising mainly of gangsters and power brokers more concerned about maintaining the perquisites of control than improving the welfare of the common citizen. One needs to look no farther than President Zardari to get an idea of the quality of people currently running the country. Is it any surprise Pakistan's condition has significantly deteriorated in the last few years of 'democratic freedoms?'

Ok, I concede that comparing Suu Kyi with Benazir is a tad unfair to Suu Kyi. For starters, I don't believe Suu Kyi has a spouse comparable to Pakistan's disgraceful President. Nevertheless, Suu Kyi will face at least some of the same obstacles which plagued Benazir's stint as the Muslim world's first female Prime Minister.

Reckless optimism is a nice phrase to capture sentiments which naturally get ahead of themselves, especially amongst the youth. Ordinary citizens will demand change and improvement at a rapid pace – a rate not likely permitted by Myanmar's establishment.

Myanmar's generals will resist change every step of the way. Helping the reactionary forces will be the privileged classes which benefit from an economy designed to buttress the existing regime. It will take more than a few months to dismantle the control systems put in place over a span of years by a military junta.

Certainly, Myanmar and Pakistan are also not comparable in many ways. Myanmar exists in a friendlier neighbourhood. There is no foreign occupation of any of Myanmar's neighbours. Trade links with neighbours should be normal – not a legacy of past wars and hostilities.

Hope makes the world go round. Aung San Suu Kyi brings hope of a better future to Myanmar's people. That is part of Suu Kyi's attraction. However, it is no surprise that Suu Kyi herself wishes to temper expectations of change. She understands the difficulties in reforming a society, especially one as tightly controlled as Myanmar.


Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors, Imran improves the profitability of businesses operating in Singapore and the region. He can be reached at

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