Root of the issue

Published March 29, 2023
The writer is a former bureaucrat and a member of the PTI advisory committee.
The writer is a former bureaucrat and a member of the PTI advisory committee.

THERE’S not an issue that hasn’t been highlighted amongst the problems faced by this country; there’s not an individual that hasn’t been slandered; there’s no solution that hasn’t been put forth though social, print and electronic media. And yet, we continue to be pulled downwards by a violent whirlpool.

Each group — political, social or ethnic — points fingers at the other. In an effort to find the cause of our misfortunes, I thought we could compare countries in our region which were colonised by the British and allowed self-governance some 75 years ago.

Britain set free the areas that make up Singapore, Malaysia, Burma, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. The recent per capita GDP of these countries stands at: Singapore $58,484; Malaysia $11,136; Sri Lanka $3,689; India $2,900; Bangladesh $2,064; Pakistan $1,388; and Myanmar $1,333.

Pakistan and Burma are at the bottom. What is common between the two?

Burma became independent in 1948. Its first years saw communist insurgencies. By 1958, the country was beginning to recover economically but starting to fall apart politically.

The role of the generals has been pervasive.

Army hardliners saw their opportunity and played their cards well, with a prominent political party ‘inviting’ army chief Gen Ne Win to take over the country. Ne Win’s caretaker government held elections in 1960, but ultimately staged a coup along with 16 other generals in 1962.

Ne Win consolidated his position by establishing a one-party system. He retired from the army in 1972, but continued to rule through his sponsored political party. A new constitution was promulgated in 1972, and Ne Win became president.

In 1974, the biggest anti-government demonstration broke out over the funeral of UN secretary general U Thant, who was seen as a symbol of opposition to the military. The Burmese people felt that U Thant had been denied a state funeral that he deserved. Various insurgencies continued against the government, which were used by Ne Win to brutally suppress the dissidents.

He retired as president in 1981, but continued to hold power in the garb of chairman of the Socialist Programme Party, a military-sponsored political party, until 1988.

That year, triggered by the brutal repression of students, widespread demonstrations broke out, providing an excuse for another general, Saw Maung, to take over. The generals continued to rule, using the fig leaf of democracy and holding elections but keeping power with themselves.

Elections were held in 1990, but because the military-sponsored political party did not win, power was not transferred. In 1992, Saw Maung was replaced by Gen Than Shwe, who relaxed some curbs on the popular leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and released her in 1995.

Than Shwe allowed elected representatives to meet but insisted on a major role for the military and suspended the National Convention (equivalent to our National Assembly) repeatedly, finally dismissing it in 1996.

The military again placed popular leader Suu Kyi under house arrest from 2000 to 2002. She was taken into custody after one year of freedom. In 2005, the government reconvened the National Convention for the first time since 1993 in an attempt to rewrite the constitution. Democracy was only allowed for some handpicked parties, but not Suu Kyi’s NLD.

With the deteriorating economy, protests against the military started in 2007 but were crushed ruthlessly. In 2008, a referendum was announced for a new constitution, with elections to be held in 2010.

The military-backed government introduced many democratic reforms in 2011-12 and released Aung San Suu Kyi. These refo­rms were rew­arded by the West, and Myanmar was made chairman of Asean. Hillary Cli­nton visited the country, the first such visit by a US secretary of state in 50 years.

The 2015 elections gave Suu Kyi’s party, the NLD, a majority, and in March 2016, she assumed the role of state counsellor, a post akin to prime minister.

In the 2020 polls, despite poor governance, the Rohingya crisis and ethnic strife, Suu Kyi’s NLD won 396 seats in a parliament of 476, while the military-sponsored USDP won only 33. The military detained Suu Kyi in 2021 and handed over power to its chief, Gen Min Aung Hlaing, leading to a disobedience movement by healthcare workers and civil servants. Despite their peaceful methods of protest, human rights agencies report that over 2,000 people were killed. Hundreds of thousands were displaced because of armed insurgencies and turmoil and tens of thousands fled to neighbouring countries.

The conclusion is that the role of the generals has been more pervasive and prolonged in Myanmar than any country in the region, including Pakistan, so they are one notch below Pakistan in the well-being index. Hence, the greater the involvement of the army in politics, the poorer the country.

The writer is a former bureaucrat and a member of the PTI advisory committee.

Published in Dawn, March 29th, 2023

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