Myanmar must not squander its riches in the rush to grow

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 March, 2012, 12:00am


Myanmar faces a tricky future finding a development model that will allow it to alleviate poverty and create an equitable society.

As one of the last countries in Asia to open its doors, it has the opportunity to draw on some of the lessons its neighbours have learnt from their decades-long pursuit of growth at any cost. Many in the region now lament the erosion of cultures and values, and the high cost to their resource base that has accompanied their embrace of unfettered free markets and extreme capitalism.

Examples include the questions being asked in Japan, following its tragic earthquake and nuclear accident, about the pursuit of prosperity; the fact that the worst floods in living memory in Thailand were the result of economic development at the expense of the natural environment; the awful air pollution that engulfs so many Asian cities as they blindly embrace cars and low-cost manufacturing; and the obesity explosion in countries from India to Malaysia.

Myanmar's opening occurs at a critical time for thinking about routes to development. With the West's reputation undermined by the global financial crisis and its aftermath, its recipe of consumption-led growth is being questioned.

Many Asian countries are beginning to come to terms with the reality that they cannot simply 'manufacture and export' their way out of poverty and ape an economic model that appears to have exhausted itself because it thrives on promoting relentless consumption by underpricing critical resources.

This offers Myanmar an opportunity to look for a more sustainable development model. Travelling there last December, I observed that multiculturalism is a striking feature, yet historically at the core of its woes.

Fostering harmony in a resource-rich country will be a key to its future success.

Access to resources is invariably at the centre of ethnic conflicts in countries with weak institutions. In fact, Myanmar's ethnic conflicts, which have persisted for decades, can mainly be attributed to British colonial rule and its widespread use of divide-and-rule tactics to gain access to key resources.

Yet, despite the ravages of the past 50 years, Myanmar's culture remains steadfast. But for how much longer, now that political and economic freedom is slowly being realised?

The country must tread carefully so as not to get caught up in the euphoria of rapid economic growth that will undoubtedly hinge on cheaply exploiting its rich natural resources of natural gas, oil, copper, silver, precious stones, hardwood and fisheries.

The challenge facing the country is to find a way to foster growth while avoiding the worst pitfalls of development. As many other nations in the region have found, encouraging investment is important but there is often a tension between the short-term needs of investors and the long-term interests of the country and its people.

This is the sustainable-development challenge so many nations in Asia face. Few have found the right balance. The Myanmese government needs to be prepared to negotiate very strongly even with its so-called friends as it opens up. The key challenge is whether the people will support their government if it takes a more measured approach or if they will instead seek to hurriedly catch up with their neighbours, perhaps inadvertently doing long-term damage to their country.

Ideally, Myanmar will manage to preserve its culture, heritage and resources while seizing the benefits of integrating its economy with the other vibrant nations of Southeast Asia.

But will it be allowed to choose its own route to modernity? Or will it be swamped by extreme capitalism looking for yet another frontier to conquer by plundering its resources?

Chandran Nair is the founder and CEO of the Global Institute for Tomorrow and author of Consumptionomics: Asia's Role in Reshaping Capitalism and Saving the Planet