Myanmar negotiates bumps on the road to democracy
The democratisation process being pushed by President Thein Sein's quasi-civilian government in Myanmar is facing a lot of difficulties - and it's not hard to work out why. Huge changes are underway: economic liberalisation, developing a banking system in line with international standards (in a society that has not had this for more than 6o years), imposing the rule of law, trying to get armed ethnic resistance groups to enter a peace process, operating a parliament despite little or no experience on how to draw up laws and improve or repeal existing laws. But the worst problems are corruption and misuse of power by government administrators.When mobile phones were introduced to the country, the first users had to pay 1.5 million kyat for one handset (about Bt45,000) - among the highest prices in the world. With gross domestic product at only $1,400 per capita and earnings ranked among the lowest worldwide, many still dream of getting one. The telecommunications department controlled the mobile phone business and made them expensive for two reasons.
One, they were allowed only for the wealthy, most of whom were government cronies, because mobile phones were seen as dangerous - a way to reveal news about what was really happening in the country. With a relatively small number of mobile phones, this was a way for the military to retain control of information. Second, doing this made a lot of money for the elite and helped well-connected individuals become very wealthy.
However, demand for reasonable prices forced the telecommunications department to reduce the price of phones to a third of the original price. This is still much higher than international prices.
In the United States, phone companies gave free basic phones to customers. When people in Myanmar heard about this, they demanded low-price phones for everybody. This demand echoed around the country, and telecom officials lowered the price to 250,000 kyat. Yet this is still higher than other countries.
In a poor country like Myanmar, it is hard for grassroots people to get a cell phone. The price has dropped to 150,000 kyat but there are just 1.24 million mobile phones in a country with a population of over 60 million. Myanmar has a phone ownership ranking of 148, below its neighbour Laos, where nearly 5.5 million people have a mobile phone (world ranking 100), and Thailand, ranked at 18 with about 70 million mobiles. The fact a small country like Laos is ahead of Myanmar on this standard indicates that prices need to be cut further immediately. But catching up to Thailand will take one or two decades.
Recently, Telecommunications Minister Thein Tun was fired and put under investigation for corruption. Another 50 staff in the department are also under investigation. Meanwhile, customers have to pay for sim cards also. This is the thing most customers complain about - Myanmar's unique corruption. Most government departments seem keen to rob money from people rather than help them. Recently, one of the President's Office ministers, U Soe Thein, announced that from April 1 the price of mobile phones will come down to an affordable level. But he refused to say what the price range would be.
The price of cars under the military regime headed by General Than Shwe, before the Thein Sein administration, was also among the highest in the world. Importing a new car required a permit; a car permit was like a licence to become rich. In the US, a Toyota Camry, Mitsubishi or Honda Accord sells for $20,000 to $28,000, whereas in Myanmar they cost $200,000 to $300,000. Generals and their cronies were able to get car permits and become millionaires over the last 23 years of military rule.
Another source of income for these cronies was "wetland farming" - a plan to change areas of wetland into farmland. Cronies got thousands of acres under this scheme. First, they built a dyke around the land and pumped out the water. For this they needed tractors, trucks, water pumps and so on. They got permits to import all kinds of machinery and accessories. But in the end, wetlands were rarely turned into farmland. Some became commercial fish ponds. The return, however, came from the permits, which holders could sell on for big sums.
There are also unique problems in education. Student leaders in the 2007 "Saffron Revolution" are still banned from studying in universities. But they are allowed to study under "distance education" or "open university" systems, which generally are not of good quality. Recently, students who were expelled from medical school have demanded to the right to study. Mandalay Medical University rector, Dr U Than Win, expelled 400 students during his four years of service. The university authorities were ordered to take this extreme action against most of the students who participated in public protests.
In January, a blogger with the pen name "Dr Sate Phwar", wrote an article that asked if the Hluttaw (parliament) was above the law. His article infuriated MPs and one, Dr Soe Yin, has made an issue of the matter. He said the article was an insult to the Hluttaw and wants to find out who the blogger is, and to take action. The parliament overwhelmingly approved his proposal. But this has raised questions about criticism of the Hluttaw - and how big a crime this is! The new parliament needs to learn how to tolerate criticism and to accept different views and opinions. In a system of narrow minds, criticising the authorities is seen as wrong and an insult. But is criticising the authorities or parliament for not making progress really a crime or intolerable?
Thein Sein's government needs to oversee many changes. For pro-democracy forces, making the 2008 constitution more democratic is the ultimate goal, but whether the regime really wants to do it is the big question. The top generals fear losing power, and their cronies will not go away overnight. The president needs to be brave to change many necessary things within his term. Unlawful acts and decisions from the past need to be re-examined and made right if he is to win the hearts of the people. And by that, I mean real people - the grassroots, the poor and the weak, who don't know how to protect their rights. This government, like the previous regime, talks about "the people". But the previous regime never meant it; "for the good of the people" meant for themselves. This selfish interpretation needs to be changed, so the real people can live the lives that they dream of and deserve.
Htun Aung Gyaw is a former chairman of the All Burma Students Federation. He now lives in the US.