WASHINGTON - Profound disagreements among
careful observers and participants on the Myanmar
scene are still prevalent on President Thein
Seinís current reforms, including over their
significance, extent, and likely longevity.
These include pro and anti-sanctions
groups, insiders on both sides of the reform
fence, and various interested governments of
distinct and distant
preferences. Yet on one issue there is virtually
unanimous agreement: the institutions of Myanmar
lack sufficient capacity and institutions are
essential if reforms are to take deep root.
Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San
Suu Kyi, separately or together, are personally
necessary for reforms to succeed. But their
personalities alone are not sufficient. To
implement reforms in any field and to build
institutions, the need for training and the
development of modern skills in traditional and
emerging avenues are self evident. "Training" is
the watchword of the day in Myanmar.
Whether one is interested in economic
modernization and development, an effective
educational system, health services, basic
statistical and informational modernity, and even
a military that knows both its more sophisticated
equipment and its relationship to society, the
methodologies of all of the above and more are
archaic, limited, or even absent.
building is now a big part of any governmental aid
or non-governmental program in the country. These
training programs are longer or shorter in term,
based either in-country or abroad, and sponsored
by a wide variety of states and private
organizations. They are widely viewed as critical
for the future of Myanmar and the effectiveness of
its inchoate reforms.
There are reasons
for concern about whether these programs will
deliver. Observers and participants of the Myanmar
scene - or those of any other country that is
undergoing the process of modernization and
development - should be well aware of the history
of mis-targeted and poorly executed economic and
other forms of assistance.
well-worn pattern: assistance programs are
conceived and planned, activities start, and
training is built into the project and program
design. Yet what often occurs is a hiatus between
the inception of a reform, policy, program, or
project, and its effective implementation. People
need training everywhere, but even more in
relatively isolated states like Myanmar, which is
just now emerging from nearly five decades of
uninterrupted military rule.
caused the lack of capacity in Myanmar? Here we
need to be brutally candid. There are disciplines,
including such as information technology and
modern medicine, that are so new that training
would be required for even more developed states.
But responsibility for gaps in other basic fields
and disciplines needs to be assigned.
Myanmar, previously known as Burma, once
had a highly developed educational system, with
probably the best university in Southeast Asia
some three score years ago. That once proud system
has by nearly all measures collapsed.
Former military ruler General Ne Win
introduced ideological rigor during the country's
1962 to 1988 socialist period. Although the state
was not as isolated as communist North Korea or
Albania, it turned inward to exclude critical
thinking and much international contact. The
reading of a wide range of international academic
literature was forbidden during this closed
The later ruling State Law and
Order Restoration Council (SLORC) and State Peace
and Development Council (SPDC) changed the
country's ideological orientation but continued a
rigid set of censorship regulations on both news
and general publications and imported books.
The announcement last month that news
journals will no longer be subject to
pre-publication censorship was greeted widely with
optimism, but many of the laws that give
precedence to national security over freedom of
expression and association are still in place.
Both problems of ideology and censorship
were exacerbated by the closure of universities,
and even high schools, for extended periods due to
military fears of student-led ferment. Teachers
were badly paid and to make ends meet had to
instruct privately what they were supposed
publicly to teach. Corruption was widely evident.
So for over half a century the prospect of
academic-led progress was effectively diminished,
even virtually eliminated.
Since the 1988
uprising and crackdown, however, there have been
new sets of causes - and here the responsibility
for stasis or decay must be shared. Aside from
China and India (after 1993), and a few other
states, there was little attempt to train
Myanmar's officials and planners.
European Union (EU) and United States (US) imposed
sanctions and attempted to get other states such
as Japan to stop their official assistance. To
train apolitical, technocratic Burmese, so critics
argued, would be to strengthen a set of unsavory
regimes. Such training, even of highly specialized
skills for younger, non-political employees of any
institution, it was feared would enable the
military government to strengthen itself and
provide a veneer of legitimacy to an unpleasant
The EU and US instead opted to
isolate Myanmar, especially the military, known as
the tatmadaw, although one might have thought that
training in non-lethal affairs and human rights
might have been helpful given the tatmadaw's
critical and central role in Myanmar society.
Some training by foreign organizations
did, of course, take place, including programs
outside of the country among those who left for
ubiquitous political and economic reasons. These
were the dissidents who, many of them thought and
were encouraged by donors to think, were to return
in the vanguard of a new, civilian-led political
system following "regime change" - the ultimate
goal of the EU and US sanctions regimen. But they
were not to contribute to the existing military
As a result, apart from low
key media training sessions, modern in-country
training did not take place. Now the public and
private donors and well-wishers of Myanmar's new
reformist incarnation search the state far and
wide for those who have modern capacities, or even
those who have the basic potential to be trained.
This dilemma was both predictable and
predicted. As Thein Sein's government is anxious
for reforms to have an early effect, the ability
to build momentum is severely constricted by the
past policies of both the Myanmar state and donors
of all stripes. These past deleterious policies
could adversely affect the reform process as a
whole, not only in individual fields.
lack of positive, quick, and effective reform
impacts could sour the whole reform effort - both
among the reformers and the populace - with
potential dire consequences for the country. If
that were to happen, as some believe is possible,
EU and US donors should indulge in a good bit of
self-criticism, for they were in part responsible
for Myanmar's current lack of capacity.
David I Steinberg is
Distinguished Professor of Asian Studies, School
of Foreign Service, Georgetown University. His
latest volume (with Fan Hongwei) is Modern
China-Myanmar Relations: Dilemmas of Mutual
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