Last year, Myanmar successfully hosted the ASEAN summit demonstrating its capaci- ty to manage international gatherings. It is a milestone for the country as it transition from military rule to a democracy. Part of the continuing transition is this year’s national elections to select a new set of leaders. The elections will be a crucible for the government and the party in power. The people will decide if they are satisfied with how the present administration is managing the transition. A fresh mandate for the pres- ent administration will signify continuation of the current direction, while a significant increase in elected opposition leaders will be a reflection of a need for change.

The government’s focus is two-fold: ensuring peace and stability and fast tracking socio-economic development. As far as the government is concerned, these concerns are aligned with what the people wanted. During the 3rd Myanmar Development Cooperation Forum held last February, President Thein Sein in his keynote address acknowledged that the government efforts, has generated some substantial results in the past four years, but, there is still much work to be done.

The ceasefire with various rebel groups is high on the priority list because the peace dividends are expected to boost economic development in areas devastated by decades of fighting. This is expected to complement investments that have been pouring in to key cities and special economic zones since the opening of the economy several years ago. However, there were observations that the peace process is dragging on and the proposed nationwide ceasefire may not be signed within the year. The situation is ag- gravatedbytherecentflareupofhostilities in the Kokang region. There were impres- sions that the series of reforms during the initial years of President Thein Sein’s ad- ministration has suddenly slowed down.

The economy has indeed improved with in- vestments in various sectors but the surge may also be affected with the impressions that the reforms have slowed down. The lin- gering question is that are the changes fast enough for the country to catch up with the rest of countries in the region? The country has already expressed that it is not yet ready for the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) that will commence this year. It has to work on some structural changes to cope with the rest of the ASEAN member-countries.

Framework for development

Myanmar’s development plan is enshrined in the National Comprehensive Develop- ment Plan (NCDP). The main goal of the plan is the country’s integration with the global community and to graduate Myan- mar from a least developed country (LDC) to middle income country (MIC) category by the year 2030. Started in 2011, the plan has four implementation phases and strategic goals described as inclusive, diversified and sustainable.

The development model is anchored on the building up of growth centers that will serve as the hubs from where economic corridors will radiate and link the rest of the coun- try. The key cities of Yangon and Manda- lay were defined as the growth centers. The first corridor starts from Yangon and ex- tends to the Kayin State linking the border with Thailand. The second corridor starts in Mandalay and will extend to the border town of Muse connecting the country with China. The third corridor also starting in Mandalay goes up to the border with India. Connectivity with Vietnam and Laos is also included as it shares common borders with Myanmar. Along these growth corridors, special economic zones and industrial zones other facilities will be developed that will generate economic activities. The plan ba- sically capitalizes on its strategic location in relation to its more developed neighbours. Strong economic relationships with India, China and Thailand are expected to push the economy of the country. The plan is ex- pected to increase the per capita GDP from $832 (in 2011) to $3,000 by 2030, an in- crease of 72%.

Development for whom?

The main critique to the plan is the fact that the country is being developed as a service provider to the needs of its big neighbours. This is reflected in the current big projects implemented like the gas pipeline for Chi- na, dams generating electricity for Thailand and China and special economic zones (like Dawei) for Thailand. There is no question on the income that will be generated by the country from these services, but the social cost to the people may be steep for the coun- try.

One of the main areas of concern is the im- pact of the projects on the poor. A number of projects have generated resentment from the local people. Cases of land grabbing and displacement of people are increasing and most of these can be traced to the land spec- ulation around the areas proposed to be de- veloped. Violent deaths in dispersing rallies opposing displacement are further alienat- ing the government. In some instance, the government positively responded like the case of the suspension of the Myitsone dam, but it does change the government’s funda- mental approach of setting up services for the use of other countries.

It may sound ironic, but the NCDP is presented as a plan that promotes “inclusive growth”, benefitting all segments of the society. Another term used liberally in the plan is “people-centered development”, which connotes human development at the core of the activities in the plan. These two terms are descriptive of what the development di- rection should be – more emphasis on the human development. This means people as the most important resource and therefore requires more development interventions. A good number of programs and activities should have been designed for them to meet the basic needs and enable them to develop their full potentials and contribute to the country’s competitiveness.

As it is, the development plan is more of an affirmation of the classic “trickle down” concept where support is concentrated is select- ed areas or sectors. Economic development of the rest of the areas depends on how fast the benefits will trickle down to them.

Some proposed action points

The plan can be enhanced if more efforts are made at soliciting people’s ideas on how to maximize the benefits of development. A more vigorous information campaign shar- ing the development plan to all sectors and generating suggestions will make the plan more inclusive and people-centered. From the ideas of the people, the government can realign priorities and address the specific needs as expressed by the people. Inclusiveness should start from the planning process.

Transparency in the design of the projects should be a policy of the government. It should consider also the conflicting interests in the area and make sure that every- body is aware of the consequences of each projects. Stakeholders both from the public and the private sector and the civil society should be consulted and involved in the process to prevent them from becoming negative once the project is already being implemented.

The government should also consider in- cluding comprehensive safety net programs to those negatively affected by the projects, particularly those that will be relocated. Other sectors whose livelihood and sources of income will be affected should likewise be included. Existing projects should start working on the safety nets and new projects seeking approval should be required to install components that will protect the affected sectors.

Finally, oppositions to the projects should be dealt with constructively. More can be achieved with discussions than with violent response to those with valid grievances. For sure, the government is implementing the projects to improve the standard of living of its people and not just to serve the interests of other countries.