Additional Reporting by Pan Pwint
As political power slowly shifts towards democratic rule, the stark economic divide between Myanmar’s super-rich and poor remains largely unchanged. To address this issue, leaders from across the country and the world came together on Sunday for a conference focused on development solutions to target this economic divide.
Policy Dialogue on Equitable and All-Inclusive Development in Myanmar, held in Myanmar language at Yangon’s Inya Lake Hotel, was jointly organized by ActionAid Myanmar, UMFCCI and Mizzima Media. ActionAid, an organization that focuses on development solutions across the globe, sponsored a similar conference in Nay Pyi Taw a few days earlier, for an English-language audience. Attendees—including representatives from national and local governments, the United Nations, ethnic groups academia and NGO’s—learned more about inequalities in development by listening to speeches by experts in the field and participating in panel discussions.
Challenging Political and Economic Power
The Policy Dialogue’s leadership recognized how Myanmar’s political structures shape the current economic climate. In a written introduction to the conference, the organizers declared: “Highly centralized dispensation led by the autocratic apparatus has reduced the democratic quotient, and a culture of silence has creeped in amongst the ordinary people, who wanted to see the change of the situation and a bright future.”
On a similar note, in his welcome remarks to the audience, the CEO of Action Aid Adriano Campolia, of Brazil, declared that to address inequality, Myanmar’s leaders must redistribute power and wealth amongst the people.
“A fundamental element of inequality is the access and control of land. Access to land also means access to power,” Campolia said, stressing the importance of land-rights and land-ownership in combatting inequality.
ActionAid’s CEO also argued that the government must provide higher quality services, and wealthy citizens should foot the bill. “Through the mechanism of higher progressive taxation and high quality goods and services, we also redistribute wealth and power,” he said.
Inequality Inhibits Growth
Several speakers stressed that income disparities have an effect on the entire economic system. Inequalities are known to inhibit growth and “rising inequality is considered to be a major factor in limiting the success of development in ASEAN,”said Dr Mike Griffiths, one the presenters.
Dr Griffiths has spent over 13 years studying the social protection sector in Myanmar and addressed the crowd in flawless Myanmar language. He currently works with Yangon’s Social Policy & Poverty Research group.
Griffiths presented recommendations to reduce inequality in Myanmar’s rural regions. He stressed that rural farmers must diversify their livelihoods to increase economic diversity to reduce their vulnerability if a single crop fails. Government mechanisms in rural communities must be developed further, he argued, so local citizens can have a say and actively participate in rural development initiatives.
The current government has made some steps to improve the earning potential of low income individuals in rural communities, said U Zaw Pe Win, an advisor to the National Parliament’s Joint Public Accounts Committee. For example, he said the government has focused on infrastructure projects, like damns, with the aim to support farmers.
The parliamentary advisor also added that the current government had increased access to loans for farmers. The government accepted a loan from the Government of Japan so that Myanmar’s Agricultural Bank can give loans to farmers at 8.5% interest. Now, the current administration extends loans up to farmers of up to 150,000 kyats, an increase of the previous government’s 100,000 limits, Zaw Pe Win said.
All speakers recognized that there is a lot more work to do in Myanmar to sustain equitable development. Dialogues like this stress that economic development should focus on growth alone, but must also consider how that growth is distributed across the population.