May Editorial: Myanmar

By: Southeast Asia Globe - Posted on: May 1, 2012 | Current Affairs

Myanmar is in a unique position where it can choose to become successful, or remain a failure

What makes a country successful? How much reform must a country welcome to shed its ‘failed’ status? Is a country destined to fail or can a country shape its own destiny? Why are some nations rich and others poor, divided by wealth and poverty, health and sickness, food and famine? These are questions that popped up as we prepared this month’s special on Myanmar and they are questions MIT economist Darib Acemoglu and Harvard political scientist James A. Robinson attempt to answer in the recently-published Why Nations Fail: the origins of power, prosperity and poverty. Is the modern world shaped by geographical and environmental factors as argued by Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel: the fate of human societies? Do natural resources and access to fresh water and fertile soil encourage wealth or war? Acemoglu and Robinson demonstrate that neither culture, weather nor geography (sorry Jared) determine the fate of a country. Rather, political and economic institutions underpin to what degree a country can be considered a success or failure. The key to wealth, as argued in Why Nations Fail, is strong, sovereign institutions: independent courts, a government committed to the interests of its people, schools in which children learn and universities that provide competitive, but inclusive, education. A simple change of government that ushers in superficial reforms will not change a system that has been fundamentally structured to enrich a small group of people. Nations thrive when they develop inclusive political and economic institutions, they fail when those same institutions become extractive, while power and opportunity are concentrated in the hands of a select few. But what makes an emperor change his clothes? Perhaps once he has had his fill, having already carved up his country’s assets amongst his friends and family, or perhaps when he is threatened by revolution and demise. Or perhaps, just perhaps, when he finally wants to give his people a chance. Prosperity requires political struggle against privilege, but wealth is generated by investment and innovation – two acts of faith. Investors and innovators must have credible reason to believe that their work will bear fruit in the future. Myanmar is currently in a unique position where it can choose to become successful, or remain a failure. As the world watches what will come next, a few leaders in the region would be well advised to take note.


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