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A man looks at a graffiti congratulating Myanmar's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her party's election victory in Mandalay, Myanmar, on Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2015. (Hkun Lat/AP)
A man looks at a graffiti congratulating Myanmar's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her party's election victory in Mandalay, Myanmar, on Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2015. (Hkun Lat/AP)

Wigdor and Toope

In Myanmar, no quick path to prosperity Add to ...

Mitchell Wigdor is a consultant on international economic development; Stephen Toope is director of the Munk School of Global Affairs.

The landslide electoral victory of Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy is a rare good-news story. The Myanmar people are understandably ecstatic. Simply living in freedom under a democratically elected government engenders a sense of hope for the future. Tangible improvements in their standard of living, however, will be harder to achieve and take much longer than many appreciate.

Unrealistic expectations abound of what the NLD can accomplish economically. Having no other experience than strongman rule by the military, many in Myanmar believe that a leader’s will immediately translates into action. In a recent television interview, the Lady reinforced that idea, boldly stating: “I will make all the decisions because I’m the leader of the winning party.” It will not be that easy.

Exceedingly poor, Myanmar needs everything. Fifty years of terrible, often brutal, government has left the country without a decent education system, health care, infrastructure, employment opportunities or a functioning legal system. The recently negotiated peace between the central government and many national minorities is fragile. Economic reform will prove particularly difficult.

Governments need to know where they want to go – and how to get there. Yet, there is little evidence that the NLD has established economic goals or considered how to achieve them. Policy discussion was almost entirely absent from an electoral campaign that was about personality and a choice between freedom and continued military-dominated rule.

Aside from emphasizing the agricultural sector, the NLD promises little more than prudence, efficiency and stability. It has not explained how it views the respective roles of the state and the private sector in fostering economic development or the specific measures it proposes to improve the lives of ordinary people.

The military and its close allies dominated the economy before the constitutional reforms that led to this election. The outgoing government reacted to the lifting of international sanctions simply by trying to facilitate investment and by updating some laws that had survived since British colonial times. It, too, lacked a discernible economic strategy. The position of those with economic might was further entrenched. They had the established businesses, managerial expertise, supply channels and distribution networks in which foreign enterprises could invest. This small elite is stronger, wealthier and better connected internationally than before reforms. Perhaps that was the plan.

The country’s GDP did grow significantly under the outgoing regime, and will continue to grow as foreign money flows into the country. The new hotels, restaurants, shops and clogged streets of the former capital, Yangon, bear witness to those investments. The extent to which ordinary citizens, particularly in rural areas, have seen their lives improve is far less evident.

The NLD will be hard-pressed to accomplish any of the reforms needed to boost the economy and share wealth. Laws do not enforce themselves. When Parliament passes legislation, Canadians assume that it will be implemented. The people and the mechanisms are in place to carry out Parliament’s will. We only notice the role that they play when they fail or do not work efficiently, as is the case in Myanmar. Myanmar suffers from extremely low levels of education and the absence of effective institutions to act as transmission lines to turn policy into practice.

A poorly educated population is a bottleneck in reforming the economy. Myanmar’s top universities were closed by the military junta for almost 20 years. By definition, it takes at least a generation to create a quality education system that produces a skilled workforce. Building effective institutions is an equally slow process requiring extensive consultation. It cannot proceed more quickly than the availability of qualified talent allows.

Addressing problems of the magnitude faced by the new NLD government will take decades. A people used to strongman tactics without the messy complexity of democracy may not be prepared to wait that long. The temptation to revert to old ways will be strong.

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