Unraveling the Complexity that is Law, Economics and Development in Myanmar

Anthony Rausch

Myanmar is emerging from decades of relative isolation, but few social scientists fully understand, much less are prepared to explain, what is happening in the country and what it reveals. Fortunately, Melissa Crouch and the 12 contributors to The Business of Transition: Law Reform, Development and Economics in Myanmar offer to the reader both the necessary understanding of place along with precise academic expertise, yielding a detailed view of ‘the business of transition’ in Myanmar. In addition to unravelling and then revealing the complexity of Myanmar’s social, economic, political, and ultimately developmental circumstance, the contributors offer with each chapter a solid and academically insightful background to the fundamentals of their contribution to understanding ‘the intersection between law, development and economics in times of political transition’ (p. 1).

Cultural Understanding and Technical Expertise

The editor and contributors clearly possess the necessary cultural understanding and technical expertise to accomplish the aims of the book. As offered in the Foreword, this is the third edited work by Crouch on ‘the distinctive characteristics of Myanmar’s social and political fabric, and some of the major challenges and opportunities that country faces’ and ‘the first academic treatment of “the business of transition” in Myanmar’ (p. xv). Likewise, the bios of the 12 contributors reveal a group of academics with backgrounds in law, sociology, human geography, social theory, economics, and international business, with many also having on-the-ground experience in directing international programs in specialized areas that relate to the contemporary reality of Myanmar. By universal themes, the 10 chapters take up labor standards, policy transparency, social enterprises, the mechanics of microfinance, local governance, special economic zones, and the realities of economic sanctions and international aid, each through extensive case study-based examinations of business practices, labor issues, government and organization structures and legal and policy development as undertaken by political elites, business leaders and multilateral organizations in the country. The work is rich in detail, both in outlining the background and dimensions of the various practical and political issues involved in economic development in general, as well as in illuminating the specific case for and in Myanmar, making the contents essential reading for anyone aiming to understand the complex dynamics of law in managing political transitions to economic development, not just in Myanmar, but in any transitional political economy.

While Myanmar clearly does present a unique and highly complex case due to its historical trajectory, the many issues that are raised point to the reality and contradictions that mark transition from an existing state structure toward a market economy – in Myanmar’s case, one that is legally prescribed (p. 9). Add to this the fact that the case for Myanmar also presents distinct trajectories and difficult decisions that are wholly unique to its history and recent political and governmental transitions, and this makes the content of this book all the more insightful. One chapter takes up Myanmar’s garment industry and another its extractive industries; these conclude by asserting the importance of union mobilization and civil society in organizing such sectors of an economy, evidenced by the minimum wage requirements put in place for the garment industry on the one hand and the transparency provided by the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative regulatory scheme on the other. Two chapters outline how the emergence of social enterprises and the proper functioning of microfinance can empower entrepreneurs in the Myanmar context. And while such Myanmar-specific issues as the release of political prisoners and overcoming a ‘difficult, constrained and broadly dysfunctional financial sector’ (p. 144) in this regard are pointed out, much of what constitutes the core ideas in this and other chapters can be appropriately extended to other settings and circumstances. Local governance is an issue taken up in three chapters, in one case in overcoming the legacy of the military as a constraining element to economic development, again contextualized with respect to the particular situation of Myanmar’s local economic governance, but with points that apply elsewhere. Local governance is connected with Myanmar’s three main special economic zones (Dawei, Kyaukphyu and Thilawa) in two chapters which show that, rather than stimulating economic growth, the economic plans that were developed for these zones – plans which don’t allow for local community access to decision-making processes or means to remedy negative impacts – may actually jeopardize such growth. This is particularly true when international standards, government policies and local community concerns clash in a highly place-based attempt at more widespread development, which is often the objective of such special economic zones. Two more chapters focus more specifically on the interactions of the international community and the Myanmar context, first through a detailed examination of US sanctions and secondly through identification of the potential and perils of bilateral and multilateral aid programs. The respective contributors support these themes and their arguments with solid background and tremendous detail, providing understanding and insight by outlining both context and complexity.

Extensive Applicability versus a Comprehensive Finish

Thus, while each of these specific legal and developmental dilemmas for Myanmar are presented through extensive and detailed case studies, the contributors endeavored to also provide a brief but sufficient introduction to the ‘concept’ at hand, whether civil society, microfinance, special economic zones, sanctions or international aid. As a sociologist interested in Asian societies, I am familiar with the notion and broad views of social enterprise in the abstract and in my own reading, but appreciated various extended and detailed references to social enterprises as a hybrid concept, in innovation-based knowledge economies, in relation to social inequality and social inclusion, in terms of social value, social impact and as a form of socially transformative power in sustainable democratic transition (Index; p. 285). Likewise, I have long been interested in local governance, but looking at intersection of local governance with special economic zones as it is playing out in Myanmar is especially timely for many local sites in Asia that are seeking paths to economic development. Thus, while this intersection of local cultural understanding and technical expertise allow for in-depth descriptions and analysis of the reality for Myanmar, the reader can expand and apply this depth to other cases of interest as well.

However, as is the case in many edited works, the bringing together of a team of experts produces a laudable collection of expertly prefaced, presented and argued chapters, but in the end, yields a work that lacks a comprehensive concluding chapter that ties the respective themes together. As Martin Krygier writes in his Foreword to the book, ‘To understand, still more effectively to promote economic development, one needs to think about law, administration, political structures and incentives, in Myanmar’s case especially military structures and incentives, social organization, culture, religion and many other things’ (p. xviii; italics in original). The contributors certainly give us ample content to do just that. However, Krygier goes on, ‘Not only will the instruments of development overlap any particular designated sphere, so too will the effects … economic development can encourage both social inclusion and exclusion, and it matters a great deal which, as Chapter 2 on labour standards, Chapter 4 on social enterprise, Chapter 8 on local effects of special economic zones and Chapter 10 on the differential effects of international aid illustrate’ (p. xviii; italics in original). It is in this regard that The Business of Transition falls short. There is clear overlap and many particular social science or business themes – social inclusion versus exclusion or regulation versus decentralization to name just two – are referenced in one way or another and in greater or lesser detail in most of the chapters. So, how does the reader summarize and conclude in the face of such an overwhelming volume of case-study detail? Crouch’s Chapter 1, Understanding the business of transition, does a suitable job of prefacing the book’s contents, with sections covering Myanmar’s history of law and development and problematic aspects of business and doing business in Myanmar (participation, transparency, equitable distribution; reform of legal text and institutions; foreign aid, investment and expertise), but there is nothing at the close of the book to tie the nine ‘content’ chapters together. While the reader can independently discern threads in the concluding sections of each chapter that contribute to a comprehensive weave tying together law, administration, political structures, incentive, and social organization, no such attempt has been made by the editor. Having read the book, I now know a great deal about a great deal regarding law, development and economics in the ‘business of transition’ both in general and in Myanmar; what I lack is a clear and concise take-away summary chapter through which I can consolidate my understanding.