International conference in Yangon on 27th – 28th May and Mandalay on 29th May 2014.
In recent years world politics was moved by a serious financial crisis, global economic recession and conflicts about the access to resources and their use. Most of these problems were created by the consume-oriented countries of the Global North, the so called industrialized countries, while the countries of the Global South, the so called (least) developing counties are being exploited ever since. Despites the negative experience of capitalism recently, politicians all over the globe haven’t launched a discussion on alternatives to development. Progressive and left development approaches are seldom discussed in the international debate on development models. Neo-liberal ideas are still thought to provide the right answers to all the occurring questions on development without being questioned.
To discuss and exchange about alternatives to development and to share the transformation experiences from other countries of the Global South, the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung Southeast Asia (RLS SEA) and the Burmese Local Resource Centre (LRC) jointly organized a conference in Yangon and Mandalay on 27th – 28th May resp. 29th May. The conference with the title “Rethinking Transformation – Comparative Perspectives from the Global South” brought together activists, experts, scholars and researchers from China, Thailand, Philippines, Ecuador, Venezuela and Germany. The main focus of the presentation was laid on alternatives to the development concept that has been transferred from the Global North to those countries from the Global South, even knowing that the models are mostly not applicable. The transformation processes of the Global South’s countries are unique as most of these countries have gone through the experiences from colonization, struggle for independence and serious domestic conflicts once independence was achieved. A large number of these countries has been ruled by dictators, juntas or other forms of exploiting governments that basically use the power for their personal benefit. Myanmar is a country owning a huge treasure of fossil resources and it is at the moment an essential question for the country how to ensure a socially, economic and ecologically sustainable and just transformation. The “selling-out” of natural resources to the exploitative foreign investments may endanger the so far made progress.
The conference was opened by Pansy Tun Thein, director of the LRC, providing a brief overview on Myanmar’s transformation process. The last years have already widened the gap between the rural population and those living in the cities, especially in Yangon, the country’s economic hot spot. Also Nadja Charaby, director of RLS Southeast Asia office, stressed that at this stage of the transformation process it is also necessary to discuss alternatives to the neo-liberal concepts that are dominating the transformation agenda. RLS has been working in Myanmar for 1.5 years and through various activities it was brought to RLS’s attention that RLS’s critical approach towards economic growth and transformation could help to create a more just and sustainable Myanmar.
After the opening remarks by the directors of the hosting organizations, the first session started with a very informative presentation by Kyaw Myo Min on “Development and social impacts in Myanmar”. Myanmar faces an extensive list of development challenges and the resources required to overcome them remain limited. Prioritizing the development issues and sectors is essential, based on effective cost-benefit analysis and an overarching framework for medium- and long-term national development goals. To compare Myanmar’s development with other countries from the Global South Prof. Edgardo Lander (Venezuela) gave a presentation on “Extractivism and protest against in Latin America”. Prof. Lander drew a comprehensive picture of the last decade in which the mainly left-wing governments have successfully renegotiated the conditions of the exploitation of the enormous natural resources with corporations, increasing the income of the state. This increased budget has been used to finance ambitious social welfare programs which have succeeded in diminishing poverty in a sensible way. At the same time, the permanent ecological and social devastation caused by resource extractivism threatens the generational justice and thus sustainability of a development model based primarily on export of commodities. The damages for the local, mainly indigenous and peasant societies and the nature that have been caused are threatening the further benefit of this so called extractivist political agenda. Following Prof. Lander’s presentation, Dr. Miriam Lang, RLS office head in Quito, Ecuador, introduced alternatives to development to the audience. She explained that there are new discourses arising within the Latin American societies, local and international intellectuals, that try to offer alternative visions on how a “good life” can be led, how social, ecological, and economic problems can be addressed in a better way, how local knowledge can offer answers to global questions etc., rethinking the concept of development itself. To close the first session, Prof. Ulrich Brand – a leading expert on subjects like globalization and its critique, global governance and transformation of the state, environmental and resource politics as well as social movements at the University of Vienna – gave an overview on the achievements and failures of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) by the United Nations and an outlook on a socio-ecological transformation as basic condition for a realistic post-2015 agenda. According to his analysis, development policies nowadays must focus on the necessary global transformation of the prevailing mode of living and production towards a more equitable, solidary and ecologically sustainable one.
The conference continued with a presentation about the economic development in the Philippines which can be seen as a negative example for other Southeast Asian countries. In the late 1980s the Philippines were a leading economy in Southeast Asia but the focus on just one product (textile industry) has caused many economic problems just recently. Nowadays, the country’s economy is depending on service provision, especially on “call centers”. Prof. Rene Ofreneo finished his presentation with the alarming words that there is no sustainable economic development in the Philippines and that the country’s economy is very unbalanced. Later, Ngo Sothath, an independent Cambodian consultant, gave a presentation on “land distribution and policy in Cambodia”. Within in the whole Southeast Asian region, land grabbing has become a very hot issue since big international or domestic enterprises started to invest in the markets. Close ties to politicians and a corrupt administration system makes it pretty easy for these entrepreneurs to buy land cheaper than its real value. This has destroyed the livelihood of the rural population and is also causing severe damage to the domestic economies.
The next day started with a brief summary of the presentations and discussions of the day before. The first presentation of the day was made by Sun Wei, project manager of RLS Beijing. “China on the Path of Establishing Social Welfare System with Chinese Socialist Characteristics” showed the audience that besides the rapid economic growth of the country, social problems, such as housing, schooling or access to medical health care still exist in China. The Chinese government is trying to overcome these problems but is lacking efficient and affordable concepts. After Sun Wei’s very comprehensive and informative presentation, Prof. Wolfram Schaffar, University of Vienna, shared his knowledge on the development discussions in Thailand with the audience. In Thailand, there is a rich tradition of grassroots initiatives and networks where alternative development concepts are being discussed and practiced – alternative agricultural networks, local currencies, and communities practicing Buddhist economy. Some of these networks have been very successful and provide the livelihood for many households in large areas. The previous and recent coups in Thailand have brought about a situation where sustainable; religiously inspired alternative paradigms are associated with authoritarianism, while growth-oriented debt-financed or neo-liberal development paradigms are strongly linked to democratic principles and the agenda of former prime minister Thaksin.This led to the situation, that many alternative development networks and NGOs have joined hands with royalist-conservative circles and demanded a suspension of elections.
The conference finished with an intense discussion about Myanmar’s future if the Myanmarese government won’t adjust their policies to the needs of the whole population. It will be crucial for the country that its labor force is protected by law, that the government protects the people from illegal land grabbing and most important that the current transformation process is not only built up on the exploitation of nature.
After this very successful event in Yangon, RLS continued the discussion with a half day conference in Mandalay, where the same topics were discussed. Though, as the region of Mandalay is directly and heavily affected by mining projects, land grabbing and lumbering, the audience was mostly consisting of activists and civil society organizations (CSOs) who were interested in learning more about the successful protests in Latin America. Again, it became obvious that RLS’s critical approach towards development is of great interest for many people in Myanmar and that such event should take place more frequently. RLS SEA and the LRC are both willing to continue working on this topic and to bring the discussion to the political decision makers on the one hand and also to strengthen the position of the CSOs on the other hand in order to achieve a fair, just and sustainable transformation in Myanmar that is not built up on exploitation.