Yangon, Myanmar
Photo: Claire Backhouse / Flickr
Yangon, Myanmar Photo: Claire Backhouse / Flickr

The frontier economy

Corruption and inequality have remained key features of Myanmar’s post-democratic political economy.

The economy was a strange beast. On the surface, Burma in the early 2010s looked to some like a new frontier market, emerging from long years of hibernation, and set to receive global capitalism with open arms. Scratch the surface and even the casual observer might realize that – unlike, say, Vietnam twenty years before – Burma was already enmeshed in its own strain of capitalism, more than a generation in the making, with markets stronger than state agencies, and a legion of shadowy businessmen keen to protect their turf. Dig deeper, and outsiders might see that just a few hours' drive from Rangoon or Mandalay were territories beyond any state control, inhabited by a patchwork of armies and armed groups, illegal and illicit trades, and a Chinese frontier over which even Beijing's sway was tenuous at best.

The Thein Sein government had moved fast and decisively to improve the economy. The results were plain to see. Inequalities, however, remained as deep as ever. And there was no real conversation about the future shape of the economy. To the extent that there was a vision, it was to move from the anarchic capitalism of the past two decades to a more garden-variety state capitalism, following other Asian examples and focusing on export-oriented industrialization.

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian