Q&A: Economic policy in a NLD-governed Myanmar

(From KWR Special Report)

Conversation with Dr. Sean Turnell, Associate Professor, Dept. of Economics, Macquarie University and Economic Advisor, National League for Democracy

Interview by Keith W. Rabin

Turnell with Aung San Suu Kyi

Turnell with Aung San Suu Kyi

Sean Turnell has been a researcher of Burma’s economy for nearly twenty years. Formerly a Senior Analyst at the Reserve Bank of Australia, he is based at the Economics Department of Macquarie University in Sydney. Sean has written widely on Burma’s economy, and is a regular commentator on the country in the international press. He has been an advisor on Burma to the US State Department and other agencies, to USAID, to Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, to the World Bank, the Open Society Foundation, and many other international bodies. Sean has provided frequent testimony on Burma’s economy to US House of Representatives and Senate Committees. Within Burma, Sean is an advisor to a number of key stakeholders and prominent reforners, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy. In 2009 the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies published Sean’s book on the history of the financial sector in Burma, Fiery Dragons: Banks, Moneylenders and Microfinance in Burma.

Hello Sean, good to speak with you today. Can you tell our readers about your background, your interest in Myanmar, and your affiliation with the NLD?

I first became interested in Burma around 1990, after meeting Burmese students who had been forced to flee the country. Shortly afterwards, I came to share a house with a descendent of one of Burma’s so-called ’30 comrades’. This group of young men, which included General Aung San, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, are credited with bringing about Burma’s independence after the second world war.

At this time I was an economist at the Reserve Bank of Australia, with a special focus on banking. This ‘professional’ side of my life soon merged with the personal, as I was asked by people from the NLD to help them analyze economic developments in Burma. Gradually this came to take over and it became my primary focus – and continued after I become an academic at Macquarie University in Australia in 1991.

I was motivated at that time by the idea that economics might be a channel through which change could be brought to Burma. First I moved to do this by trying to critique the idea, which was popular at that time, that somehow military dictatorships were good for the economy. Luckily, on this front Burma’s military rulers made this job rather easy and I have written numerous articles and written a book on the subject.

We have recently seen a historic election in which ASSK and the National League for Democracy experienced a landslide victory gaining almost 80% of contested seats – or almost 60% accounting for the 25% of seats presently reserved for the military. What does this mean and how will this change Myanmar moving forward?

It means we are now at the cusp of great change in Burma, rather than simply changes on the surface. Certainly this will be true politically, but I also think this will be the case for Burma’s economy as well. A couple of early noticeable changes will be a refocus on agriculture, and much greater investments in ‘human capital’ via greater spending allocations to health and education. Likewise though, Burma’s external image will undergo profound change. Instead of being a land associated with human rights abuses and political crises, I think we will have a country that will be the latest tourist ‘must visit’, and one that will not raise the red flags of compliance officers from London to Lisbon. Read more

Categories: Asia Unhedged, Southeast Asia

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