Always anxious to boost Myanmar’s struggling economy, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has been taking advice from one economist in particular – the Australian academic Dr Sean Turnell. The effective leader of the opposition in the long benighted country, Ms Suu Kyi recently told CNN that Dr Turnell was her “favourite economist”. During Ms Suu Kyi’s long years of house arrest, economic papers Turnell had written for the US State Department were passed to her by US diplomats, and she also listened to Turnell’s book on the nation’s economy, “Fiery Dragons: Banks, Moneylenders and Microfinance in Burma” which was summarised and serialised on the BBC’s Burmese service.
Although Myanmar has seen dramatic change since 2010, with political prisoners released and censorship eased, the nation remains mired in an economic malaise, in many cases still bound by archaic government restrictions. Ms Suu Kyi knows drastic economic reforms are essential.
She first met Turnell in person after she was released from house arrest in late 2010, and she immediately brought up the question of agriculture reform. An associate professor of economics at Macquarie University, Turnell had been effectively banned from Burma for a decade, but he has visited more than ten times since 2011, and he too thinks sweeping agricultural reform is crucial for the struggling nation’s development.
“Right from the word go, her stress was on the importance of people getting economic freedom; farmers getting production rights,” Turnell says. “The farmer in Burma still can’t decide what, when and how to produce. A lot of the basic economic freedoms are not there.” Turnell believes reform has to begin with agriculture, because Myanmar needs a dramatic improvement in agricultural productivity to improve incomes and improve food security, and to make sure the average person gets a dividend from the reform process. Myanmar’s entrenched poverty is most visible in rural areas, where electricity is often rationed and where infrastructure is minimal.
But although there has been progress in other areas, agricultural reform has been hampered by the old-school former general who is now the agriculture minister, U Myint Hlaing, a man who is deeply suspicious of liberalisation and reluctant to relinquish any control.
Turnell has found that Ms Suu Kyi had a broadly sound grasp of economics – far better than the average western politician. “I found that her default position was invariably good and invariably liberal,” he says. “I think that’s really important because many people in the government and in the opposition are still very wedded to the idea of government action and the government being the agent of change and development, and put much too little emphasis on the idea of private sector growth.”
Ms Suu Kyi can sway government policy. Her influence was most recently seen with the introduction of the foreign investment law that finally went through last November. Turnell says it began as a good and liberal law, which prompted a backlash from the cronies and vested interests who had dominated Myanmar for so long and who now wanted a far more restrictive law. The backlash in turn prompted a push-back from Ms Suu Kyi and her supporters in parliament.
“I was in contact with her throughout that period and she was just great on it,” Turnell remembers. “She alerted me to what was going on and then was a really significant player, in conjunction with some of the other people in the parliament, in particular the speaker, Shwe Mann, in moving that law into a much more liberal direction and a direction that was pro-competition.”