Myanmar & the Fullness of the Proverbial Glass

By David I. Steinberg

Is Myanmar's glass half full or half empty? Source: Jenny Downing's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Is Myanmar’s glass half full or half empty? Source: Jenny Downing’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

One of the most widely used analogies in popular discussions of social science data is the glass of water—is it half empty or half full? It is a useful popular analogy because of its essential meaninglessness; optimists and pessimists can both use this ambiguity to demonstrate their personal predilections, and avoid dealing with nuanced reality and careful deductions. We all want a full glass but rarely get it; half is better than empty.

Now that Myanmar has opened to hordes of visitors and journalists, and has seen the proliferation of experts in almost every conceivable field and discipline, instant analyses are all too common. Most events, or even relative quietude in Myanmar, raise endless rumors and speculation.

Two well-known specialists on that country’s economy, each with their own agenda, have come up with startling pseudo analyses. One said that there has been no real economic change in Myanmar, but then noted a lack of progress in a variety of economic areas such as banking, macro-economic policy, industrial zones, foreign investment, and exchange rates, all of which are new reform endeavors under President Thein Sein’s administration. Another noted, “There has been no change, but we don’t want things to go back to where they were before.” Both indicate an intriguing type of cognitive dissonance.

The issues debated go beyond economics. Foreign human rights observers say that many of the internal opposition, democracy, and rights advocates feel abandoned by the United States because of its negotiations with the government, high-level visits, and aid program. This despite the fact that about half of all U.S. Agency for International Development expenditures in Myanmar are spent on democracy-related programs, and that the clear focus of U.S. policies for two decades and more have been on those fields. The new rights initiated by the government, they cry, are incomplete. The present situation is still dire.

In any society undergoing such extensive and even profound changes as Myanmar, there are inherent and understandable frustrations — both on the part of actors in that drama and well-wishers in the audience. Reforms are never immediate, rarely complete, often misdirected, and subject to all the ills, to paraphrase the poet, that flesh is heir to.

Authoritarian governments are better equipped to institute reforms, for they have the power. In representative governments, whether unequivocally democratic or discipline-flourishing, reforms are more difficult. Economic development professionals and seasoned political observers recognize that changes are necessarily incremental, unbalanced, and dependent on internal political and social forces that defy traditional disciplinary economic models.

So those who benignly or acrimoniously pontificate on Myanmar, be they Burmese or foreigners, bring to the table their own glass and with their penetrating eye determine the extent to which it has been filled–whether there has or has not been progress, however defined, and how much, and whether the glass is half full or half empty.

In the old Burma Socialist Programme Party days and during the following junta — both under military command — the state determined that the glass was always full, while the world and the Burmese people believed it was empty. Today, and from the first day of the inauguration of the government, the Thein Sein administration has never suggested that the glass was full. But the internal and external detractors of that government seem incapable of believing that it is even half full, rather than half empty.

Mr. David I. Steinberg is Distinguished Professor of Asian Studies Emeritus, Georgetown University, and Visiting Scholar, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University. 



5 comments for “Myanmar & the Fullness of the Proverbial Glass

  1. Keiichiro
    November 29, 2014 at 08:02

    David, I really like the pharese of Hamlet. Yes, reforms are never immediate, rarely complete, often misdirected, and subject to all the ills, whether they take place in Washington D.C. or in Yangon.

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