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The best books on Understanding the Burmese Economy

recommended by Sean Turnell

Sean Turnell, a renowned expert on the Burmese economy, says Burma is more like Zimbabwe than Vietnam or China

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Our topic is the Burmese economy, what’s your first book?

Burma’s a country where there’s very little research done – it’s been locked away for 50 years. The broad philosophical approach I bring to Burma comes out of The Wealth and Poverty of Nations. It’s the most erudite examination of what causes economic development and growth that’s been written in many decades, and it asks: what do we really know about the big picture? It also highlights what for some countries goes wrong, and it’s a great primer for looking at countries where economic failure has taken place.

What did go so wrong for Burma?

Well, this relates to Landes, whose central belief is that institutions matter: the actual structure of society is far and away the most important thing. When we look at Burma we see a turning point when the military took control in a coup in 1962, and instigated a Stalinist policy of nationalisation and xenophobia. Precisely at the point where other Asian countries were beginning to understand that their success would come through economic reform, openness and trade, Burma decided to close itself off from the rest of the world, from innovation, and the essential institutional framework that brings about economic development. This book is important to me because it highlights precisely the foundations of economic development that disappear from Burma after 1962. We see the disappearance of good governance, property rights, and the rule of law. We also see the disappearance of rationality and reason when it comes to policy-making. In other words, a profound institutional regression takes place. Looking at Burma, you should read Landes in conjunction with Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, which is an incredible story of successful nation-building. 

Your next book is The Curse of Independence by Shelby Tucker.

This was published in 2001. It’s a very bold book that tells the truth, and cuts through a lot of the mythology that the Burmese like to tell themselves about the situation there, and that we like to tell ourselves. I guess what it’s about is that many of the flaws that led to the current situation go further back simply than 1962. Tucker looks at origins of the independence movement in the 1930s, which is a story of the rise of groups extraordinarily dissatisfied with British colonial rule. What was peculiar was that, because Burma had been annexed as part of British India, for most of its tenure as part of the Empire it wasn’t ruled from London, but from Calcutta, like a province of India. So some of the benefits of imperial rule never came Burma’s way. I think the importance of Tucker’s book is that he identifies, quite rightly, that there was a fundamentally undemocratic component to Burma’s anti-colonialist forces. They were taking lessons from the Soviet Union in 1917, and, because there was a very strong nationalist and xenophobic component to it all, very strong lessons from Mein Kampf. So you have this very strange mix of socialism, this fascist element, and increasing links between the nationalist movement and imperialistic, militaristic Japan. Then the war happens, Japan invades Burma, the British and Indians are forced to leave, and the real head of the young nationalists, Aung San Suu Kyi’s father Aung San, becomes head of the army under the Japanese government. Then the war turns against Japan, Aung San re-opens channels of communication to the British, the British and Americans drive the Japanese out of Burma, and then, after protracted negotiations, Burma becomes independent. Famously, though, months before independence, Aung San and about half the cabinet-in-waiting are assassinated, and so Burma gets off to this dreadful start. Independence in democratic form lasts about ten years until the military take over in 1962, and we have this terrible story that’s followed from that.

What I find interesting about Tucker’s book is that roots of the regime that took over in 1962 lie in 1930s Burma, and in turn in the traditions of the Japanese imperial army and of fascism and socialism. It’s important to bear that in mind looking at the behaviour of the Burmese military today, because it’s a very unreformed apparatus with a tradition going back to these influences. Also, it’s not a very pleasant story, because Aung San is a hero in Burma, but a dispassionate examination of what he believed would reveal many of his ideas as very unsavoury now. Tucker’s book exposes those myths. It’s beautifully written, and Tucker himself is extraordinarily courageous: he spent much time with various ethnic insurgencies around the border and put himself at great risk. He examines things like the narcotics business in Burma, so it’s a book that really tries to pierce to the truth of the country today: outlining that the current regime is a criminal operation (explicitly so in the context of narcotics), but also he’s not afraid to pierce some of the more comforting traditions we might otherwise have.

It’s also a wonderful book celebrating the bravery of British Special Forces, and of the various ethnic minorities who joined with them in resisting the Japanese occupation, and were sold out once Burma gained independence.

You make Burma sound like Zimbabwe.

Do you know, people often say to me isn’t Burma like China or Vietnam? And I say, if you must think of another country in comparison, think Zimbabwe.

Next book?

This is very unusual; it’s a numismatic book called The Coins and Banknotes of Burma. It’s written with incredible passion, and I hate to use the label but these guys have qualities that only belong to trainspotter types. I don’t think any academic could match the deep research of the committed amateur. What it does is trace out the history of all the coins and banknotes issued by Burma, going way back to before colonial rule and right up to 1980. This book was a wonderful source for me of just facts about financial institutions and banking in Burma. Another virtue, though, is that it highlights the fascinating idea that money is just a promise.

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The book’s very concerned with facts: like whether the notes were printed well. During the Japanese occupation, much of the paper was of very poor quality, so when the military took over in the 60s and initiated this incredibly Stalinist regime, we suddenly have this issue of (as in East Germany) aluminium coins and things like that. So it’s concerned with physical details, but underlying that is the story of a breakdown of trust. We see Burmese society working when people accept the state, and accept its promises, which have that manifestation in the currency on issue. When that breaks down we have chaos, and that’s more or less what we’ve seen in Burma all the way through. For instance, as the Japanese occupation began to break down towards 1945, we see people no longer willing to work for Japanese ‘occupation rupees’. Suddenly the market is flooded with them, and people use the paper to build chicken coops and don’t even bother to pick them up. So we have that traditional narrative of paper becoming valueless, and we can see that all the way to the present day, where Burma’s currency, the kyat, has moved from being six kyat to the US dollar in about 1970, to 1,000 to the dollar now.

Tell us about your next choice.

It’s called Colonial Policy and Practice by J S Furnivall. Today it doesn’t pay to praise the British Empire, but it many ways it was an incredibly liberal institution. Many individuals within it were extraordinarily impressive, and upheld the interests of the people they ruled over, very often against London. Furnivall is an absolute classic of this genre. He went out to Burma in the early 20th century, and falls in love with the place. He stays there right up to the 1950s and only disappears from the Burma scene just as the military are starting to become agitated.

He had an administrative job?

Yes, several within what finally became the Burma civil service, but by the 1940s he became an informal adviser to the imperial authorities in Burma, and once independence is achieved he’s appointed principal adviser by the independence government, which shows the regard in which he was held. He’s just an incredible spokesperson, and an incredible example of that great liberal tradition of the British Empire. For all of its faults, it left Burma with a really good economic and financial system, and part of that comes from people like Furnivall, who were there also with that wonderful feature of being great collectors of information, writing reports, and having an obsession with finding things out: what worked, what took place in this village, among that ethnic community. It’s part memoir, part handbook, part comparative study, with lots of the prejudices of the time, but it can be read profitably today.

Your last book is Aung San Suu Kyi’s Freedom from Fear.

Incredible book, incredibly topical, incredible person. Daughter of Aung San the independence hero, who was assassinated in 1947, she was only two at the time so she never really knew him. But she grows up in a family revered in Burma, and spent some of her childhood in India – her mother was appointed ambassador. The coup in 1962 causes problems for Aung San Suu Kyi and her family, essentially because of the regime leader who led the coup, General Ne Win. He was a close ally of Aung San during the war, but he was an extraordinarily vain man, with a great jealousy of Aung San. He started a process, subtle at first, of trying to diminish the story of Aung San. At the time, none of this is of too much import to Aung San Suu Kyi, as she goes overseas to study and gets married.

The dramatic moment in her life comes when Suu Kyi goes back to Burma to help nurse her mother in 1988, and arrives just at a time of great ferment. It’s occasioned actually – just to bring the story back to money – by Ne Win’s decision to try and catch out speculators and black marketers, by declaring whole issues of the currency as no longer legal tender. It’s a classic example of how Ne Win runs the economy – no subtle changes to the bank rate or anything, just cancelling currency. This suddenly, in one stroke, removes the wealth of a great many people. He miscalculates horribly, because it brings the Burmese out on to the street. The military overreact, there are massacres, and Suu Kyi gets pulled into this: the students become aware she’s there and ask her to make speeches. The military then makes another miscalculation: Ne Win decides to step aside and hold an election. For some bizarre reason that remains unexplained, he’s convinced that the regime he put in place enjoys a great popular mandate and will win easily. So one of the strange things about these elections that eventually take place in 1990 is that they were actually free and fair: the regime doesn’t engage in vote-stuffing or any of the other things they’ve just done. The military party is absolutely trounced and takes about five seats, but the National League of Democracy behind Aung San Suu Kyi overwhelmingly wins the election. The regime is shocked beyond measure and engages in more repression: they don’t recognise the results, don’t allow the parliament to sit, eventually Aung San Suu Kyi is put under house arrest, and many other members of the NLD are killed or just disappear into prison, where they remain today.

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Her book is a collection of essays that came out in 1995, and it’s valuable at a practical level because it has a number of essays about Burmese history and her father. Beyond that it’s an extraordinarily inspirational book, as befits someone who has stood up for things and made such immense sacrifices. It’s really a statement of her philosophy, her stoicism, her courage, and her belief in fundamental human rights; she’s always advocated non-violence. Also her unwillingness to buy into arguments like the one that somehow Asian people don’t want personal freedom. One of the book’s great quotes is that fear is a habit, and she tried to wean herself off it. What I think is interesting is she’s setting these ideas out in the book, but she’s since remained true to everything in it. Her sons have suffered terribly – to this day she’s never met her grandchildren and only spoke to her younger son the other day for the first time in five years. But her book seems unique, in that this story is still being lived out.

December 1, 2010

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Sean Turnell

Sean Turnell

Sean Turnell is Associate Professor of Economics at Macquarie University and a former senior analyst at the Bank of Australia. Much of his research concentrates on economic reform in a post-democratic Burma. In 2001 he established Burma Economic Watch, an on-line resource of information and commentary on Burma's economy. He is the author of Fiery Dragons: Banks, Moneylenders and Microfinance in Burma.

Sean Turnell

Sean Turnell

Sean Turnell is Associate Professor of Economics at Macquarie University and a former senior analyst at the Bank of Australia. Much of his research concentrates on economic reform in a post-democratic Burma. In 2001 he established Burma Economic Watch, an on-line resource of information and commentary on Burma's economy. He is the author of Fiery Dragons: Banks, Moneylenders and Microfinance in Burma.