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PH and Burma can learn from each other

12:10 AM July 03, 2015

The Philippines and Burma (Myanmar) have striking differences and similarities.

One difference is religious in character: The Philippines has a Christian majority and Burma has a Buddhist majority. But culturally, the Filipino and Burmese peoples share traits of personal warmth and hospitality, even piety. And their physical features are similar.

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Both Southeast Asian countries are confronted with poverty, although it is largely a rural phenomenon in Burma. The numbers are slightly different—26 percent of Burma’s 60 million population and 24.9 percent of the Philippines’ 100 million population are considered poor—but the faces of poverty in the two countries are the same: food insecurity, landlessness, joblessness, and powerlessness.

The two countries have a large agriculture sector that comprises the bulk of rural poverty that one sees outside their capitals. They both aspire to build a stable and self-sufficient rice industry. But where Burma has been exporting rice since 1995, mainly to Africa and other countries including the Philippines, the latter has been a rice importer since the late 1970s.

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Burma, a contiguous country with a large agriculture area, five agro-climatic zones and vast river tributaries from neighboring China and within itself, has better chances of expanding its rice-export goals compared to a smaller and archipelagic Philippines, which is faced with higher population growth and threatened by the effects of climate change.

The two countries differ in their agrarian laws—Burma has 75 unrelated land reform laws and the Philippines has a consolidated Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law. Both are challenged by a low-performing agriculture sector due to unstable land tenure laws that are preserved in legal and informal arrangements, coupled with low government and private-sector investments.

The institutional arrangements of the agriculture and rural development sectors of the two countries share the same fragmented management. Burma may have acquired an edge in rural development when it recently formed a Department of Rural Development aimed at establishing a national rural development framework among its eight different ministries. But the Philippines still struggles to reform its three agriculture, agrarian and environment departments for a better rural development framework and stable institutional arrangement.

Both countries are threatened with conflict issues arising from poverty, ethnic or race differences, and control over local natural resources and mineral wealth. Burma’s peace processes are more complex, with the government engaged in ceasefire negotiations with 16 armed ethnic groups. The Philippines has signed peace agreements with both the Moro National Liberation Front and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, yet the conflict in Mindanao is unending. The Philippines is also in protracted on-and-off negotiations with the communist-led National Democratic Front despite a peace agreement with two of the Communist Party of the Philippines’ splinter groups.

Burma has conflict problems in the northwest with the minority Bengali (also referred to as the Rohingya, who are mainly Muslims), while the Philippines continues to fight extremist groups in the south. Recently the Philippine National Police suffered a major defeat in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, where elite commandos perished in a gun battle with a combined force of the MILF and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters.

Public-sector corruption is a major problem in both countries, which the two governments are committed to stamping out. Stronger laws and better institutional capacities are required for them to succeed on this front.

Burma is a latecomer in the community of developing countries. With its new constitution in 2008 and a postmilitary government in 2011 opening for reforms and a gradual return to democracy, it should have all the opportunities to do the right thing and to avoid the mistakes of old-timers like the Philippines.

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And Burma can learn from the lessons of the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries that have tried and yet failed to bring about the economic prosperity that their peoples deserve. The Philippines is continually challenged with weak political and governance institutions. Its economy is fueled by remittances from overseas Filipino workers and the business process outsourcing industry, resulting in shallow consumerist growth.

“Inclusive growth” is the mantra of the two governments, and where the Philippines has shown over the last four years steady economic growth compared to other Southeast Asian countries, the expected trickle-down effect to the poor and local communities has yet to happen.

Burma is scheduled for national elections late this year, and the Philippines in mid-2016. The elections will define the two countries’ new directions, building on the current reforms on the political and economic fronts.

Finally, despite the religious divide of the Philippines and Burma, there is something significant that they have in common. Six centuries older than Christianity, Buddhism and its eight-fold path—right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right concentration and right-mindedness—find the same manifestation in Christianity. Humankind’s temporal concerns will always be at the forefront of its struggle, but where the temporal is short of answers and meaning, the supernatural and the divine will carry things through in bringing about a kinder, humane society.

Jerry “Jing” Pacturan, a former agrarian reform undersecretary and NGO leader, has done rural development advisory work in Burma.

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TAGS: Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, Burma, inclusive growth, Mamasapano, Mindanao, Moro Islamic Liberation Front, Moro National Liberation Front, myanmar, rohingya
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