Socialism or Free Markets? Lee Kuan Yew Compares Myanmar & Thailand

In Capitalism on November 1, 2012 at 9:08 pm

North Korea and South Korea make nice side-by-side examples of capitalism’s superiority over socialism.  The same held for the former West Germany over communist East Germany.   China before and after its adaptation of most elements of capitalism serves as another example.  

What’s so striking about these comparisons?  Not just socialism’s economic malaise, which keeps everyone poorly fed, largely unhealthy and lacking in material goods, but the almost inherent lack of freedom that comes from communism and socialist governments.  Think of Cuba, Mao’s China or Pol Pot’s Cambodia, dissent is not tolerated.  If you want political freedom, you would do well to live in a land where economic freedom is respected.  They go hand-in-hand.

Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, former Prime Minister of Singapore, compares the records of two neighboring nations many of us probably don’t think to compare:  Thailand and Myanmar (formerly Burma).

From the current issue of Forbes magazine [1]:

Because of its closed-door socialism, Myanmar’s per capita GDP (in current international dollars) has lagged behind Thailand’s. In 1980 Myanmar’s was $172 and Thailand’s, $1,060. By 2012 the gap had widened, with Myanmar’s per capita GDP reaching $1,950 and Thailand’s, $8,516.

In May 1997 the U.S. imposed strong economic sanctions against Myanmar for human rights violations, banning all investment and trade activities. With the country’s diminished economic growth and its multiple other problems, citizens in need of medicines were forced to travel to the Thai border so they could trade gems or other valuables for medical supplies. At the same time the government was allowing China to extract whatever resources in gems and precious metals Myanmar held.


There are signs of change in Myanmar. One catalyst has been Aung San Suu Kyi, the third child of Aung San, the father of modern-day Myanmar. Born in June 1945, Suu Kyi spent many years abroad as a young adult. She returned home in 1988 to care for her ill mother and later became a leader of the pro-democracy movement, helping to found the National League for Democracy (NLD). Suu Kyi was first placed under house arrest in July 1989, but in the 1990 elections her NLD won 59% of the national vote and 81% of the seats. The military ignored the results. Suu Kyi was under house arrest for almost 15 of the 21 years following her initial arrest and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. She was last released in November 2010.

In April the NLD won 43 parliamentary seats in the by-elections, and Aung San Suu Kyi took a seat in the lower house of parliament. Her brave presence in Myanmar has been an important factor in forcing change and bringing about the new Myanmar.

Equally crucial has been the military government’s change of heart. Than Shwe, State Peace & Development Council chairman, resigned in March 2011. He was succeeded by another member of the military government, Thein Sein, who seems to be a genuine reformer. Under his leadership Myanmar has transitioned to a civilian government.

Both countries’ governments would do well to remember that it was the open-door policies of free trade and investment that made Thailand prosperous and the passive closed-door policies that held Myanmar back for 50 years. 


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