Burma: Economists, generals and culture vultures
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Burma: Economists, generals and culture vultures

On February 11th, three notable economists, including Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz, will give lectures in Rangoon.  In my previous piece I mentioned that both Ronald Findlay and Hla Myint were born in Burma, and as states scholars before World War II and in the democratic period immediately after Independence from Great Britain, studied at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and London School of Economics respectively.

Hla Myint (Burmese have one name only.  Most don’t have first and last names)

http://www.flickr.com/photos/lselibrary/3982882799/

was stranded in the UK during the war.  In the postwar period he worked at LSE, and became, with Sir Arthur Lewis, one of the pioneers of development economics.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hla_Myint

In Rangoon where I studied economics, Prof. Findlay was one of my mentors and my MA thesis supervisor.  I remember reading a short article by H. Myint (this is one of the ways he signed his name) about how the name of the field itself had metamorphosed from “economic backwardness” to “underdeveloped countries” to “developing countries”.

I was one year late to become a student of his, as he left Burma in 1962, the year of Ne Win’s coup.  He had been working as Rector of Rangoon University, and the rumor was that he and his British wife Joan, had sold their house in England to come and work in Burma, but Ne Win, the dictator made things hard on intellectuals with a western education, and he left.  Shortly before he did so, I went with my friend, a very beautiful young woman from a very rich family, who had just gotten a Columbo Plan scholarship, to his house on campus.  As I remember it, Dr. Findlay was also there – it was noontime or so, and we were between classes.  Yin (not her real name) talked about what career prospects she might have and what subjects she should take in Canada.  Dr. Hla Myint did not seem to be in a bad humor.  He joked “It won’t matter.  You’ll be lost anyway.” Yin did not understand it.  I explained what he meant when we walked back to the classrooms.

Ne Win had a poor education.  It was said he had been a postal clerk before he joined the Burma Defense Army (under Aung San) against the Japanese invaders.  He had the dictator’s classic insecurity and desire to dominate.  All the time I was in Rangoon, I heard stories of how he had beat up someone with a golf club; how he beat up a university instructor who had had a bit too much to drink at a Burma Research dinner and had insulted Ne Win’s second wife Kitty.  As late as the year 2000, when I interviewed Louis Wallinsky, then 92 or 93, in Washington DC, Louis told me of how he had witnessed Ne Win beat up the driver of their car at the Rangoon Golf Club because the car pulled up too quietly behind him as he tied his shoe laces.   At that time Wallinsky was the then PM U Nu’s economic advisor.

Findlay likewise had a bad time, even though he was a brilliant economist (still is) – a likeable person and a mild-mannered one, and a gifted, generous teacher.  He was passed over for the economics department professorship, solely on account of his racial origins, I thought, and given a research professorship, where he no longer taught.

All throughout the time I was writing my MA thesis, he was in small office at the Economics Institute. I seemed to be the only one who went to his office, to deliver chapters I had written.  In 1969, he left Burma to work at Columbia University in New York.

http://sipa.columbia.edu/academics/directory/ref2-fac.html

By then we had lived through the July 7, 1962 shooting of students, the demonetization of kyat 100 notes and the rice riots of 1967, which Ne Win diverted to anti-Chinese riots.

The worst part of the military junta has been its treatment of its people, not realizing they are, to use Adam Smith’s words, the wealth of the nation.

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