One of my favorite entrepreneurial immigrant stories in the Berkshires where I live in western Massachusetts is the saga of Bo Bo Nge.
A Myanmar national, Bo Bo was at Rangoon University in 1988 when protests broke out against the first Army usurpation of the government after an election had given it to the opposition led by Aung San Suu Kyi. Kyi was the oldest daughter of Aung San, who had been founder of the Myanmar Armed Forces and father of the Myanmar nation, before he was assassinated in 1947.
Thousands of protestors were killed, and Bo Bo went into hiding until his mother and brother were threatened with imprisonment if he didn’t surrender to authorities.
After 4-1/2 years in prison, he migrated north, to Inle Lake in Shan State province, where he discovered that the seaweed could be sold as a delicacy in South Korea. He launched a flourishing taro export business and met his future wife, who had a shop underneath the pagoda there.
When the government intervened in his business, Bo Bo fled to the United States. Ending up in Great Barrington, he rose from washing dishes at Bizen Restaurant to win economics and math degrees and then to teaching at Bard College. He also performed valuable research work for the late Lawrence Pratt at American Investment Services (AIS), an independent subsidiary of the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER). Bo Bo ended up with a PhD from London University. In 2015, he took over as Deputy Governor of Myanmar’s Central Bank.
There he led a valiant program of reforms in league with the democratic Administration of Suu Kyi, finally in office. He helped reduce the government deficit by 50 percent, pioneered a system of smart phone retail payments, and supported a special economic zone at Thilawa. In five years, the Myanmar GDP rose from $1.8 billion to $10.5 billion.
When Suu Kyi won her reelection early this year in a landslide, Myanmar’s generals had had enough. They reassumed power and on February 1 dispatched five soldiers to arrest Bo Bo at his home in Myanmar’s new capital Naypyidaw.
On Euromoney, Eric Ellis in Yangon commented, “It’s a circular firing squad around here.”
On February 4 in an address at the State Department, President Biden commendably demanded that the Burmese military release all detainees. Afflicted with heart disease, Bo Bo should be among the first.
Bo Bo’s arrest, however, poses a new test for the populist theories of people like Trump advisor Peter Navarro and his unexpected tariff-loving followers in the Biden Administration who think a trade gap is a trade gouge. Just last week Biden’s Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Dennis Shea excoriated the European Union for inflicting a $178 billion goods trade deficit on the United States.
People like Shea and Navarrro might even understand the indignation of Myanmar’s patriotic generals at the globalist excesses of the Suu Kyi’s Administration.
Just joking, but the American mainstream media increasingly imply that democracy goes too far when it sells out a society and its jobs to globalist foreigners.
Like Myanmar’s generals, they all agree that trade and jobs represent a zero-sum game and a trade gap is a national loss. Foreigners who sell you goods at cheaper prices are taking your jobs.
For decades after World War II, Myanmar, nee Burma, thrived as one of the world’s most isolated economies. An emerald land, it became a triumphant precursor and example of the possible promise for America of a “green new deal.”
With 53 million people and among the world’s richest trove of natural resources, replete with oil, natural gas, timber, and rubies, it became famous for keeping them all in the ground. There they remained safe from foreign depredations and safe for the world’s environment. Emissions of CO2 or other “pollutant chemicals” were blissfully undetectable. Myanmar posed little or no threat to the global climate.
The chief renown of the country was the unfathomable geography of Rudyard Kipling’s on “the road to Mandalay, where the flying fishes play, and the dawn comes up like thunder out of China ‘cross the Bay.’”
Then the glamourous Suu Kyi took over in 2015 under her National League for Democracy. Although she relinquished defense, homeland security, and 25 percent of parliamentary seats to the military, she retained control of banking and economic policy.
She called in Bo Bo and globalism held sway. Her regime allowed the licensure of 17 foreign banks in the country, a 33 per cent surge of $5.5 billion in foreign direct investment, and a fivefold increase in Myanmar GDP. The U.S. trade gap with Myanmar rose to $474 million in 2020.
Shrewd minds in Washington took notice and alarm. Bo Bo was becoming a menace to American jobs!
Just kidding. Circular firing squads are no fun, whether in Myanmar or in the U.S.
As my “Man on the Margin” Mike Kendall writes:
“If an individual desires to trade a unique product that is self-funded, sweated over, and brought to creation, for another product anywhere in the world, why should that trade be prevented?
“What is the advantage in having the terms of that trade made uneconomical by onerous, arbitrary tariffs enacted for the benefit of perceived national policy? How does an individual, a potential trade partner, or an economy as a whole benefit?”
“The collection of individuals comprise a nation’s economy. Henry Hazlitt wrote in Economics in One Lesson that ‘What is harmful or disastrous to an individual must be equally harmful or disastrous to the collection of individuals that make up a nation.’”
Free Bo Bo! Free the world economy from zero sum generalists.