Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Myanmar: first impressions


AS Myanmar emerges from decades of international isolation, there is a new found optimism and hope amongst the citizens of Yangon for a better future.


Yangon city centre
Moe Kyaw, 37, reflects this optimism.  Having lived in Singapore for almost 17 years, he returned to his country in 2012 shortly after Myanmar began the process of political reforms. He saved enough money to buy a tiny apartment in one of the decrepit residential buildings in a Yangon street and a car. He now works as a taxi driver earning $200 a month and attends a vocational school where he learns computer programming.

Kyaw is well informed about international affairs and politics, and his aspirations are strongly tied with the country’s future. He says, “it is beginning of a new era", he is hopeful that Myanmar will come into terms with its past and will move on the path of prosperity.

“Our country has been plundered and destroyed for six decades by the military, but now there is a lot of hope. It is full of opportunities and natural resources. We need to rebuild our country. We have full faith in our lady (Aung Sun Suu Kyi),” says Kyaw.

Though Myanmar began the political reforms in 2010, many are waiting to see how will the process eventually shape up. On 1st February, the new parliament convened for its opening session. Aung Sun Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) got a thumping majority in the elections held in November last year. The election process was seen as credible by international observers. Despite this, the country’s constitution debars Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president as her late husband and two sons have British passports. The military still retains 25% of the parliamentary seats and appoints the powerful home, defence and border- affairs ministers. The military also passed a bill which grants blanket immunity to ex- presidents from prosecution.  

However, following the political reforms foreign investments have been soaring. In 2014, it touched a $8 billion, one of the highest in the ASEAN region. Japan particularly has been one of the biggest donor and also an investor in a range of sectors like manufacturing, insurance and infrastructure. According to Devex, a private group tracking development aid, Japan accounted for 35% of global Official Development Assistance (ODA) loans to Myanmar in 2013. In 2015, a major Japanese backed investment zone Thilawa special economic zone started its operation just outside Yangon.

In Yangon, the locals welcome the Japanese investment but remain wary of investments by Myanmar’s long term ally and influential neighbour China. There is general feeling that the China is draining the country’s natural resources. The popular public opposition has lead to suspension and cancellation of key projects notably the Chinese-backed Myitsone Dam in 2011 and Kyaukpyu-Yunnan railway project.

San Tung Khint, a director of a Yangon based company says, “the foreign investments are vital to our country’s growth. We need training on capacity building, our bureaucracy needs to be reformed and we need technology to leap frog in every sphere of development.”

He adds, “we need to carefully manage our resources and not get exploited over dependent on a country. We sit between two economic power houses India and China, and we need investment from both and others without compromising our national interest.”

Hindu deities at the Shwedagon Pagoda
The Burmese workforce is young and cheap and poised to be one of the hub for the garment manufacturing in years to come. However, despite the potential there is surprisingly low investment from the country’s eastern neighbour India.

India enjoys a strong historical, cultural and spiritual people – to - people ties with Myanmar. A guide at the famous Shwedagon Pagoda Temple in central Yangon shows the influence of Buddhism and also Hinduism in Myanmar’s cultural and religious life. The temple celebrates Buddha in all its formations and glory. There are deities of Hindu gods and goddesses and pictorial depiction of Asoka, a powerful emperor of ancient India.

Mr Win, the guide says, “almost 60 % of our cultural and religious life bear similarity with India, 30 % from Mongolia and 10 % from Tibet.” Most people that this writer met in the Pagoda talked about their desire to visit Bodh Gaya, the birth place of Buddha once in their lifetime.

There are historical reasons for the gap: in Myanmar, until 1947, the Indians especially Bengalis, Parsis and Tamils formed a sizeable community contributing to its economy and administration under the British Raj. A large scale migration began after the Japanese invasion during the World War II.  In 1960s, when the military government pursued the policy of nationalization, a lot of Indian businesses were forced to leave.

In a recent interview to mizzima, a Myanmar online news portal, the Indian ambassador to Myanmar, Gautam Mukhopadhaya said that lack of Indian investment is primarily due to three major factors: first there is a lack of information on both sides about each other’s economy and opportunities; second, there are no proper banking channels to facilitate trade and investment; third is poor air connectivity (there is no direct flight between New Delhi and Yangon).  The ambassador points out that India has been slightly disengaged with Myanmar compared to its other neighbours but there will be steady rise of Indian investment in the next decade.
the colonial Yangon railway station

The ambassador underlines that Myanmar being an immediate and a big neighbour is strategically placed in the intersection of India’s two top foreign policy priorities: one is the neighbourhood first policy, which calls for a wider engagement between India and its neighbour. Second, for India’s Act East policy: Myanmar due to its strategic geographical location serves as a natural transit point to the rest of greater Mekong region.

Back in Yangon, it is quite evident that the process of rebuilding the country is going to a big challenge in a number of fronts. The key priorities are to end long – standing conflicts with ethnic armed insurgency groups, diversifying the economy, strengthening democratic institutions and capacity building.
  
 Young people say the country’s higher education system is in a dismal state. Marisa Charles a social worker says, “Until very recently there were no private schools in the country and the quality of education wasn’t up to the mark. In the university some courses are in English because the books are in English but they are taught in Burmese. So students tend to memorise their lessons.”

In the rural areas Burmese language is not spoken by the ethnic minorities so they don’t understand what’s being taught. There is now a big push to teach the basic subjects the ethnic minority languages.

Post reforms a lot of INGOS and development agencies have started working in the country. UN agencies are putting a lot of resources in fighting human trafficking, addressing gaps in gender equality, improving reproductive health services responding to and preventing gender based violence and integrating gender equality and human right’s perspectives into national polices, development frameworks and laws. India is particular is helping in capacity building and political reforms.

In many ways, ordinary people in Myanmar are very positive about the wind of change that is sweeping through the country. In Yangon, one can notice the country's potential. They have got the basic civic sense right: traffic snarls are serpentine, yet no one honks, no lane jumping and it's largely clean. If they get the policies right and investment is properly directed, it's surely poised to be the next big thing in Asia.


  



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