First Impressions

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As Myanmar emerges from decades of international isolation, there is a new found optimism and hope amongst the citizens of Yangon for the future. BY SUTIRTHA SAHARIAH Shwedagon pagoda in Yangon seen on the sunset. AFP PHOTO / Ye Aung THU

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 reform. He had saved enough money to buy a tiny apartment in one of the decrepit residential buildings in a Yangon street, and also 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 the beginning of a new era.” He’s hopeful that Myanmar will come to terms with its past and 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’s full of opportunities and natural resources. We need to rebuild our country. We have full faith in our lady (Aung Sun SuuKyi),” says Kyaw

Though Myanmar began political reforms in 2010, many are waiting to see how it would eventually shape up. On 1st February the new parliament convened for its opening session. Aung Sun SuuKyi’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 SuuKyi from becoming president as her late husband was a British citizen, also her two sons. The military still retains 25% of the parliamentary seats and appoints the powerful home, defence and border affairs ministers. It also passed a bill which grants blanket immunity to ex- presidents from prosecution. Sui Kyi’s confidant has become president but the road ahead is uncertain.

The political transformation has seen foreign investment soaring. In 2014, it touched $8 billion, one of the highest in the ASEAN region. Japan particularly has been one of the biggest donor’s and also an investor in a range of sectors such as 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, the Japanese-backed Thilawa special economic zone started operation just outside Yangon.

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

San Tung Ang, vice-president of a Yangon-based company says, “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 or 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.”

The Burmese workforce is young and cheap and many predict it could be the next hub for garment manufacturing. However, despite the potential there is surprisingly low investment from the country’s eastern neighbour India.

People are very positive about the winds of change sweeping through the country. In Yangon, one can notice the country’s potential. There is a basic civic sense: no one honks even though traffic snarls are serpentine, there’s no lane jumping and the city is largely clean

India enjoys a strong historical, cultural and spiritual people –to- people ties with Myanmar. A guide at the famous Shwedagon Pagoda in central Yangon shows the influence of Buddhism and also Hinduism in Myanmar’s cultural and religious life. The temple celebrates Buddha but there are images of Hindu gods and goddesses and a 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, birth place of the 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.

Large scale migration began after the Japanese invasion during World War II. In the 1960s, when the military government pursued a policy of nationalization, a lot of Indian businesses were shut, their owners forced to leave.

In a recent interview to the online Myanmar news portal Mizzima, India’s Ambassador Gautam Mukhopadhaya attributed the lack of Indian investment to three 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, and third is the absence of air connectivity (there is no direct flight between New Delhi and Yangon). The ambassador admitted that India has been slightly disengaged with Myanmar compared to its other neighbours, but there would be steady rise of Indian investment in the next decade.

The ambassador underlined 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 neighbours. Second, for India’s Act East policy: Myanmar due to its strategic geographical location serves as a natural transit point to the greater Mekong region.

Though Myanmar began political reforms in 2010, many are waiting to see how it would 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

Back in Yangon, it’s quite evident that the process of rebuilding the country is going to be a big challenge in a number of fronts. The key priorities are to end long–standing conflicts with ethnic insurgent 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 book is in English but they are taught in Burmese. So students tend to memorize their lessons.”

In rural areas, the 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 basic subjects in minority ethnic languages.

Post reforms a lot of international NGOS 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 has been particularly helpful in the areas of capacity building and in the political reform process.

People are very positive about the winds of change sweeping through the country. In Yangon, one can notice the country’s potential. There is a basic civic sense: no one honks even though traffic snarls are serpentine, there’s no lane jumping and the city is largely clean. If they get their policies right and investment is properly directed, Myanmar could be the next big story in Asia.

Summary

  • The winds of change are sweeping through Myanmar, transforming its politics and economy, giving hope to its people
  • The world is queuing up to invest, especially Japan, international NGOs are trying to fill gaps in education and other areas
  • India appears curiously detached from Myanmar, a combination of poor connectivity and lack of knowledge keeping investors out
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