Myanmar: A new dawn

Myanmar: A new dawn

As Myanmar emerges slowly from five decades of dictatorship, will it ever catch up with its more prosperous neighbours?

After almost half a century of authoritarian rule, Myanmar (or Burma) is gradually coming in from the cold, dark years of repression and dictatorship giving way to new industries and culture – driven by both, the growing interest of foreign investors and the gradual softening of political criticism and sanctions from the US, Europe and others.

The latest signs of this renaissance came earlier this month when US Secretary of State John Kerry flew in to tell the country’s leaders that while they still had some considerable distance to travel along the path to democracy (Burma’s as-yet unresolved regional ethnic conflicts, attitudes towards its Muslim Rohingya minority and recent unwelcome signs of media suppression to name but a few issues of concern), the US believed the country was making progress and the Obama administration was keen to encourage further political and legal reforms.

However, as Kerry would have seen had he ventured into the countryside, there still is a clear divide between those benefiting from the new world, and those struggling to survive in old Burma. Prosperity – or anything approaching it – is still a long way off. Most of Myanmar’s 60 million people have yet to experience the full benefits of that growing freedom and the country – though rich in natural resources – remains one of most deprived in the world.

Thanks to a wide range of newspapers now available the population is becoming better informed but on a practical level although some adventurous entrepreneurs are prepared to take a risk on new start-ups and business ventures, most people do not even have the money to fund their child’s education.

For example, in Dalah, one of the poorer outlying districts of Yangon, Burma’s capital city, it costs $3 per term to send a child to school – a small sum elsewhere in the world but one that few here can afford without hardship.

Traverse its muddy paths and you will find people crowded into ramshackle dwellings, perched above putrid water, without electricity and with limited access to health care. The area’s children are considered lucky if they live past five years old. So while their parents might welcome the country’s political reforms, so far – for most of them this has not yet translated to a better standard of living.

As Dr Thant Myint-U, the chairman of the Yangon Heritage Trust and the grandson of U Thant, the secretary-general of the UN in the 1960s, says: “I think we can be reasonably confident that this degree of political liberalisation will continue. We can be somewhat confident that moves towards democracy will continue as well, but I think how ordinary life will change, whether income inequality will simply get worse and whether the lives of the poorest half of the country – two thirds of the country – if that will change, I think remains a big question mark”.

He cites continuing problems with corruption as being one of the major barriers to change. It is no surprise that the World Bank rates Myanmar as one of the most difficult places on earth to do business.

He says: “One of the huge tragedies of the past 50 years is that the independent judiciary and the very first rate judiciary we had 50 years ago, is gone after 40 or 50 years of military rule, and I think without that strong judiciary and that strong rule of law apparatus from the police through the judges and the Supreme Court, it’s going to be very difficult.”

Vicky Bowman is a former British ambassador to the country, who married a political dissident, settled in Myanmar some years ago and now runs an NGO campaigning against corruption. She cautions against over-optimism – particularly among foreign business concerns who might be beguiled into believing that the country can quickly emulate its prosperous neighbours

“You get an awful lot of people coming in thinking this is the next frontier. It’s a country which has probably up to 60 million people so it’s very significant. I think companies who’ve come in over the last two years, most of them have realised they probably need to take things quite slowly because it’s not straightforward.”

According to her the pace of reform is still slow and the country’s deep seated divisions are still extant, despite the improvements: “I think it’s really important now not to forget that this is a country which still has ethnic conflicts in which people are being killed every week, both the army, the ethnic rebels, but also civilians and in particular in the north, those conflicts are very live. But even elsewhere in the country they’re still quite tentative peace deals which have not really been cemented into a proper political framework.”

Many inside and outside Myanmar believe such problems would be easier to remedy if Myanmar’s famous democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi was allowed to participate in a presidential election scheduled for next year. But she faces an uphill battle – a military-drafted constitution bans her from the presidency because her late husband and child are foreigners. John Kerry’s recent visit notwithstanding, there is little immediate prospect of that injunction being lifted. Burma is changing, but for most of its people, it is not changing fast enough.

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