Burma’s political glasnost sheds light on vast economic challenges facing one of the world’s poorest countries
SIMON ROUGHNEEN IN BURMA – Over the past 18 months, Burma’s government has gone from pariah to being lauded by western governments and courted by western companies.
Aung San Suu Kyi, once one of the world’s best-known political prisoners, is now a MP in the country’s parliament and her party is the long-distance favourite to win the 2015 general election. 2 years ago she was under house arrest and many of her colleagues were in jail.
On the face of it, it’s a dramatic turnaround for a country ruled by the army since 1962. Smuggled-out images of soldiers beating protesting monks off the streets made world headlines in 2007, and over the past decades, a seemingly endless stream of refugees fleeing to Thailand brought a litany of horror stories of rape, crop-burning and forced labour carried out by the Burmese army in the jungle borderlands.
Now, the country known officially as Myanmar has been ruled by a civilian government since March 2011, albeit an administration dominated by ex-generals, who nonetheless say they are committed to reform.
Assessing the transition from Rangoon, Nyan Win, spokesman for the National League for Democracy (NLD) – the party led by Aung San Suu Kyi – says, “the political situation is changing slowly, but for the better.”
Hundreds of political prisoners have been freed, the NLD swept the board in April by-elections, press restrictions have been eased and so-called ‘hardliners’ – apparatchiks of the old junta thought to wedded to the old authoritarian ways – have been sidelined or demoted by President Thein Sein, himself a former general who has forged an unlikely partnership with Aung San Suu Kyi to promote reform.
The changes have prompted western countries to relax or suspend economic sanctions on Burma – restrictions meant as punishment for abuses carried out by the former military government. In turn western companies are eyeing-up one of the world’s last ‘untapped markets’ – a prize as alluring as the country’s famed rubies, given the estimated 50-60 million population.
Bargain basement labour costs and resources such as oil, gas, timber, gems make Burma an attractive proposition, but problems such as unreliable electricity, poor training and education standards as well as concerns about corruption mean that economic take-off could take time.
This week Coca-Cola started selling in Burma for the first time in 60 years, while energy giants such as Royal Dutch Shell are awaiting permission to bid for untapped offshore gas, hitherto off-limits due to sanctions.
But oil and gas are typically not labour-intensive, and Aung San Suu Kyi and the government have said that what Burma needs badly is investment that provides jobs.
The effects of decades of economic mismanagement by the Burmese junta are plain to see. In Rangoon, where elegant British colonial-era buildings crumble in the tropical monsoon dampness, most of the cars are beat-up 1980s and 1990s Japanese saloons, legacy of a corrupt import scheme that benefitted high-rolling businessmen linked to the old junta – the ‘cronies’.
“I paid 12,000 dollars for this,” says Aung Min, a Rangoon taxi-driver, discussing his rusting 1984 Toyota. Fred Flintstone-style, he could put his feet through the gaping holes in the floor should the sputtering engine finally pack it in.
Though some predictions have Burma’s economy growing at almost double digit rates for the coming years, that’s from a a low base. The country’s GDP is just US$84billion, compared with Ireland’s US$183bn and the US$610bn economy of next-door Thailand, which has a similar-sized population to Burma.
Only 25% of Burmese have electricity, according to a recent Asian Development Bank report, and in the countryside where most people are farmers, tractors and farm machinery are a rare sight amid the ox-drawn carts and timber-bamboo huts.
Poorer still are some of the hilly, jungle border regions populated by Burma’s ethnic minorities, who make up around 40% of the population. In Pa’an in Karen state, there is some ‘cautious optimism’, to re-work the phrase commonly-used by western diplomats when talking about Burma today. A ceasefire between the Karen National Union and the Burmese government has held since January, sparking hope that a war that has lasted since 1949 could be soon over.
But the countryside here is littered with land mines, some laid by the army, some by the Karen rebels. There is no electricity in most Karen rural areas, tens of thousands of Karen are in refugee camps in Thailand, and hundreds of thousands more have emigrated to Thailand for work.
Mee Lay, 23, sits in the noodle shop that she and 2 friends opened 9 months ago on the town’s outskirts. “I don’t see any real business opportunities here yet,” she says, however. Lifting sanctions has the spin-off of allowing more aid money be spent in Burma, something Mee Lay is anticipating. “We all used to work for NGOs and hope to get those type of jobs again,” she adds.
Elsewhere, 3 hours drive from Rangoon, it is still monsoon in the Irrawaddy delta region. For Win Maing, a 50 year farmer and father of 10, flooding in the region exposes the economic reality for the tens of millions of ordinary Burmese, just as it washes over 230,000 acres of rice crop.
“Water came up to the top of the first floor,” he says, “we had to move everything upstairs.” He is still worried about more heavy rain forecast for the coming weeks. “We live close to the river, and if it bursts its banks we will be in danger,” he says, referring to the 1,348 mile Irrawaddy, Burma’s main river, which runs just 3 miles from his house.
Four years ago the same delta was battered by Cyclone Nargis, one of the world’s worst natural disasters in recent times, leaving around 140,000 dead and 3 million homeless. In the weeks after the disaster, the Burmese junta refused western aid and downplayed the death toll, jailing Burmese who spoke to western media about the disaster.
Now Win Naing feels free to talk to a foreign journalist without fear of the harsh old-school repercussions in a country that once held thousands of political prisoners. However he says that no offer of flood relief has come – neither from government nor from NGOs. He adds that bank loans or credit cannot be obtained yet in a country with little or no financial infrastructure, musing that “some things have changed for the better in Myanmar, but some things are not changing yet.”
– Roughneen visited various locations in Burma in reporting this story, work supported by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund