Poverty, ethnic tension and authoritarian rule have defined Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, for more than six decades, yet today as the world waits with abated breath, these words are slowly being replaced with hope, optimism and renewal.
No where is this more obvious than in the country’s urban centers namely Yangon, the country’s former capital, and Mandalay, the second largest city, where it seems buildings go up over night.
The construction boom, and the subsequent flood of commercial goods from shoes to cell phones, is a direct result of the political and economic reforms implemented over the past two years by the ruling military junta under the leadership of former military strong man, Thein Sein.
Buoyed by the military junta’s willingness to liberalize the economy, allow the participation of political opposition parties and the release of hundreds of political prisoners, including opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, countries have begun to lift long-running economic sanctions and reestablish diplomatic ties with the country.
With Myanmar no longer isolated from the outside world, the country is playing a 21st century game of catch up that can at times make your head spin.
Here are just a few examples of the drastic economic changes that have taken place since 2010.
- Prior to the economic reforms a Sim card for a cell phone cost an equivalent of $US 1,000, making it virtually impossible to own one. Today it costs $US 3.
- Three years ago a school teacher would earn about 30,000 Kyat a month , equivalent to $Us 3,000. Today a teacher now earns 70,000 Kyat or about $US 7,000 per month.
- In January 2012 the country’s first ATM’s arrived, opening up financial services to Burmese who have long mistrusted the country’s banking system. It has also allowed tourists to withdraw cash in the country, something that previously was impossible to do.
- To purchase a motorcycle three years ago it would have cost the average consumer approximately $US 600 now it costs about US$ 400, while a government issued license has dropped to $US 100 from $US 200.
Some of the more obvious signs of economic change include the large number of international companies beginning to open up shop in the country. These companies include, Samsung, Toyota, Coca-Cola (which resumed business in 2012 after a 60 year hiatus) and General Motors.
While these companies are only beginning to make inroads into this untapped market, the fact that they have arrived says enough, paving the way for other multinational corporations, including of course, the inevitable arrival of the country’s first fast fast-food chain.
With the country making leaps and bounds economically, many human rights activists are concerned foreign governments have moved to quickly rewarding the government for it’s good behaviour.
While there is no doubt that Myanmar still has a way to go in addressing various human rights issues, including the ongoing ethnic violence towards the country’s minority Muslim population, democratically it has come along way in just two short years.
No where is this more apparent than the number of Aung San Suu Kyi posters, paintings, and calendars displayed openly in restaurants, hotels, and businesses.
Three years ago people would have never dared to speak openly about politics let alone display their political leanings with image of Suu Kyi.
The few instances where I engaged with local Burmese it was clear that people are no longer afraid to talk about politics. The most blatant example is the number of newspapers, both in English and Burmese, that openly criticize the government.
While Myanmar should be commended for what it has accomplished in such a short period of time two big questions remain:
Will Myanmar’s economic recovery have the intended trickle down affect that will pull the vast majority of Burmese out of poverty? And will the government uphold and respect the results of the country’s democratic elections in 2015?
The answer to those questions of course, remain to be seen, yet it is with hope and optimism that I believe Myanmar will reclaim its rightful place in the world.