Suu Kyi’s resurgence. Patchy reforms. Buddhist violence. Thai ‘prison’ boats. By Hamish McDonald.

Myanmar’s hesitant steps to catch up

An office worker on her mobile phone in downtown Yangon is a sign of the modernising under way in Myanmar.
An office worker on her mobile phone in downtown Yangon is a sign of the modernising under way in Myanmar.
Credit: Soe Than Win / AFP

Burma: the last holdout against the trouser! All but the army and police, and a few other uniformed types, still get around in the longyi, the local version of the sarong. But in the 30 or so months since your world-watcher was previously in the country, officially known as Myanmar, there are many other signs of catch-up with global trends.

More Japanese and Chinese cars jam the streets of Yangon, adding long stews in sweltering heat on the way to and from appointments, in the style of Jakarta and Bangkok. A good side effect is that the pressure to demolish and replace the magnificent British-era buildings in the old commercial centre has abated: businesses are opting for offices in the outer suburbs.

ATMs operated by local banks are everywhere, reducing the need for foreign visitors to bring in wads of pristine US dollar bills to exchange for grubby bundles of kyats. Instead of multiple exchange rates, the kyat has stabilised at a handy 1000 or so to the US dollar. Instead of having to fork out up to $US200 on arrival as deposit and rental for a local mobile phone compatible with the state-run service, new GSM networks offer SIM cards and top-ups for a few dollars. Foreign tourist arrivals are growing 20 per cent a year, helped by an e-visa scheme. Tour groups waddle around shops selling lacquerware and opium weights, backpackers lounge in cafes offering the universal fare of pizza and smoothies. Jay-Z and Beyoncé have been among the celebs spotted at the ruins of Bagan.

1 . Suu Kyi resurgent

Now Myanmar is to test how deeply the benefits have spread. National elections in late October or early November will be the first since the former military regime held a staged election in 2010.

In the absence then of competition, the regime’s Union Solidarity and Development Party won most of the 75 per cent of seats in the parliament open to electoral contest (25 per cent was filled by the military), and selected former army general Thein Sein as president.

But Thein Sein threw this dreary farce into a serious opening-up. In late 2011 he signalled Myanmar was ready to end its isolation, halted an unpopular Chinese dam project on the Irrawaddy River, and persuaded Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy to enter the political system. When the NLD swept byelections, the outside world took this as evidence of reform and ended most sanctions.

Judging by the portraits of Suu Kyi and her father, the assassinated independence leader Aung San, that are pinned up in homes and workplaces all over Myanmar, the NLD can look forward to winning a parliamentary majority. But a spoiler the generals wrote into their constitution prevents Suu Kyi becoming president: anyone who has been married to a foreigner or has children with foreign citizenship, as she uniquely does in the political scene, is barred from the office.

Regrettably, there was “not enough time” to revise this clause before the election, the parliament declared, though it is ready to consider some 120 other amendments. According to close associates, Suu Kyi was ropeable about a report this month that she was reconciled to the status quo and would aim instead at becoming the parliamentary speaker. From her speeches, she’s actually threatening a boycott of the election.

The old military guard will be led into the election by one of two relatively enlightened former generals. One is Thein Sein, talking of retirement but willing to run again “if my country needs me”. The other is the ambitious speaker of the lower house, Shwe Mann. This will be a critical contest over coming months.

2 . Patchy reforms

If the generals are running on their record, it’s a very patchy one, according to Macquarie University economist Sean Turnell, in Yangon to coach the NLD.

“They’ve done some good things, all in the right direction,” he tells me. “But in the implementation they have all fallen down, either broken down in the bureaucracy or gutted in the parliament.”

A new foreign investment law fell victim to a claque of former military politicians still imbued with the attitudes of the isolationist regime started by the late general Ne Win after his coup in 1962. The licensing of nine foreign banks, including the ANZ, came with a ban on lending to locals or any lending in kyat after a nationalist fear campaign whipped up by local banks. Agriculture, which employs 70 per cent of the population and forms 40 per cent of gross domestic product, continues in a parlous state of neglect − in colonial times Burma was the region’s main rice exporter. The tourism boom and influx of investment scouts for multinationals has helped the small middle class, whose members can open small businesses and rent out properties. “For most Burmese people, life is roughly what it was,” Turnell says. “They see change, but it’s tantalisingly out of reach.”

3 . Buddhist violence

“Myanmar perhaps most Buddhist country in the world. Gold temples everywhere. Another world. Must come back before tourists wreck.”

Such was the tweet of one @rupertmurdoch, sent from the deck of a luxury yacht cruising the islands of the Andaman Sea after Christmas.

The problem is that Myanmar is getting a bit too Buddhist in the most chauvinist way. The lifting of the political lid has brought out nasty elements, notably a monk named Wirathu who has whipped up violence against the Rohingya minority of mostly Bengali-origin Muslims in north-western Arakan. Like-minded MPs are proposing crudely phrased laws banning interfaith marriages and conversions. Some push for a two-child limit for Rohingya families.

About 130,000 of the estimated 1.3 million Rohingya live in camps after being driven from their homes. A further 270,000 have fled to Bangladesh, where they are now threatened with forcible repatriation. The Myanmar government says the Rohingya are foreigners because they arrived after the First Anglo-Burmese War in 1824. Under international pressure, citizenship papers are being given to those who can prove three generations of settlement in Myanmar, not always an easy task for destitute people.

The United Nations sent a special envoy, Yanghee Lee, to look at the situation this month. In speeches to large crowds, Wirathu called her a “bitch” and a “whore”. Hardly any of Myanmar’s leaders have condemned him. Touchiness about offending against religion is spreading. Elders frown on people using Buddha statues for decoration in homes or gardens. New Zealand bar manager Phil Blackwood has spent weeks in jail for putting headphones on a Buddha statue. Another volatile issue for the election.

4 . Thai ‘prison’ boats

From his deck, Rupert would have seen the lights of the vast Thai fleet steadily fishing out the Andaman Sea.

The boat owners are finding it hard to recruit crews, so Thailand’s military government has proposed to hand over some of the country’s prison population as indentured workers.

As reports by Human Rights Watch and others have noted, the fishing boats are floating prisons anyway, with crew members confined on board, beaten and sometimes murdered, and cheated of pay. Some accounts say captains put amphetamines in their water supply to get harder work. Crews are deliberately selected from Myanmar, Cambodia and diverse places to reduce the risk of them combining in mutiny. Match these boats with the large refugee pool on the Arakan coast – it seems an excellent basis for a people-smuggling industry when the fish run out. Just a thought.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 31, 2015 as "Myanmar’s hesitant steps to catch up".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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