By Jessica Toale
Saturday night in downtown Yangon, the Union Bar on the Strand is heaving with a mixed collection of expats. With an extensive cocktail menu, DJ’s on the decks and industrial chic exposed light bulbs hanging over the square bar, the scene would not be out of place in a swanky New York Midtown bar.
The atmosphere is electric. Groups of people talk excitedly about the burgeoning telecoms sector bringing 3G connection to millions of people, of being part of something unique, a hint of the Wild West in the air. Everyone wants a piece of the action.
But what does this seemingly rapid economic progress mean for Burma?
Burma is the largest country in mainland Southeast Asia with incredible mineral wealth, but it remains the poorest country in the region with around a quarter of the population living in extreme poverty. Outside the developed pockets of Yangon and Mandalay life for the average Burmese person is extremely different.
Burma’s contemporary political history has been mired in isolation and international condemnation owning largely to the actions of the military dictatorship. Recent moves to release political prisoners, including the indomitable Aung San Suu Kyi, has opened up the country somewhat to investment and foreign interest.
It is very easy to get carried away with the prospects for progress in Burma and the feeling of being part of something new and exciting. But of course rapid economic progress does not always guarantee rapid social progress or adherence to international human rights standards. News reports of the Government delivering electricity and water and sanitation projects to rural areas, introducing quotas on the proportion of Burmese nationals working in foreign-owned companies and hosting the 27th SEA Games are offset by long-standing and well-documented discrimination against Rohingya and other minority populations in Rakhine State and elsewhere. Indeed, whilst in Yangon we passed a displaced persons camp set up outside the High Court Building demanding recognition of their fundamental human rights – a visceral demonstration of the challenges of ensuring inclusive development.
The question of what type of development Burma wants for itself was a recurring theme on the trip.
- For the average traveler, Burma is an expensive destination that lacks the levels of service or quality you would expect to find in other Southeast Asian countries. Despite an expanding airline industry, travel remains challenging and variable in quality. Anecdote revealed that Burma is pitching itself as a luxury destination, and Yangon is desperate to avoid the fate of becoming another Bangkok.
- The telecoms industry appears to be the most significant economic sector at the moment, and in fact I was continually surprised to see Buddhist monks whipping out their Huawei smartphones to take photos of passing tourists. But the development of this sector will raise issues around land acquisitions, human rights violations, allegations of corruptions and governance issues. With the increase in access to 3G and social media as a result, it will be interesting to see what impact the telecoms boom has on civic action and popular engagement with politics.
- Finally, the level of environmental and heritage degradation as a result of rapid economic and population growth was already more than apparent. Despite some attempts to create conservation zones, particularly around Inle Lake and Old Bagan – areas that require foreigners to pay a Government entrance fee – air pollution, an overabundance of discarded plastic bags and botched restoration jobs were common in all areas. Perhaps my perception had to do with it being the end of the dry season, but significant effort both nationally and regionally will be required to ensure that the country develops in a sustainable way.
The Labour Party holds a keen interest in Burma and has shown strong international solidarity with the Burmese people in their struggle for democracy and equitable and inclusive development.
But as a result of the mixed picture which characterizes development in Burma, we would be wise to consider a number of issues:
- Politically, Aung San Suu Kyi is often held up as the shining light for the future of Burma. But as an international community are we putting too much faith in her? We have become rightly weary of creating more “donor darlings”, and whilst there is no doubt that she is a remarkable person who understands western democracy, her party, the NLD, as a political and opposition movement so lacks the capacity it needs to be effective. We have given some support to the NLD, but we should consider seriously what else can we do to support democratization efforts and capacity building at a grassroots level as well as a at high-profile politician level.
- Economically, Burma is an underexploited market and therefore attractive to a number of investors. This reading largely neglects the level of Chinese investment in the country, particularly in Mandalay and the north. Recent visits and engagement of UK ministers and trade missions, however, raise serious questions about how we balance the desire for economic development and opportunities for UK interests with the conflict that this motivation poses to our commitment to human rights, tackling inequality and promoting global solidarity.
The democratization and development of Burma has the potential to be our new international cause and should be of great concern to nations and organization in the region and across the world. The Labour Party is well place to be a force for good in Burma’s transition and has a responsibility to be a friendly critic amongst those people we support.
Everyone is waiting for the elections in late-2015. Whatever the outcome it will be important for the trajectory of the country’s nascent growth and development.