Asia Update: Surfacing Change for Myanmar’s People

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The sun pitched against the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon.

The decrepit, languishing state of Yangon’s buildings and infrastructure resemble a ghost town, but at ground level life abounds in the largest of Myanmar’s cities.

I traveled through this country last month to witness the exciting changes that are happening in Southeast Asia’s poorest, least developed country. A positive energy is surging through its people. Just a few years ago, mention of the democratic party leader’s name — Aung San Suu Kyi — was a punishable offense. Today, her image is proudly displayed by her many constituents in their taxis, corner stores and eateries.

I can ask questions the guidebooks, by now obsolete, cautioned against. The so-called civilian government is also learning to deal with criticism. Throughout a half century of military dictatorship, the slightest notion of a state-related complaint would incite an iron fist reaction. There is more hope now than ever that along with government and private industry, civil society can also bring about a sea change to improve the lives of Myanmar’s people.

Asia’s economic powers are knocking on Myanmar’s door, and they’re ready to pay in cash. The West, however, is arriving late according to The Japan Times:

“American corporations are very late in every business sector,” said businessman Aung Aung, whose oil and gas and hotel companies have alliances with Korean, Indian and Russian partners. “Asian countries, like India and especially China, have already dominated the market. It’s difficult for American companies to compete.”

The Asian business community’s influence has reached even young Burmese women who talk about the difference between their traditional, thanaka wearing sisters and their modern counterparts who don “Korean” hairstyles (an orange dye is what makes the “Korean” style). Asia is willing and able to invest despite a glaring lack of infrastructure and an uncertain political future. The molding of modern Myanmar tells the continuing story of an Asian century, and the increasingly tempered, conservative approach North America and Europe take to frontier markets.

An un-named economist speaking to The Wall Street Journal warns those Westerners expecting to be warmly received in Yangon:

The Westerners have so missed the boat. Where are the Burmese businessmen here tonight? They’re all with the Chinese and Koreans and Thais, as they have been for years. Western executives come to Yangon and say, ‘Great, I’ll go home and write a report.’ But Asians say, ‘We want to do business now, here’s the money, here’s what we want to do.’

The ethnically diverse people of Myanmar have a lot to offer: a hard-working, service-oriented mentality and a great enthusiasm to contribute to the global order of things. Tourism has already tested Myanmar’s capacity to entertain outsiders within the last two years as Asians and Westerners arrive in droves.

Mizzima, an online Myanmar focused publication, interviewed Jak Bazino, an author who expressed concern that the inundation of foreigners and foreign money may jeopardize the democratization of the country’s political system. “The government has to make sure that economic development does not proceed at the expense of social progress, protection of the environment, improvement of the education system and political maturation.”

What must Myanmar do to preserve its culture and protect the will of its people as they enter the global playing field? Will Myanmar be another rising star in Asia’s economic trajectory or is it too deeply underdeveloped at this point to speculate?

Guest Post By: Sean Dubberke