Follow by Email

Friday, February 5, 2016

Burma Before the Boom

Posted from Phuket, Thailand

For the wind is in the palm trees, an' the temple-bells they say:
'Come you back, you British soldier, come you back to
from Rudyard Kipling's poem, "Mandalay"

Old photo of Mandalay, Burma

While here in Thailand I've had the space and time to reflect on our recent three-week journey through Myanmar. Time to recall the ubiquitous temples and tea houses, the funky trishaws, the painted faces, the friendly people, the broad, genuine smiles. Here in Phuket I stop at the end of a pier that juts-out into the harbor, and stare out into the shallow, mesmerizing, azure-colored waters. A man with a blue nylon fish net strewn over his shoulders interrupts my daydream, asking me where I'm from. Taken somewhat by surprise, I hesitate. A world of assumptions fills the space between us...

Myanmar's ubiquitous and wondrous temples

Myanmar is facing its own surprising transition. And nearly everyone has an opinion about the change. Except the Burmese finally feel safe to express their views. After centuries of rule by emperors, Burma became a British colony. For the next 50 years, the country, hugely rich in resources, became the spoil of ruthless rule by a junta of greedy military generals. In Emma Larkin's fascinating work, Finding George Orwell in Burma, a native Burmese aptly remarks, "The British may have sucked our blood, but these Burmese generals are biting us to the bone!" Just a few short months ago, the unmistakable bite of capitalism struck the country's capital, Yangon. Our guide made sure to point out the huge new KFC that had recently opened in a busy area near the old Scott Market there. "They just opened the first three here," he observed.

One of the first KFC's in Yangon. Is Myanmar now 
welcoming capitalism?

In a few short weeks, Aung San Suu Kyi's NLD party, voted into office with 80% of the popular vote, will accept the reigns of power. That transition, is filled with its own huge basket of assumptions. After decades of understandable reluctance to talk honestly to foreigners, native Burmese now speak more freely and candidly about the political earthquake that is taking place. All of our guides, and others we met, spoke excitedly about the forthcoming transition, most without being prompted by our questions. Over breakfast, I asked an Australian official I met in eastern Shan State who was in Myanmar to audit the election results. "What is prompting the generals to relinquish power?" "It's complicated," he said, "but I wouldn't rule out some degree of benevolence."

In some ways, today's Myanmar reminds me of the Korea I witnessed in the early 1970's. South Korea then was a military dictatorship under the strict rule of president and former general, Park Chung-hee. The country, largely rural in those days, was rationing rice, enforcing curfews, and actively arresting students and professors--anyone who spoke out against the regime. Fast food chains, amongst the more obvious signs of capitalism, had yet to take a foothold in Korea. Technology was primitive and largely limited to poor quality local products from Lucky and Gold Star.

Today of course, Korea is vastly different. In the span of 40 years Seoul now boasts more Starbucks than New York City. College students, like those in other developed countries, aspire to BMW's and expensive apartments with impressive addresses. What is generally taken as "progress" was accomplished without significant indigenous natural resources. Rather, what has made Korea the 15th largest economy in the world, was the remarkable sweat-equity and toil pumped-out by three generations of Koreans.

Myanmar, on the other hand, is rich in natural resources. In the early 1920's, the river Delta that surrounds the Yangon region, exported over 3 million tons of rice, half the world's supply. It is rich in gems, including jade, silver, gold, natural gas, rubber and teak. With the possibility of democracy and a full dose of capitalism on the doorstep, Myanmar is likely to be a future economic power in southeast Asia. Speaking with an expat while I was deplaning in Yangon, I asked her what had brought her to Myanmar. "I'm here to discuss the development of their natural gas industry," the Californian told me. "Are you speaking with officials from the current military government," I asked, "or the incoming government of Aung San Suu Kyi?" "The new government," she responded. While the Myanmar we saw is still largely unspoiled, by some accounts, the generals have nearly wiped out the native teak forests and exploited many of the natural resources. Those sites, needless to say, are not on tourist itineraries.

Many veteran travelers to southeast Asia recall with sadness the rapidly changing landscapes they see: the highways that were once quaint dirt roads; the quiet, pristine beaches that have become hedges to endless cement edifices displaying the names of western hotel chains. They lament that local teahouses and small restaurants seem to inevitably give way to Starbucks, McDonalds and KFC's. This is someone's measure of "progress." But whose?

What will Myanmar's likely forthcoming economic
boom mean for this young Burmese girl?

Sometimes, I vainly hope that a golden moment on a quiet strip of beach will remain forever frozen in time. Sometimes, even that which you thought you knew about a place and a time, was just a mirage. Rudyard Kipling, he of the "come back to Mandalay," epic poem fame, never even visited the place. History notes that Mr. Kipling never set foot in Mandalay. In fact, Mr. Kipling spent only 3 short days in Burma...once upon a time.