Excitement and democracy come to Burma
After the heady days of the Arab Spring last year, it is now Burma’s excitement that’s in the news. Aung San Suu Kyi is hard at work on the campaign trail, political prisoners are being released, and there is talk of the European Union lifting sanctions and the World Bank returning to this Southeast Asian country, which has been isolated from the West for decades.
Visiting Burma for the first time in 1994, I found it the most frightened place I had ever been. I wandered alone for a week in this gorgeous country, the only tourist admiring the historic Buddhist paintings on the walls of the famous temples of Bagan. I visited the market in Rangoon, where women whose faces were decorated with white circles of crushed bark sat smoking fat cigars. In whispered conversations, people told me how afraid they were of the military government and then moved away quickly because they did not want to be seen with a foreigner. Everyone who went to Burma in those days was haunted by it: the lush landscape with its thatched huts, the gentleness of the people, the loneliness of their existence and the quiet desperation. The problems seemed intractable: the poverty, the corruption and the total lack of freedom.
I returned in 2009 and sat in on a conference organized by United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific aimed at discussing development policy. Government officials showed up wearing their military uniforms, and the conference delegates were advised not to mention poverty lest they offend the regime. The delegates spoke in euphemisms but gently urged the government to spend more on health and education. There was a blackout of official media, but even so we were told the meeting was a breakthrough because it was one of the first times that development policies were discussed in a (somewhat) open forum.
How different then to return last week and find the whole country buzzing with excitement. It was like Egypt in the first half of 2011 — before everyone got depressed. Everywhere we went, strangers spoke of the return to democracy. Journalists told us that the press censorship has become more relaxed, academics spoke of plans to rebuild Rangoon University. Foreign donors are looking for health and education projects to fund, Buddhist monks — who have played a key role in the fight for freedom — told me that democracy is coming, and government officials said they will keep raising spending on health and education and asked for economic and policy advice. They even said they will move toward a managed float of the currency and to unifying the black market and official rates of the kyat. A Vietnamese diplomat who I have known for years said that Burma is much further along than Vietnam was in the beginning of its transition. “Myanmar is opening up to democracy first and then will reform its economy. We opened up our economy first,” he said.
The excitement was everywhere. On the same flight I took from Singapore was, coincidentally, Ronald Findlay, a Burmese economist who had left 43 years ago and was coming back for the first time. He was greeted at the airport by a group of smiling people and quickly ushered into the VIP lounge. We waited there together for the arrival of Hla Myint, a prominent development economist now in his nineties who was also returning for the first time in decades. Hla Myint was treated with great courtesy and later escorted in a wheelchair for an hourlong meeting with President Thein Sein (who took office in 2011 and is credited with the reforms). Our first night in Burma we were invited for a dinner at Yangon University, honoring Ron Findlay and Hla Myint. Their former students and colleagues turned out in full force, eating a vast assortment of deep-fried snacks in a little garden whose trees were draped with colored lights. The retired academics in their flip-flops and long sarongs were close to tears of happiness as they saw their old professors again. “You have no idea what this means,” a wrinkled old lady told me as she gazed at the scene. After dinner, a guitar was brought out, and the group sang Bob Dylan and Joan Baez songs and even a chorus of a song called “Pagoda Blues,” written by a Burmese economist.
Contrasting with the humble scene at the run-down university was the new construction and lavish spending of the elites who have gotten rich from their government connections. Coming in from Singapore I struck up a conversation with a young woman who had been educated in the U.S. but returned to work for the family trading business. As she got off the plane, she reached up to the overhead compartment and brought down a Dior shopping bag the size of a small refrigerator. “My mother just went shopping in Singapore, and she bought so much she couldn’t carry it all,” this young woman told me. She went on to explain that the choice of Dior handbags is better in New York and Paris than in Singapore and Hong Kong.
Burma is grappling with the kinds of questions that bedevil societies in transition: how to create jobs for a generation that missed out on education, how to deal with an entrenched class of cronies who have hidden their money in banks in Singapore and Dubai. There is not much hope that these elites will surrender their wealth and agree to pay taxes, but there is hope that they will at least fund some educational initiatives and perhaps a museum or two.
It is impossible to know how things will turn out — whether the transition will be real or whether the new freedom will be followed by more repression. “I am a grumpy old man, and I will believe it when I see it,” one friend told us. But he was the exception: The Burmese are embracing the new opening and pushing through as many changes as they can.