Last March, I came to Myanmar. It was my first time to set foot in this so-called land of gold. I wondered if I could find and buy a pot of gold here but I didn’t. Instead, I found people with golden hearts, a city with a lot of golden opportunities and golden treasures. I have to nod in agreement when I came across Rudyard Kipling’s famous quote in Letters from the East where he described Burma as “unlike any land you know about.” To describe Myanmar, known to many by its British colonial name Burma, as a unique country is an understatement. In simple terms, one can say this is a glorious and fascinating multi-ethnic nation that’s waiting to be tapped to its full potential.
Stories about Myanmar abound and most of the time, these are tragic accounts. The most contentious issues until today are stories of ethnic clashes happening in far-flung regions, government forces clashing with resistance groups and the continued intimidation and censorship of local and foreign journalists reporting here.
I came to Myanmar as part of the 2014 Jefferson Fellowship Program and also to attend this year’s International Media Conference both sponsored by the East-West Center. The third leg of our study travel was one week in Yangon and a day tour of Naypyidaw—the administrative capital—squeezed in our itinerary. Months before the trip, I was told not to keep my expectations up and warned that credit cards, ATMs and mobile phones may not even work here. We were also told to carry bug spray or any mosquito repellant as a precaution against dengue.
Even though there is a current visa-free agreement between the Philippines and Myanmar that took effect in January this year, I opted to get a visa upon arrival at the Mingaladon Airport when we arrived on a Sunday. We rushed to Sayar San Plaza at the New University Avenue in the Bahan Township in time for the launching ceremony of the Suu Foundation and the opening of the IMC. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi herself introduced the opening of her foundation, which basically aims to improve healthcare and education standards in Myanmar. The building was jam-packed with members of local and foreign media from all over the world. A strong and positive sign then that Myanmar is now indeed opening up to the world after years of being in isolation.
For most of the time, Myanmar hogged global headlines because of Suu Kyi—Burma’s famous opposition leader who is now a member of the Myanmar Parliament. Prior to coming here, I watched the film “The Lady” where renowned Hollywood actress Michelle Yeoh played the strong-willed daughter of Aung San, Burma’s independence leader and considered as the “George Washington” of Myanmar. It’s surprising to see Yeoh also in the same event despite having reportedly been deported by the military-backed government presumably after she worked on the Luc Besson biopic on Suu Kyi’s life.
Just a background. Since the military junta was dissolved in 2011, Burma made baby steps towards democratic transition. Dr. MieMie Winn Byrd, an expert in US-Myanmar relations at the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies who we got to talk to while in Hawaii, likened Burma to a child that suffered stunted growth. After all, it wasn’t as if Myanmar was so poor when in fact during post World War 2, it was already poised to become an economic tiger. Burma, according to Byrd, was actually the first country in Southeast Asia to operate a tram back then. She said “Singapore, was made in the image of Yangon, but you can barely see that today.”
But now, Myanmar has turned away from decades of authoritarian rule and has embarked on a bold process of democratic transition. Local government officials and businessmen are cautiously optimistic as they move to confront tough challenges including formulating and administering new policies, rebuilding a moribund economy and consolidating peace in ethnic areas.
Locals here agree that what signaled the country’s democratic transition was Obama’s historic visit to Yangon last November 2012. This, and also Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest and her election to the Pyithu Hluttaw, the House of Representatives of the Burmese parliament.
One of the obvious signs of this awakening is the number of news stands you’ll see in the streets of Yangon. The Burmese seemed to have developed a voracious appetite for information when the government started to ease up on the media. Hein Minn Latt, a fellow and senior editor of the Yangon-based Eleven Media Group, said private daily newspapers have been banned since 1964. Under the new government of President Thein Sein, Myanmar now showed promising signs of reform when he relaxed media censorship and allowed private dailies to operate again. Some few years back, publishers are required to submit copies of their articles to the media censorship office months before they can be published. That’s a thing of the past now and even Internet and social media restrictions have been removed.
By Hein’s observation, however, media freedom, “is still a distant bell” for Burmese journalists. The government has recently threatened local journalists by suing them for defamation and disturbing the Union’s stability.” Only recently, several private newspapers in Yangon printed black front pages to protest the arrest and sentencing of journalists for trespassing and divulging state secrets.
But when I asked if he is optimistic about the changes happening in his country, Hein told me Myanmar is faced with monumental challenges and is still in a fragile situation given that years of military rule has made the military the strongest institution in the country and is constitutionally given much control over politics. He points out that “unless the challenges are overcome, my country has the chance of falling back in the hands of dictatorship.”
But it’s hard to be pessimistic when one sees the malls, restaurants, supermarkets, golf courses and other high-end establishments that have mushroomed in and around Yangon. Some establishments are now also accepting credit cards when before travelers’ checks may be the only option if you run out of crisp US dollar bills. A number of tourist attractions and high-end hotels and resorts have sprouted too and foreign tourists arrivals have increased.
Despite the monumental challenges it is facing, Burma is trying to move rapidly forward. Yangon’s clean and idyllic landscape would simply lure tourists to explore more of it and beyond. The laidback and exotic atmosphere added to the charm and magical vibes of the Buddhist and Hindu temples around the capital. Parks I visited like the Inya Lake and the Kandawgyi Nature Park where the magnificent Karaweik Palace stands grand, were not crowded. In Naypyidaw, where the Parliament and government office are and which has its share of interesting parks and museums and hotels, hardly has any people strolling its grounds.
When we concluded our trip, I was optimistic that, five to ten years from now, Myanmar will eventually surprise the world with a new face. More bolder, liberated and knowledgeable. It’s clear, there’s no turning back now. The stakes are high. Change, is after all, the only thing constant in this world.