An Opening in Burma? On Thant Myint-U
In the 1950s and early ’60s, newly independent Burma briefly seemed like a potential success story. It had abundant natural resources and an educated middle class. Even today, despite years of grinding poverty, it remains a society of bibliophiles: the bookstalls in central Rangoon, selling tattered copies of old Penguin classics, attract far more interest than similar stalls in wealthier neighbors like Thailand. In the 1950s the World Bank considered Burma one of the countries in East Asia most likely to thrive. But after the military takeover in 1962, paranoid dictator Ne Win imposed what he called the Burmese Way to Socialism. Almost all industry was nationalized. Many foreigners were thrown out, and visitors were permitted entry only on short-term transit visas. “Rangoon in those days—in the late 1970s and early 1980s—seemed entirely cut off from the late twentieth century,” Thant Myint-U recalls. “There were few telephones or cars on the streets, almost no television…o supermarkets or modern shops of any kind…. Rangoon was like a big empty movie set.” Ne Win’s rule had destroyed the economy. Inflation soared, and millions of Burmese fled the country, with many taking jobs as house cleaners or unregistered factory laborers in Thailand. Fearing that schools were becoming gathering places for protest movements, the Burmese regime closed most of the universities for years.
In 1988 a deteriorating economy and rising inflation sparked massive popular protests. Ne Win officially stepped down, and after the brief jubilation of the 1990 victory, Burmese politics turned dark again. Suu Kyi was back under house arrest, then released briefly in the mid-1990s and early 2000s, and then jailed again. The NLD stagnated under enormous repression, with many of its frontline members jailed or exiled, and its leaders aging. News of Suu Kyi and her party disappeared from the state press. When I visited the organization’s dilapidated headquarters in Rangoon several years ago, I found only elderly men in faded but carefully creased longyis sitting around a few battered tables. On University Avenue, where Suu Kyi’s lakeside house is located, stony-faced army officers immediately turned me away.
Also in the early 2000s, international aid organizations trying to work in Burma often found their efforts stymied, with the government either skimming much of their assistance or refusing to give Western aid workers access to populations in need. Mobile phones were essentially banned; the regime made them so expensive that only a few rich people and government insiders could buy them. The Internet was available only in a few large cities, and even then was heavily filtered and monitored.
But in the past five years, the isolation has begun to crack. In the sections of Where China Meets India devoted to Burma, Thant Myint-U captures well a country warily but determinedly opening up to the world. In Ruili, along the Burma–China border, he finds a prosperous, modern town. In the 1990s and early 2000s, when I visited it, Ruili had become infamous in both Burma and China as a destitute, wild place full of underground casinos, prostitution, heroin and AIDS. Emaciated addicts lay sprawled in alleyways, and shops sold little other than basic necessities and illicit jade. Today Thant Myint-U finds Ruili, on both sides of the border, almost sedate: well-to-do Burmese traders stroll streets lined with palms and upscale storefronts displaying DVD players and golf clubs. Chinese tourists pose for photographs in Ruili’s central square, or hunt for karaoke bars rather than a heroin fix.
This growth and cautious change is apparent in Burma’s largest cities as well. Mandalay, the second city and the last seat of Burma’s monarchy, was until recently a forlorn town. The generals had built an ugly concrete replica of the old walled royal palace, but it attracted few visitors, and the decrepit shops along many streets stocked goods coated in the dust of the long hot season. But today, central Mandalay looks more like Beijing. Massive indoor shopping malls dominate the central skyline, surrounded by new hotels and coffee shops catering to Chinese businessmen and upscale young Burmese. Late-model sedans and new pickups jostle for space on increasingly crowded roads.
Though the regime had begun to abandon the Burmese Way to Socialism in the 1990s, in recent years it has stepped up the pace of liberalization. Last year it privatized many creaking industries. Some of these state assets were delivered into the hands of a small group of regime cronies and family members; one former American diplomat with long experience in Burma said that rather than a military regime, the country is becoming a kind of “mafia state” with tycoons similar to the oligarchs of post-Soviet Russia. In a country with a per capita income of less than $3,000 at purchasing power parity, these nouveau riche cruise around Mandalay and Rangoon in tricked-up SUVs with tinted windows. Burma’s richest man, a tycoon named Tay Za who has close links to the regime, controls a fortune worth at least $1 billion and treats visitors to displays of his many luxury cars.
Still, the economic changes have also slowly opened up space for ordinary Burmese entrepreneurs, some of whom have been able to piggyback on the Chinese and Indian capital entering the country. According to several estimates, as many as 1 million Chinese migrants have moved to the area around Mandalay in the past ten years, and the number appears to be growing by the day. With Burma’s banks completely unreliable, Burmese businesspeople, as well as Chinese migrants, have turned to informal Chinese lenders for cash. Chinese and Indian businesspeople can provide skills and training unavailable in Burma; new Chinese-run supermarkets and electronics stores are bringing to the country a range of products unavailable just five years ago. Chinese tourists are flocking not only to Ruili but also to the cities of central Burma, and in the future the country’s long, pristine coastlines could become beach resorts. Though Burma’s official economic statistics are notoriously exaggerated, they do reflect a general trend of solid, sustained growth. Burma’s currency, the kyat, was once so worthless that shopkeepers preferred to trade for food, soap or other goods. It is now gaining in value against the US dollar. This past year, Burma received some $20 billion in foreign investment, according to reports in the Diplomat, a leading Asia publication.
This economic opening appears to have carried over into politics. Perhaps recognizing that they need to allow some degree of political openness in order to create the stability that even Chinese and Thai investors desire, Burma’s generals have retreated over the past year. In November 2010 the government held a national election for a new Parliament, the first since the annulled 1990 election. Though the election was hardly free and fair—army-backed parties enjoyed enormous advantages, and Suu Kyi’s repressed NLD chose not to contest the election—it was not a complete disaster. A small group of democratic-minded politicians, who had broken away from the NLD, won seats in Parliament and have offered genuine parliamentary criticism of the government for the first time in decades. The generals officially stepped into the background, and a civilian government, led by a potentially reformist former general named Thein Sein, took over governing. Thein Sein enlisted the aid of a close ally of Suu Kyi, and he called on all Burmese exiles—many of whom had fled because of political repression—to return to the country for a new, more open era. Thein Sein even admitted that Burma had fallen badly behind its Asian neighbors, a tacit signal of his belief that years of military rule had been disastrous.
In recent months the pace of reform in Burma has sped up rapidly, shocking even longtime observers, and making some wonder whether the country has finally reached its moment of real democratization, and whether Thein Sein is a Southeast Asian F.W. de Klerk. Released from house arrest in the days after the election, Suu Kyi met with Thein Sein and has since launched a dialogue with the government. Even many ardent human rights activists say that this appears to be the most optimistic time in Burma since at least 1990. Suu Kyi began traveling around the country. The opposition leader gave an interview to the Burmese press for the first time in decades; the publication, a news journal, quickly sold out. She has since been appearing regularly in the local press, and vendors on the streets of Rangoon and other cities sell photographs and other memorabilia showing Suu Kyi’s face, which just a few years ago would have landed them in jail. Publications not focusing on politics have increasingly been able to go to press without running their articles by censors. The government has invited officials from the International Monetary Fund and other big Western donors to come to Burma and offer suggestions for reforms. It has established a national human rights body. This past autumn, the Burmese censorship chief proposed that all censorship be lifted. Burmese officials invited Suu Kyi to attend the annual national ceremony of Martyrs’ Day on July 19, commemorating the assassination of leaders of Burma’s independence movement. Most notably, in October the government announced an amnesty for more than 6,000 prisoners, including approximately 200 accused of political crimes. It was the most substantial amnesty in years; the government also said that it was ready to work with Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy. Suu Kyi has declared herself satisfied with her talks with the government, and seems extremely optimistic about Burma’s future. She has publicly stated that she believes Thein Sein is sincere about his desire for reform. Freed again to enter politics, Suu Kyi says she plans to run in the next parliamentary by-elections, which she will surely win; a victory would put her in Parliament for the first time, the equivalent of Nelson Mandela going straight from Robben Island to a seat in the center of power.
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