(Editorial) - President Thein Sein’s gesture of focusing on rural development programs during his last 30 months in office should be applauded but with caution. Speaking to Myanmar citizens on the radio on September 1, the president pledged that people in rural areas will soon experience tangible results from development programs.
The president is wise to focus on rural communities. Well over 60 percent of Myanmar’s citizens live in rural areas, most making a living from agriculture and related activities. First-time foreign visitors to the countryside would be forgiven for thinking they have slipped into a time warp, a picturesque scene of bullocks pulling carts, wooden houses on stilts, and ancient temples over 1,000 years old. This may be a draw for foreign tourists but provides a hard life for those who are unable to enjoy the infrastructure that is the norm in the modern world. No piped water, no toilets, no electricity, no paved roads, this is a reality for many.
President Thein Sein says he aims to tackle that. He claims he will prioritize water for drinking and irrigation, electricity, communication facilities, job opportunities and better agricultural programs. And expect to see this development take place before he leaves office, he says.
This is an important message for what amounts to the majority of Myanmar people. While such efforts should be lauded and encouraged, the challenge is monumental, a pledge to bring basic infrastructure and jobs to a vast swathe of the country and tens of millions of people. Although the UN, World Bank and Asian Development Bank are funding programs to help, there is only so much they can do short term, and it is hard to see what the president and his government will be able to accomplish within such a short timeframe.
The world has been wooed by the president’s efforts to reform and develop Myanmar after decades of misrule by military dictators. But we should also not forget that former general Thein Sein was part of the previous regime and by rights bears a responsibility to make amends for the lack of infrastructure that places his country close to the bottom of the scale of ASEAN countries when it comes to development. What goes unsaid is that the countryside and its inhabitants were sadly neglected during military rule, even abused, as in the case of forced labor or the fighting and oppression in several ethnic states.
Of course the cynical observer might catch on to the fact that an election is coming up in 2015 and the current president might have his eyes on the prize of reelection, or at least wish to heighten the chances of his party, Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), winning. There is little doubt the party will have some tricks up its sleeve as it attempts to win out and prevent the election of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy. The USDP claims there is no turning back with the reforms. Yet, at the same time, they are seeking to win over the public and avoid a landslide loss in the polls.
The president’s reaching out for the rural vote will be helped by providing concrete infrastructure and real jobs. But it remains to be seen just how much will be accomplished in less than three years.
This Editorial first appeared in the September 12 edition of M-ZINE+.