(Editorial) - Stroll the streets of Yangon, talk to the people, check out the former exiles who have returned home, and you get a real sense that Myanmar is changing for the better. For foreign investors eager to get in on the action, hope is in the air.
At the same time it is hard to ignore the troubling headlines and controversies that demonstrate Myanmar has a long way to go with its reform process. Danger lurks in not getting to grips effectively with what is happening with communal violence, pitting hard-line Buddhists against the Muslim minority, the tensions in Kachin State, industrial unrest at copper and gold mines, land seizures and protests, and the endemic poverty that drives internal and external migrants to look for a better life. All this speaks of a Myanmar those in power would prefer to just go away.
This is a world that the potential foreign investors who crowd the five-star hotels don’t see directly, yet see it in the newspaper headlines. Myanmar has been dubbed “Asia’s new frontier” by many economic analysts. Right now, though, some parts would appear from the media stories to be more in line with the frontier “Wild West” of America’s 1800s than the “land of opportunity” that Naypyitaw would like to present.
Myanmar used to be all about bad news, certainly as far as the Western media was concerned over the last few decades. In many ways, what we have seen over the last three years, since the present government came to power in a carefully orchestrated election in November 2010, has been good news and a sense of hope. Whatever one’s view of President Thein Sein’s government and its motives in taking the democratic road and opening up the country, it is hard to deny there has been positive progress.
Yet Myanmar’s government needs to offer more than sound bites and the setting up of commissions to deal with the troubles upcountry and on a communal level. Short and longer term, these troublesome issues will cause serious problems for President Thein Sein’s purported dream of a transition from military rule to a modern democracy where all of Myanmar’s people feel they are part of a united Myanmar, both geographically and socially.
The problems are also muddying the dream of the country’s democracy icon, Aung San Suu Kyi, who is facing insistent calls to deal with everything from ethnic troubles to industrial protest, and to reign in the behaviour of local authorities. This is not what she had in mind when she first picked up on her father’s dream by chance back in 1988. Suu Kyi has proved a disappointment to many inside and outside Myanmar. The Nobel Laureate still commands great respect internationally, but is viewed locally as somebody who is not playing the part of opposition leader as it is typically understood.
Myanmar’s people have endured decades of misrule and they deserve better. Nobody would say such engagement is easy. Far from it. Much of the time, dealing with such issues is a nightmare, a struggle to balance conflicting interests.
For foreigners amidst the hustle and bustle of Yangon, the commercial capital, the problems may not seem immediately apparent. Yet real Myanmar is not to be found in the hotels and offices. It is to be found out in the hinterlands and in the unseen, what those from abroad seldom fathom. These troubles need to be seriously dealt with by the government and society as a whole.
This editorial first appeared in the August 22 edition of M-ZINE+.