In support of its rapid (and dare I say remarkable) transformation that started late last year, we decided early on that Myanmar was to be a top destination for us on this trip. We'd also heard that so much of traditional culture has been maintained over the years due to its isolation from the rest of the world, a positive byproduct of what was otherwise a brutally repressive, multi-decade military regime-controlled nightmare. As the country finally leaps into the 21st century, some elements of that raw, ancient culture will inevitably lose out to the long-awaited comforts and conveniences of modernization.
Our goal was to experience it before that happened.
After a remarkably easy visa process in Bangkok accompanied by a mad search for US$100 bills (much like South Sudan, Benjamins get the best exchange rate and, due to sanctions, credit card usability is rare/costly and ATMs are non-existent), we landed in what is surprisingly not the capital city. Yangon (known previously as Rangoon) is the economic hub and previous capital; however, at some point in its recent period of paranoid paternalistic politics (I'm in an alliterative mood), the capital was moved to a remote site in the middle of the jungle (sound familiar South Sudan?). I heard the move was because it would be harder for the US and its western military counterparts (or was it China?) to bomb government compounds surrounded by trees. Yeah... I'm sure that's a very real threat.
Like Yangon, the country's name changed from Burma to Myanmar in the early '90s, probably around the same time they switched the side of the road on which cars are to drive (left to right). I'm sure there is some official reason as to why this happened. More realistically it was probably a metaphorical middle finger aimed squarely at England - and the Indian rulers-by-proxy who benefited greatly from colonialism in Myanmar - and its historically extractive and divisive colonial shenanigans.
It was pretty obvious to us that life is changing at breakneck speeds. Friends tell us that new cars were almost completely absent from the road this time last year. Driving through Yangon in the still ubiquitous Flintstone-esque (we watched the road go by under our feet more than once) clunkers, now one sees new car dealerships and, every so often, advertisements for western goods. Hillary Clinton's visit last month was monumental for Myanmarians (Burmese just sounds wrong given the name change so I decided to make up my own noun) and signaled the suspension of sanctions that could be removed entirely pending continued political change. Once the reforms are irreversible (some with whom we spoke feel they are already), foreign companies will flock. The oil companies (unsurprisingly) are already here, undoubtedly to be followed shortly by big banks and Starbucks. Myanmar will host the Asean Games (SE Asia's Olympics) next year; they probably hope to have ATMs and credit card machines in place so that not all of the expected 500,000 visitors will have to bring wads of cash. Good idea.
What I saw in Myanmar, from a development perspective, was encouraging. Sure, there was poverty. But what I experienced, especially in the rural areas to the north of Yangon, was more akin to what I saw in Paraguay some seven years ago (how has it been that long?): an entire country with the skills and capacity to develop as quickly as their neighbors (Argentina / Thailand) stifled by a repressive and/or corrupt government (Colorado Party in Paraguay / the generals in Myanmar) hell bent on keeping power even at the cost of progress. I saw poverty with unlimited potential for growth. But what I didn't see was destitution. What I didn't see was hopelessness. What I didn't see was problems without solutions. Coming from post-drought Ethiopia and perpetually-on-the-verge-of-war-with-the-north South Sudan, this was refreshing. This is a place where true development (not just 'hey, let's try our best to keep people alive') can, and will, happen.
But back to politics. By most (local and international) accounts, President U Thein Sein deserves much of the credit for the reforms. With a clean and humble past free of the atrocities that plague the reputations of the country's former military rulers, Mr. Thein Sein has pragmatically and technocratically pushed past all expectations and proved most doubters (including yours truly) wrong. A friend in Yangon thinks he should be considered for the Nobel Peace Prize... and I don't necessarily disagree. Admittedly there is still a ways to go and many issues of reconciliation (ever the buzz word) are yet to be ironed out. The opposition party, led by Nobel Laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, only holds a small percentage of seats in parliament although she herself recently won an historic seat in parliament after decades of house arrest and is currently traveling outside of Myanmar for the first time in decades. Progress is progress though, and the change I've seen is real.
And real change, my friends, is something that gets my support. And my $100 bills.