Burma emerges from a shadowy past, but real progress lies ahead

There is more freedom and more reasons to smile in Burma than in the past – but will this girl and others in her generation share the spoils of the nation’s resources boom? Dietmar Temps, CC BY-NC-SA

Our Tropical Future: A new report on the State of the Tropics has revealed rapid changes in human and environmental health in the Earth’s tropical regions. This is the final in a four-part series about the new report, based on the work of 12 universities and research institutions worldwide, which shows the challenges facing diverse nations such as Burma/Myanmar to manage those changes.


As a visitor to Burma 20 years ago, being followed by military intelligence officers, having your phone tapped and your room searched were all considered normal.

Today, the obvious military shadows have lifted: so much so that a friend of mine from a Burmese democratic party has commented that, after so many years, it felt strange not being followed from home by military intel.

Walking the bustling, traffic-filled streets of Burma’s biggest city Rangoon (also known as Yangon), you could mistake it for somewhere else, like Jakarta or Bangkok.

Burma’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi launching the State of the Tropics Report. Mark Ziembicki/markzphoto.com, CC BY-NC-SA

The most visible sign of progress is opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi: no longer shut away, with people afraid to even go near her street or look at her house. Now she is free to travel the country and the world again, and sits as a member of parliament, including chairing the rule of law committee.

On the weekend, Suu Kyi launched the State of the Tropics Report, which showed that in Burma – like many other fast-growing tropical nations – life is getting better in many respects.

But could Suu Kyi be president after the 2015 general elections, as the people desire? Not yet, say the military.

As Suu Kyi warned over the weekend, there is little more than a “veneer” of democracy in the country, and foreign visitors should not see her nation “through rose-tinted glasses”. So how much has changed in this culturally and resource-rich nation?

Old Bagan, looking towards the Ayeyarwady River. Dietmar Temps/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Hit and miss progress

Burma is now coming out of a cocoon after more than half a century of government-imposed isolation, and there has been some progress – but it is hit and miss. The political progress that is necessary for good governance is slow off the mark.

Rangoon street life. Trond Viken/NHD/Flickr, CC BY

Burma’s military government has attracted worldwide condemnation for its human rights violations of political actors as well as ethnic nationalities, who comprise more than 30% of the people.

For too long, the people of Burma have been condemned to living with extreme poverty, shockingly high infant and maternal mortality and poor health, endemic corruption, an education system in name only, a state without a proper legal system, and a bankrupt economy.

Since World War Two, there have been constant civil wars raging, while what was once Asia’s rice bowl became a dust bowl.

A resources boom, but who benefits?

Burma is also a nation blessed with abundant natural resources. And those resources are attracting many foreign investors, as shown on ABC TV’s Foreign Correspondent this week.

But with greater openness to the rest of the world comes a new set of political, social and environmental challenges, including managing that foreign investment and sharing the spoils of increased development, which up until now have been tightly controlled by the military, some government members and cronies.

As the State of the Tropics Report warns, current rates of deforestation in Burma’s Ayeyarwady Delta mangrove forests could see them lost entirely within decades.

And that would have devastating human and environmental impacts: the mangroves currently provide fertile farmland and fisheries for an estimated 7.7 million people; are home to 30 species of endangered animals, including the Ayeyarwady dolphin; and provide crucial coastal protection against erosion and extreme weather events.

After the 2004 Asian tsunami, researchers concluded ]that dense mangrove and coastal forests greatly reduced wave damage in many areas and gave people a better chance of surviving, by trapping deadly debris and providing cushioned landing areas for those caught in surging water.

Life along the Ayeyarwady River. Franc Pallarès López, CC BY-NC-SA

Some glimmers of hope

In the late 1990s, I was once the only guest in The Strand Hotel, as famous as Singapore’s Raffles in its heyday.

The Kipling Bar at the Strand Hotel in Rangoon, 2013. Jeremy Weate/Flickr, CC BY

My newspaper would arrive promptly each morning – but any articles that offended Burma’s draconian censors were clipped out before it was delivered. Even articles about the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) were chopped out, despite Burma becoming a member in 1997.

Such overt censorship, along with the deliberately intimidation of military spies following pro-democracy supporters, is now a thing of the past, even if less overt censorship survives that still sees people self-censor to avoid trouble.

Similarly, in the past taxi drivers were simply too afraid to take passengers near Aung San Suu Kyi’s house.

Once, in a fleeting period when Suu Kyi was supposedly free from house arrest and I sought to visit my friend of more than 15 years, a major guarding her home’s entrance demanded my name, asked for my passport and more. When I remarked “How strange, Major”, he replied, “Madam, I live in a strange country”.

For so long, Burma’s generals decided what happened in all sectors across government, meaning that those who knew least were dictating what had to happen to those who knew best. It was a command and control approach to government, policy, and law making. Good ideas were swallowed by bad government.

Fast forward to today, and there has been some changes for the better. There is a government, though a quasi-military one; there is a constitution, though decreed by the military and not designed by the people despite a referendum; and there is a parliamentary system, though 25% of seats at all levels are occupied by hand-picked serving military (Tatmadaw) officers.

The power of ideas

International support can help. Some of the projects I’ve been involved with, such as the Myanmar Constitutional Reform Project and the International Party Development Committee, give me some hope, because I’ve seen firsthand the hunger for real change. Many Burmese parliamentarians are keen for faster reform and some have visited Australia.

Universities were closed in Burma for many years. Students were considered dangerous, simply because they had ideas. My first visit to Rangoon University in the late 1990s was to an institution abandoned, with the gates chained.

Last year, that same university proudly hosted US president Barack Obama. One professor joked that they wished Obama could visit every month, so that the Rolls-Royce level of maintenance at the university would continue.

Traffic is becoming a headache for Rangoon’s five million residents, like so many other cities. Leigh Griffiths/Flickr, CC BY-ND

Given how much has changed in one generation, I am cautiously hopeful for Burma’s future. But we must also heed the warnings of Suu Kyi and others, in demanding that the rush to capitalise on the country’s wealth leads to real change for its people.

Launching the State of the Tropics Report on the weekend, Suu Kyi said:

There is so much that we can learn from this report, to make us better carers. To care for our environment, to care for one another, to care for those who are different from us.

The political, social and environmental challenges facing Suu Kyi’s nation and the rest of the Tropics will not be quick or easy to resolve. But as she rightly declared:

If we all decided not to proceed because of difficulty, the world would stop.


Further reading:
How the world is turning tropical before our eyes
Earth’s generation next will be wealthier, but not always healthier
Wild creatures of the tropics are being lost before they’re found

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