Notes from the Field

The Heart of the New Burma

November 7, 2012

Rangoon shimmers under a blue sky in mid-October, but the gentle breezes announcing the coming end of the year soften the edge of the heat and allow for the day to ease gracefully into the evening. The city is more spread out than one would expect, with tree-lined streets wrapping around lakes and gardens, watched over by the great Shwedagon pagoda with its gilded stupa. Many of the taxis have seen better days, ambling along with their windows down.

Shwedagon

Burma’s iconic Shwedagon pagoda reflects off of a lake in the capital, Rangoon. Photo/Flickr user Ko Aung

Coming from Vietnam, it took me a while to register a much lower level of traffic noise without the constant beeping of car horns and the whooshing sound of an impatient army of motorbikes trying to bypass everything in their way. Motorbikes are not allowed in Rangoon, the taxi driver said; they are too dangerous with many cars around.

But the somnolent air is deceptive. Signs of construction are visible with new buildings and shops dotting the streets of Rangoon, and hotels and restaurants are overflowing with tourists and businessmen. A sense of movement permeates the conversations we had with educators, legal experts, civic leaders, government officials, and domestic and international analysts about the wide-ranging set of reforms Burma (also known as Myanmar) is undertaking. These are heady days for the country, with the government and the Parliament engaging in an extraordinary lawmaking agenda. In the past year and a half, Burma has passed more than 30 laws in more than 10 substantive areas, ranging from election and political parties to banking and finance to environmental protection. Vestiges of the old regime are being dismantled; at the end of August the government announced the abolition of media censorship after being in effect for almost 50 years. A new media law is being discussed, under which the citizens of Burma may finally have the choice of private daily newspapers. The pace and depth of the changes being discussed are breathtaking.

Rangoon

Signs of recent growth and construction are evident on the streets of Rangoon. Photo/David Kim

Resources and capacity are still very real issues, however. The needs of the country’s intellectual and institutional structure are considerable and appear to be on everyone’s minds. Universities are in need of books and journals and facility improvements, but updated research and teaching methodologies will also be required for educators to properly train a new generation of young people confident of their places in society, in the region, as well as in the world. Government ministries are racing to prepare for a Burma without media censorship, the competitive rigor of a more open economy, and the regional and international demands as Burma assumes the chairmanship of ASEAN in 2014. Civil society organizations are finding ways to engage with Parliament, political parties, and government at both national and local levels in this new phase, going beyond service delivery to advocate for their work and for the people and communities they serve. In so many areas, basic capacity-building will have to be carried out at the same time as complex solutions are devised and implemented to address economic growth, political stability, and social cohesion within a democratic framework.

The reality is that Burma’s strong English language base has deteriorated over the decades from isolation and suspicion of the West, and so the opening process does not mean critical information can reach the public easily, but instead must be rendered through translation both in substance as well as language, given the country’s large number of ethnic groups. More importantly, the rapid pace of change carries risks of which many in Burma are well aware. Democratic transition takes time to be established and consolidated, while reforms of this magnitude require a high capacity for change management in government and bureaucracy. This challenging context for reforms also needs to take into account a Parliament with political parties new to the process of constructive debate and governing. Serious macro economic reforms and long-running, violent ethnic conflicts have to be tackled if Burma is to chart a new development narrative, and growth is needed to gain public support for the reform process as well as financing it.

For all of these challenges, it is the extraordinary frankness and passion of the discussions we have had with many in Burma, both inside and outside government, which underscores the one common desire:  to fundamentally address systemic problems that are so intertwined that past efforts to resolve them piecemeal have ended in failure. Time is a luxury because so much time has been lost, and the risks are worth taking because this is a particular time in the country’s history to seize the moment for a long-awaited transformation.

This week, President Thein Sein signed the Foreign Investment Law that emphasizes Burma’s commitment to an open economy and an investor-friendly business environment. This was achieved only after an intense period of debate, and there will be many more such debates to come as the country considers what should be at the heart of the new Burma. The abstract principles of democracy need to be translated into tangible benefits of reforms affecting people’s daily lives from health to education to infrastructure between now and the 2015 elections, and hopefully the new Foreign Investment Law will play an important part in that process. “Positive frustration” is how one Burmese intellectual characterized the current situation and the work at hand, which nicely captures both the remarkable sense of hope as well as the palpable sense of urgency.

The author has made several visits to Burma and was part of an Asia Foundation delegation to Burma in October led by President David D. Arnold. Read more about the visit; see slideshow of meetings at the presidential palace with President of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar U Thein Sein in Nay Pyi Taw.

Kim N. B. Ninh is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Vietnam. She can be reached at kninh@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

One comment on this post:

  1. Arkar:

    thak you for using “also known as Myanmar”

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