Myanmar opens to the world - but seals off minorities
by Francesco Guarascio
Myanmar is opening up to the rest of the world after 50 years of isolation, but nearly half the country is closed to new developments as ethnic minorities struggle to come to terms with the central government, PublicServiceEurope.com reports from Yangon and the Shan States
When asked about what has changed in recent months, a Yangon taxi driver replies quickly: "I can finally buy a coke for a decent price." Coca-Cola is one of the many foreign multinationals that have returned, or plan to return, to Myanmar this year after the United States and the European Union lifted their sanctions against the regime. Before, Coca-Cola and many other products were smuggled through the porous borders with China, Laos and Thailand but cost 1,000 kyat – nearly €1 – the equivalent of the daily incomes of a third of Myanmar's 60 million-strong population.
This is one of the results of the quasi-civilian government established by General Thein Sein at the beginning of 2011. The new executive has since reversed the half-a-century policy of self-imposed segregation, which had turned a rich country into one of the poorest in the world. This economic opening was coupled last April with a political breakthrough when the Nobel Prize winner and opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was allowed to contest parliamentary by-elections and won a seat, after having been held under house arrest for around 15 years between 1989 and 2010.
Since then, European and American companies are rushing to establish a foothold in what is Asia's last business frontier. Energy groups, such as BP, Total and Statoil, are frontrunners in this race as they try to negotiate contracts for Myanmar's newly discovered gas fields. The country is also rich in precious stones, timber, tin and agriculture products. Another booming industry is tourism. Myanmar has been open to foreign travellers for more than a decade, but few ventured into a country with such a poor human rights record that is boycotted by dozens of non-governmental organisations. San Suu Kyi has been a staunch advocate of the boycott, arguing that tourists brought money to the army. The travel guides group Lonely Planet was blacklisted by many NGOs for producing guidebooks on Myanmar.
Since April, the situation has changed completely. In September, San Suu Kyi backed a new law favouring foreign investment, reportedly softening the original text in order to make it easier for foreign businesses to enter the country. The results are evident. Internal flights are often fully booked, mostly by tourists, while the number of local airlines is multiplying. "There were seven hotels in town in 1996. Now there are 58," says the manager of the Remember Inn, a guesthouse by the suggestive Inle Lake in the east of the country. "This year our 28 rooms have often been fully booked," he explains, adding that "once we have even asked the help of the local monastery to accommodate a wave of tourists who otherwise would have been forced to sleep in the street".
Although misery and disease remain widespread, average people now seem to be overlooking some of their hardships to savour the current winds of change. In a country that has been notorious for silencing dissent with violence and torture, it is now common to listen to critical statements by ordinary people. San Suu Kyi enjoys an overwhelming and obvious support. It is easy to buy T-shirts with her picture, and taxi drivers give discounts for those asking to be brought to the heavily fenced residence in Yangon of the 'mother of the nation'. Foreign arts and culture, previously banned to protect national traditions, are returning. Concerts and nightclubs, prohibited during the 25 years of dictatorship under General Ne Win, are now springing up across the country. In a recent concert near the Inle Lake, a cheering crowd greeted one of the most popular music bands in the country, the Iron Cross, who play a mix of hard metal and rock resembling Western bands of the 80s.
But not everybody is enjoying the long-awaited wave of modernisation. Tourists are unlikely to notice it, but Myanmar is still embroiled "in the longest-running armed conflict in the world", according to the Burmese historian and diplomat Thant Myint-U. Many of the country's over one hundred ethnic minorities remain at war with the army for a final settlement of their rights. In many cases, these conflicts started at the end of the Second World War. The government has negotiated ceasefires with all the armed groups but many of these deals are fragile. Almost half of the country is still hostage of these conflicts.
Recent violence in the western region of Arakan has involved the Rohingyas, a Muslim minority. In an overwhelmingly Buddhist country, the Rohingyas are considered to be illegal immigrants from nearby Bangladesh rather than a minority group. It is one of the few issues where Burmese and other minorities seem to agree. In the cultural museum of Taunggy, the capital of the Shan States – the biggest minority group in Myanmar – a whole room is dedicated to the traditional dresses of Burmese ethnic groups with dozens of showcases on different minorities, but no mention is made of the Rohingyas. This is the most urgent conflict, but others are simmering in the border regions. The Kachin minority is at war in the North of the country. The Shans, in the east, have their own guerrillas and dozens of unruly armed groups. "Communities remain in daily fear of the expanding Burma Army, which now numbers over 180 battalions in Shan State, a quarter of their total troop force," reads a recent joint statement of various Shan organisations. Opium makes matters worse, as the Shan and Kachin regions are among the top producers in the world of the plant, being part of the so-called Golden Triangle. It is an understandably lucrative business that they are unwilling to replace with ordinary crops.
Optimist commentators hope that economic and political reform will ease the ethnic conflicts, but even San Suu Kyi has limited cards to play in the border regions, since she is seen as too close to Burmese interests. No T-shirts with her face were visible in the sprawling Taunggyi market. It is clear that the path towards the normalisation of Myanmar passes through the rugged mountains where many of the ethnic minorities live, but it will not be an easy journey.
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Thant Myint-U is correct that Myanmar's is the longest running armed conflict in the world, that there are ceasefires now, but that they are fragile. It's important though to remember that though these armed groups are led by 'ethnic minority' leaders, many are militia for druglords and other businessmen.
They are confined mainly to the mountain regions near China and Thailand, about 10 per cent of the country and perhaps 5 per cent of the people. It's important to end this and bring peace, but we have to keep the problem in perspective. Many minorities live peacefully in Burma and have the same problems as everyone else.
The main violence now is up in the mountains of the far north, between the army and the Kachin Independence Organisation, and the sectarian violence between Arakanese Buddhists (a minority) and local Bengali and Urdu-speaking Muslims (another minority).
Maung Hla - Yangon