OBSERVATIONS OF BURMA; ECONOMIC AND OTHERWISE

Don R. Conlan
President (Retired) and former Chief Economist
The Capital Group Companies, Inc.

Vineyard of Myanmar. The mise en scéne is best set by a few quotes from an excellent book The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma by Thant Myint-U, the grandson of U Thant, the beloved former Secretary General of the U. N.:

(Morning: 19 July, 1947): “Aung San’s Executive Council - the interim government - was made up of many, if not all, of the country’s most promising new leaders. The Council...decided to meet at the Secretariat...The Secretariat is today surrounded by a high wall as well as an outer fence...but in 1947 there was no real protective barrier...the car that sped in...carrying men in army fatigues...was unchallenged by the sentries on duty. Three of them, armed with Sten guns, then raced up one of the stairways...opening fire immediately. Aung San...was shot first with a volley in the chest...Only three of those in the room survived. Aung San was dead.”

“Independent Burma would very soon enter this world with several of its key leaders, including its nationalist hero, dead, its principal minority (the Karen group) demanding its own independent state, and another nationalist leader getting ready to lead a Communist rebellion. It was not to be an auspicious start.”

(Aung San is the mostly undisputed hero of Burmese independence. This helps to understand why his daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, is held in such high esteem and why she creates so much angst for the current regime).

Ox cart by the bank. “The Burmese...asked that the formal handover occur at four twenty in the morning on 4 January, 1948...Speeches were given, the Union Jack was lowered for the last time, and the new flag of the Union of Burma was hauled up, the faces of the young Burmese politicians beaming with happiness...A few hours later...the last company of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry trooped onto the waiting British cruiser...A band played “Auld Lang Syne”, and Sir Hubert, with his wife and aides-de-camp, just like (Burmese King) Thibaw sixty-two years before, walked across a narrow plank and sailed away never to come back. Burma was independent. The country was also already at civil war. (emphasis mine)...The Burmese civil war is the longest-running armed conflict in the world and has continued in one form or another, from independence to the present day.” (This was said in 2006-7 but remains true today, albeit under the surface.)

In an Afterword to the 2008 version, Thant Mying-U writes:

“ I say all this...to underline that Burma is a complex place, and until there is an appreciation of that complexity, international policies will continue to come up unhappily against Burmese realities...If change comes it will not be through the front door but through the back, as part of a changing economy and changing society...Burma has had a lot of bad luck for a very long time, ever since (King) Thibaw’s government refused the terms of Lord Randolph Churchill’s ultimatum (in 1885) and the country collapsed into years of upheaval and conflict.”

A local school house. Thant Myint-U’s words: “Burma is a complex place”, stuck in my mind as I attempted to organize and summarize my thoughts on what I saw and experienced in a three week trip to Burma/Myanmar. Three weeks? Isn’t it the height of hubris to attempt to render opinions, let alone conclusions, based on such brief exposure? I proceed.

First, those minorities who are not Bamar/Burman; i.e., those who’ve gotten the short end of the Myanmar stick, as it were, prefer to use the old name, Burma. I choose to do the same, for comfort as well as camaraderie.

My observations no doubt will annoy Hollywood’s “Joan of Arcs of the Cocktail Circuit”; however, these thoughts were formed via unavoidable comparisons between “repressive” Burma and “democratic” countries such as Mexico and Ethiopia, countries about which I can claim deeper fluency. Moreover, for nearly two decades I have been embarked on what I call my “Battered Society Project”. This has taken me to many countries newly emerging from totalitarian dictatorships, societal repression, or ethnic strife as bad or worse than Burma. Examples of the worst: Albania, Romania, Cambodia, Rwanda, Georgia, Ukraine, Turkmenistan, East Germany. I’m not exactly a first-time, wide-eyed American ingénue.

One of my key questions on this trip was: how was it possible for Burma to move so rapidly toward development in such a short period of time, dating in part from late 2007-2008 but especially since 2010-11? I’m told that the number of tourists visiting Burma has quintupled in the past 3-4 years! Yes, the shortage of electricity remains a key problem and, yes, the main feature in front of almost every shop in Yangon/Rangoon is a large generator. But only once or twice was I ever inconvenienced by the lack of electrical power and then only briefly. An even more amazing thing was the wide-spread availability of Wi-Fi, and my travels took me into some fairly out-of-reach places.

It wasn’t long before I had to concede that things were considerably better than I had expected from all the media write-ups and better than what I had seen in other places, especially rural Mexico and Ethiopia. As a sweeping generality, the rural roads seemed to be in better shape, the housing more substantial, the people better fed and healthier looking, the hygiene standards moderately higher, the schools in better shape and the public places cleaner and better maintained. The cars were clean and appeared to be maintained with pride and driven with care compared to the macho road jockeys of Mexico. Indeed, I never saw a single accident in many long miles of travel over three weeks. Never mind that while, officially, they drive on the American side of the road, most of the cars, brought in (smuggled perhaps?) from other Asian countries, had steering wheels on the opposite side! Moreover, the most ingenious concept, not seen in any other country, is that in circuitous mountain areas, often there are two narrow lanes going up and two others separately meandering down. Goodbye to the ghastly head-on collisions common in the hills and mountains of Mexico where a curve is considered an invitation to pass.

Logs on truck. It was hard not to conclude that, whatever their socio-economic and humanitarian failings, the military regime appears to have paid at least some attention to the infrastructural needs of the people; i.e., they apparently did not squander everything on themselves. I stress again that this is in comparison with what I had seen in other countries newly emerging from decades of repression and mismanagement--and this includes some “democratic” ones as well.

On the other hand, the new capital, Nay Pyi Taw, is the poster child for unrestrained arrogance and grandiosity run amok. The waste of resources is beyond description, especially in the context of the relative poverty of the country. I was reminded of the grandiose white marble palace/government complex that Nicolae Ceausescu tore from the heart of lovely old Bucharesti in Romania. Ditto with Turkmenbashi Niyazov in Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan. This empty, kitschy “city” with its vast grand (and empty) boulevards, empty buildings and dozens of empty hotels, was built from scratch on what must be hundreds of acres of former farm land. (I wonder what the farmers got out of this.) Indeed, we became badly lost within its boundaries and the irony of all ironies was that there was no one to ask! There were police kiosks sprinkled everywhere and all were, you guessed it, empty.

Laundry by the bank. I think the existence of a basic infrastructure (except electricity) is one of the reasons for the seeming ability of the Burmese to rapidly ramp-up development, particularly in the area of tourist infrastructure. I was both surprised and impressed by the availability and quality of hotels, etc., in such a short period of time. But there’s another major reason: the people of Burma themselves. They are sweet, wonderful, gentle and resourceful people not yet corrupted by tourism. (Of course they will be. With the regime appearing to loosen things up, Burma is rapidly becoming the destination de jour for Beverly Hills.) At the same time, I was struck by the contrast between my impressions of the people and the unrelentingly blood-soaked history of the country. A read of that history can only be downright depressing leaving a nagging sense of hopelessness. One can only pray that this time it’s different.

But they also appear to have a healthy entrepreneurial streak, aided and abetted by the Chinese, Indians and Thais, among others, especially in the Eastern tribal areas. They have been quick to take advantage of the regime’s newly expanding “stamp of approval” from the world’s major democracies and “activist” celebrities and all that goes with that. Indeed, it is my guess that, in terms of economic growth, Burma will outpace many other emerging countries over the next few years; sort of a coiled spring set free. Among the areas that may benefit most from this growth will be the rebellious tribal states in the north and east; the Shan in particular but also the Karen, the Kachin and others. These areas have been cut-off the most from the world over the past several decades and yet harbor some of the richest natural resources, including teak wood, for which Burma is both famous and infamous.

Burmese Cats at Inthar Heritage House. We had the lucky chance to meet and talk with a Karen logger who has been at this for many years, despite tremendous obstacles, and who spoke English fairly well. He is an example of an entrepreneur writ large and appears to have been operating within the “rules”. He’s both concerned and excited about a new law that comes into effect next month (March, 2014, eds. note). From then on, no raw teak logs may be exported from Burma; only processed teak wood/lumber/furniture. This is a dramatic shift from today where almost nothing but raw logs is shipped out of the country, mainly to India, China and Thailand (a large part of which have been illegal). He expects a flood of outside investment in lumber mills and teak processing facilities in the coming years, creating jobs and retaining more of the value added from the logs for the benefit of the people (in principle, I hasten to add). I’m guessing this also might have the added benefit of pulling more of the industry into the “daylight” by perhaps making it easier to catch and punish raw teak poachers at the borders. Hmm! I try never to underestimate the limits of human ingenuity--but it’s basically a very progressive idea.

As a wine enthusiast, I was surprised--dumbstruck is a better word--and duly impressed by the quality of a few Burmese wines. In tropical Burma? Apparently, there are two significant wineries in the country, both up in the eastern Shan hills at an elevation above 4,500 ft. One is run by a German, the other by French interests. I tasted all their wines and found two--a Sauvignon Blanc and a Cabernet Sauvignon/Shiraz blend--that I thought easily could hold their own in the world market. Both were cleanly vinted and both were made by the German. We were so impressed that we bought three cases and brought them along with us; thus, we did not lack for decent wine the entire trip, something I never would have imagined.

Conlan at elephant camp. I will close with a few observations on the touristic aspects of my trip. A clear highlight for me was the newly available freedom to travel into the east and north, areas previously sealed off from foreigners, allegedly for safety, but mainly for security and political reasons. For me, this was the “sweetest” part of Burma. When we reached a town deep in the Karen/Shan area, we were hosted by the Anglican Bishop of the Province, a bright, thoughtful, truly nice man. A Bishop? Anglican? In a strictly Buddhist country? It turns out that, over the years, a surprisingly large number of the ethnic groups in these areas have become Christian, mainly fundamentalist Baptist, Anglican and Roman Catholic, a left-over effect from frenetic missionary activity during British colonial times; indeed, it is said that the large Kachin group in the north, famous for fighting the Japanese in World War II, is over 90% Christian! Luckily, the Bishop had obtained permission from the local military commander for us to stay the night and said that we may have been the first white tourists for more than two decades with permission to stay in the town. I think he was right, too; I discovered how it feels to be of one color in a sea of another color, complete with polite but curious gawkers and wide-eyed, often frightened children.

A second highlight was the opportunity to spend some time with my idiosyncratic but dear friend, Howman Wong, exploring the activities of his China Exploration and Research Society (CERS) at Inle Lake. We also had the pleasure of meeting the charming and highly talented businesswoman, Yin Myo Su (Misuu), who runs the Intha Heritage House and Vocational Training Center. This houses the justly popular Cat Cafe and Howman’s increasingly famous Burmese cat house. ( ;-) Howman is attempting to restore in Burma the nearly extinct “pure line” of the ancient royal Burmese “cat of kings.”) It also is a very well-run, top-class vocational school that trains young people for the Burmese hospitality industry, introducing a more eco-friendly manner. As you might imagine, the demand for such skills is at a premium as the tourist industry expands at warp speed throughout the country, but especially at Inle Lake, a major tourist destination.

Statue of Aung San. Another highlight was commandeering for five days How Man’s snazzy, new boat, the unctuously named HM Explorer. We tried to go as far as possible up the Chindwin River, the largest tributary of the Ayeyarwady River, the water “freeway” that runs the full length of the country (Burma is longer than the distance from Vancouver, B.C., to Baja, California). The Chindwin runs north/northwest out of Mandalay, into some areas which only recently were opened to foreigners. But it was the dry season and that made things difficult. We were doing just fine until the evening of our next to last day, when, suddenly, we became grounded on an uncharted sandbar. When I say grounded, we broke one propeller and two propeller shafts trying to extricate the boat from the sand. Finally (and I can imagine ignominiously), our poor captain had to call for a tug boat. In the meantime, we had to be evacuated and sent on our way by land in, well, a Land Cruiser of sorts. Nevertheless, it was a fascinating and highly original experience.

Finally, the most vivid impression I have of Burma is a phenomenon I have observed throughout the years of my Battered Society Project: While it certainly is possible to crush the human spirit, virtually grind it into the dirt under the heel of fear and repression, the instant the heel is lifted, the human spirit will take root, sprout and bloom again. For the sake of Burma and my new Burmese friends, I sincerely hope that things truly are different this time.