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Watching The World

Published: Thursday December 18, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Thursday December 18, 2014 MYT 7:10:10 AM

The Myanmar time warp

After 50 years of slumber, there is hope that the country appears to be awakening.

EARLIER this month, I fulfilled a lifelong dream by visiting the ancient city of Bagan in Myanmar.

Long before the term bucket list came into fashion, I had decided that I wanted to visit three of South-East Asia’s great historical sites at Bagan, Angkor and Borobodur. It was something I had wanted to do since my teens, a time at which travel to Kampuchea and Burma was virtually impossible.

Nowadays, even the country names have changed, and Cambodia and Myanmar are far more accessible. I have to say though, after a week in Myanmar, that the beautiful country is still trapped in an unusual time warp. Budget airlines swoop in to areas like Yangon and Mandalay, you check in to hotels you pre-booked online and ordinary folks seem to have smartphones to whip out.

Yet underneath the surface, you will see the after effects of Myanmar’s half-century of isolation. Part of the infrastructure calls to mind the distance parts of Malaysia. A bus ride from Mandalay to Bagan was done in pitch dark on bumpy roads.

As for roadworks, you can see real manual labour with men and women breaking down large rocks with hammer and chisel. Phone lines between cities are often jammed because the communications infrastructure can only handle a limited volume at a time. While most tourist economic exchanges are conducted in US dollars, there is virtually a parallel economy in the local kyats (pronounced chets).

But yet the signs are there, that maybe after 50 years of slumber, Myanmar is gradually awakening. Last year’s SEA Games at the new capital Naypidaw might be just a symbolic step, but the manner in which next year’s parliamentary elections are carried out, and its results received are crucial.

The story of Myanmar’s political troubles are well documented. Soon after independence in 1947, the country’s leader Aung San was assassinated. The civilian administration of prime minister U Nu struggled to cope with separatist movements by the likes of the Shan and Karen peoples as well as a rebellion by the Communist Party of Burma. Then in 1962, General Ne Win took over in a coup that has ramifications to this day.

He ploughed a dictatorial path which used the terminology of Buddhism, socialism and self-reliance but in reality was little more than isolation and paranoia for the sake of holding power. Even after Ne Win stepped aside, the military refused to recognise the massive win of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League of Democracy (with a majority of 392 out of the 492 seats) in 1990 and another generation of military strongmen (firstly Saw Maung, then Than Shwe) consolidated that institution’s grip on power.

They placed Suu Kyi under house arrest and survived situations such as the Saffron Revolution of August-September 2007 when many monks were killed by the military and the devastating Cyclone Nargis which claimed more than 100,000 lives in May 2008.

Gradually, however, there have been some concessions towards restoring civilian rule. Than Shwe is still believed to be greatly influential but his health is the subject of much speculation. Formally he has ceded power to current President Thein Sein, whose two younger Vice-Presidents Nyan Tun and Dr Sai Mauk Kam represent a younger, more moderate face of the Myanmar establishments.

The 2010 general elections were something of a sham with the Than Shwe-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party winning comfortably against the National Unity Party which included many loyalists of the Ne Win regime. Suu Kyi’s NLD did not compete.

However in 2012, the party contested a large number of by-elections, securing 43 out of 46 seats, giving a strong indication that in free and fair polls, the NLD will win comfortably. It remains to be seen how the regime will handle the elections that are due soon. Things are still skewed in its favour, with seats reserved for military appointees.

While talking to the common people in Myanmar, I was moved by their humility and politeness as well as adherence to traditional values and there was a peacefulness I felt that belied the reported ethnic clashes there (not to mention the recent spate of Myanmar-linked murders in Penang!).

If there is a positive side to Myanmar’s slow development it is that much of the country remains pristine and has retained its character in a way that other fast-growing South-East Asian nations have not necessarily done. Its potential is vast but can only be realised by positive steps towards democracy and openness.

> Star online news editor Martin Vengadesan believes that when Myanmar really gets going, it will be a force to be reckoned with.

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Traditional farming: A man using cows to plough a field near the temples at the Bagan ancient city in Myanmar. Bagan, formerly spelled ‘Pagan’, was the Kingdom of Pagan from the ninth to 13th centuries, and is located on a plain and features over 2,200 Buddhist temples, stupas and pagodas. — EPA

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