Myanmar and an Asian Century

Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon. Photo Credit: Sean Dubberke

The decrepit, languishing state of Yangon’s buildings and infrastructure resemble a ghost town, but at ground level life abounds in the largest of Myanmar’s cities. I traveled through this country last month to witness the exciting changes that are happening in Southeast Asia’s poorest, least developed country. A positive energy is surging through its people. Just a few years ago, mention of the democratic party leader’s name — Aung San Suu Kyi — was a punishable offense. Today, her image is proudly displayed by her many constituents in their taxis, corner stores and eateries. I can ask questions the guidebooks, by now obsolete, cautioned against. The so-called civilian government is also learning to deal with criticism. Throughout a half century of military dictatorship, the slightest notion of a state-related complaint would incite an iron fist reaction. There is more hope now than ever that along with government and private industry, civil society can also bring about a sea change to improve the lives of Myanmar’s people.

Aung San Suu Kyi

Asia’s economic powers are knocking on Myanmar’s door, and they’re ready to pay in cash. The West, however, is arriving late according to The Japan Times:

“American corporations are very late in every business sector,” said businessman Aung Aung, whose oil and gas and hotel companies have alliances with Korean, Indian and Russian partners. “Asian countries, like India and especially China, have already dominated the market. It’s difficult for American companies to compete.”

The Asian business community’s influence has reached even young Burmese women who talk about the difference between their traditional, thanaka wearing sisters and their modern counterparts who don “Korean” hairstyles (an orange dye is what makes the “Korean” style). Asia is willing and able to invest despite a glaring lack of infrastructure and an uncertain political future. The molding of modern Myanmar tells the continuing story of an Asian century, and the increasingly tempered, conservative approach North America and Europe take to frontier markets.

An un-named economist speaking to The Wall Street Journal warns those Westerners expecting to be warmly received in Yangon:

The Westerners have so missed the boat. Where are the Burmese businessmen here tonight? They’re all with the Chinese and Koreans and Thais, as they have been for years. Western executives come to Yangon and say, ‘Great, I’ll go home and write a report.’ But Asians say, ‘We want to do business now, here’s the money, here’s what we want to do.’

The ethnically diverse people of Myanmar have a lot to offer: a hard-working, service-oriented mentality and a great enthusiasm to contribute to the global order of things. Tourism has already tested Myanmar’s capacity to entertain outsiders within the last two years as Asians and Westerners arrive in droves.

Mizzima, an online Myanmar focused publication, interviewed Jak Bazino, an author who expressed concern that the inundation of foreigners and foreign money may jeopardize the democratization of the country’s political system. “The government has to make sure that economic development does not proceed at the expense of social progress, protection of the environment, improvement of the education system and political maturation.”

What must Myanmar do to preserve its culture and protect the will of its people as they enter the global playing field? Will Myanmar be another rising star in Asia’s economic trajectory or is it too deeply underdeveloped at this point to speculate?

Sean Dubberke

RW3 CultureWizard is a leading provider of cross cultural training and information, primarily through the CultureWizard and intercultural learning platforms.

Comments (6 Comments)
  1. Charlene

    Fascinating insight into an awaking nation. You capture so much of the texture of the country in your description.

  2. Lisa Muthig

    Although this is interesting, it would be helpful to give a little background on Mayanmar (what the country used to be called)language and maybe a little more perspective of why American businesses didn’t jump into the country. It is very interesting that we call this the least developed but I believe it was by choice, it hasn’t always made a big difference to the overall population of many of the developing countries when American business went in, it may have only created a wider divide between the haves and have nots. I think it would be great to hear more about the the opposite views.

  3. Jasmine Kyawt

    It is nice to read about my county. Yes, Myanmar is one of poorest couinty in south east asia because of undevelopment management. Now, it is time to recover and develop. The people in Myanmar work hard and they are also talented too. I think American companies should consider to invest in Myanmar becasue the labour cost is very cheap. In Myanmr,there are lots of raw material but they need techonology to do and transform to the business. Some companines have lots of money but they don’t really have sources. I believe that Myanmar will be more development country in the future. Thank you for posting about Myanmar.

  4. Bruce DeViller

    @Lisa Muthig
    Lisa makes a great point. In the late 1990s more than 30 US localities (New York, San Francisco, and others), including the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, enacted laws that limited or prohibited trade with Myanmar due to repression of Myanmar’s democratic opposition by the military after the 1988 uprising. The Massachusetts law was struck down. But, the moral-based decisions of states and municipalities to limit trade due to the political situation at the time must be noted as a factor in the US’s “late to the game” position.

  5. Rabya

    I doubt it very much, I would be outraged if a county that has continually violated human rights and has been condemned by repeatedly by International human rights organizations including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science was given any sort of recognition on the global platform. Mass ethnic cleansing has been going on for decades, whole villages have been burnt down, families extradited, children shot, and the acceptance of rape by soldiers is another chapter entirely. Investing in such a country would be advocating such behavior.

    An interesting website that works for the victims of the abuse:

  6. Rannie

    The story of Myanmar (Burma) is really interesting especially during the the dictatorship of Senior General Than Shwe…a 2011 movie “The Lady” starring Michelle Yeoh as Aung San Suu Kyi will provide you a brief history how she peacefully fought dictatorship for change in governance.

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