It is difficult to sum up what I learned about Burma from the month I spent there in February and March. A month is hardly enough time to come to any authoritative judgment either. The only way to do so is by retelling the opinions of the people who live there. It was through talking to as many people as I could that I was able get under the surface of the country and to understand something more than what is on show whilst on a fleeting tourist’s visit. It was also the only way to dispel and to validate my own pre-conceived judgments that I had arrived with.
I will be writing several pieces that hopefully give a rounded and in depth account of how Burma is changing, where it has changed from and what lies ahead in the future. I have written pieces purely from the point of view of people I have met. It does mean that some people disagree with each other and that some may be better informed than others. It is only through this method that a real picture of the everyday can be imagined. A meeting with a French wine technician, a Bangladeshi cricket coach, a group of medical students and a piece on tourism will eventually follow……
My first meeting was with a girl called Tin May in Yangon, the capital city. Fortunately she spoke perfect English and I had arranged to meet her before I left England. We decided to take a bus ride to the northern part of the city. It was my first day in Burma.
She works for an NGO that helps educate disabled children but eventually hopes to pass her foreign office exams. She was softly spoken but her thoughts on Burma’s recent progression towards Democracy, economic liberalisation and the role of its young people were incredibly well considered, realistic and honest. To me, she seemed to represent the view of an insider who understood exactly what was happening to her country but she also understood the country’s change from the point of view of an impartial outsider.
She was cautious in her assessment of new foreign investment, largely because she did not believe that her own government was genuinely willing to use foreign investment to improve Burmese society. The country had changed clothes from a military dictatorship into a supposedly civilian government in 2010. At that time sanctions were lifted that had banned international investment, now businesses are slowly investing. The changes were dramatic.
She was also unsure about the hopes pinned onto Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy. 2015 will be the real test to see whether the old guard in government truly makes way for an elected civilian Parliament.
She believed that a strong civil society, one that should take ‘things into their own hands’, was the best way to make a difference, now that the risk of persecution was seemingly at an end. In particular, the education system needed a massive overhaul. The previous dictatorships had all but torn it to pieces. Today there is no A-Level system. School ends at 16 and then a complicated University system follows.
She was frank in her assessment of her fellow young compatriots. “They are not ready for freedom” was a recurring theme. She was also adamant that for most people the “daily struggle” was their only real concern, not political campaigning. Young people had grown up in a society of fear that has developed into a society of acceptance and even reliance. People are tired and used to accepting government orders. This will take time to change.
But how is change impacting young people’s lives? For better or worse, it is certainly happening.
“Lifestyle, the way they think. They want to enjoy more from life because they have never been that close to enjoying life”.
She believed that people felt braver and freer to live their own lives. But also believed that some were not responsible or educated enough to live such a free life or a relatively unconventional life away from the family by pursuing an unusual career. There is no social support from the government and certainly none that has kept up with the changes in people’s lifestyles, thoughts and feelings since 2010. If people are now led to believe that they are living in a freer and democratic country then why are there no jobs or social support? This view is similar to the opinion that I formed during my trip. There may be democracy, but who is it for and for whom is it really benefiting?
“There’s a change in lifestyle, but where’s the progress in that? They become more greedy and they want to imitate the western lifestyle. They feel they can do it now.” Tin May thinks that ‘they’ can’t and that lifestyle changes are unhelpful. A harsh opinion maybe, but she mentioned several problems such as drinking and even back street abortions that have increased as a consequence of changes in lifestyle and perceived freedoms.
Tin also believed that the rapid influence of fashion, cultures and ideals might ruin Burmese traditions. People are understandably eager to reach out to the world, which they now can through the Internet, but she was worried that their own culture will become lost because the change is too fast.
“Personally I don’t like the way our culture and tradition is being eroded, I mean its not being adapted, but eroded. Look at the Korean K-Pop. They are popular here but (Korea) also maintain their own tradition right? But here it’s not like that. That is what we should realize. Even Indian culture, however you say they are modernizing, they preserve their tradition.”
Employment was also a moot point. Everyone, because there is no sixth form, has a university degree, but they are almost useless.
“In the West, people choose their own career because they love it, they really do. But here we just do it for the money. But I’m not saying we don’t do any good in our jobs. We are just in it for something.”
In her line of work, the NGO field, she lamented the culture of ‘knowing someone’, a common indictment against the entire Myanmar social system based on some form of corruption, however minor or major.
“I was interested in it before I graduated in University but there wasn’t any chance for me to join because I didn’t know anybody. And here for someone to join the NGO field its like you have to know someone inside or you won’t even get onto the shortlist.”
Given the undeveloped industry of NGOs and that most international organisations have rarely been allowed in the country, Tin May was worried that people go into the industry for the wrong reasons.
“To be a social worker in a Western country you have to be really professional in one area, but here its not like that. It’s a problem. People can hop from one area to the next. For example being part of the Emergency response team for Cyclone Nargis (2008) and then come to this organisation to help disabled children.”
People are all put under the same umbrella of social work despite being untrained and unspecialized. In her job there was also a serious problem of miscommunication between her Japanese employers and her Burmese colleagues.
Her departing words couldn’t be more poignant. They demand no explanation but give you a sense of her understanding of how complex and difficult the road ahead is for Burma. Maybe she was a little defeatist and I will write about other young people I met who were less so, but her political foresight and analysis of social realities made her very convincing.
“There are some of us who want to do some good with what we have in our field, but just a handful of us. We need to organize those people because we are scattered across the country. We have the ideas, but not the time because we are struggling with our daily life.”
With that we arrived at our stop. The two hours in a boiling old bus felt like minutes.
I hope that this initial piece gives you a sense of the situation in Burma.
There are a few crucial things going on. Firstly the Western world is trying to introduce aid, lift sanctions and then allow investment on the premise that the country is a ‘deserving’ democracy. Secondly you have to question what democracy means to the average Burmese person, most of whom are farmers?
Most of Burma is not an urban economy, nor is it modern like Yangon, the city that Tin May lives in. Her views are therefore largely representative of young urbanites. Burma is still a country that is based on a very traditional way of life and the majority of the population work in agriculture. It is easy to visit Yangon and be surprised by Western influences but this is not a true reflection of the rest of the country. It is technologically undeveloped compared to the rest of Asia and people remain close to living the lives of their ancestor’s generations ago.
One could argue that at the moment democracy is only being sold to the outside world by Burmese politicians many of whom are former generals and tycoons. They have built hotels and sell valuable land to preempt tourists and foreign investment. Property in the commercial centres in Burma has risen by anything between 50 and 90%. It has become one the most expensive places to rent a flat, office space or hotel room in the world. This is wildly out of sync with the financial situation for the rest of the country. Then think about who owns these valuable assets? Mainly the former generals, tycoons and cronies who run the country.
Democratic change that will impact ordinary people’s lives such as the freedom of speech, social support, education and healthcare is moving at a much slower pace and may not really change until 2015. You could easily argue that these initial years, since 2010, are essentially for those who were in power during the years of dictatorship, to grow richer whilst they still can.
I will follow soon with a story explaining this perfectly. It involves a winery and Frenchman.