The photo of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton embracing Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Myanmar Nobel Laureate also known as “the Lady”, made front page news across the world. This was followed by the US government’s restoring its Embassy presence in the country and the Myanmar government’s releasing more political prisoners. The eye of the world is now on the promise of President Thein Sein of a free and fair by-election on 1 April. If this promise were kept, Mrs Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) colleagues are certain to win seats in parliament.
Although the April by-election is only a contest for 48 vacancies out of 1,158 seats in the Lower and Upper Houses which are dominated by the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party and military appointees, the mere fact that NLD candidates are participating is extremely significant for the new direction the Myanmar government is taking. As part of the policy shift to seeking political solutions rather than military force and oppression, the government has recently signed ceasefire agreements with warring hill tribes, such as the Karen National Union and the Shan State Army (South), to end armed conflicts that have been on-going for decades.
Thus Myanmar appears poised to open up after decades of self-imposed isolation, which was subsequently buttressed by international sanctions. The opening up and the eventual lifting of the sanctions means that Myanmar will become more engaged with the global community. It is actively preparing to take over the chairmanship of Asean in 2014. It is also laying the infrastructure to welcome more tourists – an area where it has much to offer with its ancient culture and monuments, natural beauty and gracious people. Myanmar will attract more investors, currently dominated by China and Thailand, with its wealth of natural resources and pool of educated labour.
These new developments and others, broadly defined as “globalisation”, will inevitably change the lifestyle of the majority of the Myanmans, heretofore insulated from the outside world. Some examples: mobile phones will have better reception and become more affordable to its 48 million people (about the same number as South Korea); email will become more widely available and not limited to the “gmail” address used by the urban elite; mopeds and motor bikes will be allowed back on the streets of Yangon, giving residents of the largest city the mobility they crave; TV will be more readily available perhaps with international channels. Then there are the effects and consequences of urbanisation and industrialisation that will accompany the expected higher inflow of FDI.
Myanmar is a poor, largely agricultural economy with limited opportunities for its people who deserve better. However, globalisation of the country will bring with it new problems among which is “rising aspirations”, as has happened elsewhere in Asia. The challenge for the Myanmar government going forward will be how to meet such aspirations fairly and in a timely manner. The challenge for the global community will be how to support the legitimate aspirations of the Myanmans to attain a better lifestyle without causing too much further damage to the environment.