Then & Now
Whenever someone speaks of Myanmar “then” and Myanmar “now”, you need to be careful. Ask them: what is the length of time that you speak of?
In many parts of post-colonial Asia, memories can be dreadfully short, and ideas hazy. Change is supposed to have happened when when whole cities or countries have been renamed, or when former regimes fall. Change is rarely defined by what it is, but by what it is not.
Cantonment Gardens, now Kandaw Minglar Gardens, in 1868.
Ever since the reforms of 2011, the Myanmar government has taken tentative steps towards economic and political liberalization, to varying degrees of success. For some, it’s too little and too late.
In previously closed sectors of the economy, though, the changes have been nothing short of breathless. The arrival of two new foreign telcos, Ooredoo and Telenor, in a hotly contested rush for the lucrative licenses, signalled that big changes are on the way. Indeed, these two telcos have left the state telco behind in the dust in many ways - previously, a SIM card cost upwards of US$2000 on the open market (due to a neglectful supply and demand situation when they were the main player in town). Today, they cost just US$1.50. While the infrastructure required to take a mostly offline country to the connected dream is still sorely lacking, that too, is changing: in a place where even the most expensive hotels and restaurants rarely accept credit cards, where you’d be lucky to even have a cellular signal in most parts of Yangon, people have rushed to buy cheap SIM cards but it remains to be seen what they will do with it. Encouraged by the demand generated by the foreign telcos, the state telco previously known for high prices and inefficiencies is now on track to improve.
In retail banking, nine foreign banks (all from Asia-Pacific), including Singapore’s OCBC and UOB, have just been granted licenses to offer wholesale banking in yet another first.
If there are two sides to everything, then one side of this is the hope and unbridled optimism which has brought foreign investors, property developers and even _re-pats - _Myanmar nationals or first or second-generation ethnic Myanmar citizens of other countries - back to Myanmar in search of opportunity, of which there are plenty at the moment.
It’s also exactly the same ingredients which have made others approach these reforms with caution. A senior member of the business community with privately progressive viewpoints, once confided in me: “1987 reforms did not prevent what happened after. I keep hearing: we are changing. I’ve seen many ‘reforms’ in my lifetime, so I’m biting my tongue until I see real changes.” Others criticize the lack of human rights, presence of large numbers of political prisoners, and the humanitarian crisis unfolding in the Rakhine state. Consensus holds that the media is still not free and won’t be for some time.
Yet there is the unmistakable feeling of some sort of progress.
It was this sort of unmistakable feeling that led Thaung Su Nyein, then studying and working in New York City, to book a flight back to his native Myanmar in 1999. Now he’s the CEO of 7Day News Journal, one of the largest publications in the country, and plays a key role in the business and technology ecosystem of the country. It was also the same sentiment that saw overseas Myanmar nationals like Revotech’s Myo Myint Kaw book their one-way tickets home despite a lack of funding, or even friends, after having been away for long.
Exploring Myanmar’s current reforms means far more than an academic inquiry into its structural progress, it is also equally about the people and the stories driving it. What is life like today, compared to before? What will it be like in the future? What are the issues its people care about, and will software eat the world here, too?
From the outside looking in, this country and its developments may seem like an enigma.
More than just the sheer potential of Myanmar, there’s also a beautiful country with resilient people, incredible food, and the sort of restless energy you see in a place that is tired of being stuck in its past. In this series, we’ll cover stories of entrepreneurs like Thaung Su Nyein, Myo Myint Kyaw and many others’ along with the stories of non-local insiders who know the country well. Through these, we hope you’ll get to put a human face on all the development and progress you’re hearing about. Or perhaps you’ll find your next project, business partner, or just someone to have tea with when you’re visiting the country.
As we would say in Myanmar:
print "Mingalabar, world!"