Few places exist in the world today where a government and a people get a chance to sketch their future on a blank page. Myanmar is in that position. With sanctions lifting, markets and borders opening, the fate of 63 million people hangs in the balance.
Etched in the history of Myanmar are challenges but also opportunities. Formerly known as Burma, the country gained independence in 1948 after 62 years of British colonial rule. A brief period of representative government was followed by 50 years of brutal, quasi-Marxist military rule. During that time, Burma spiralled from being one of Southeast Asia’s most prosperous economies into the poorest, with a closed, backward, repressive society. Unemployment is 40%, the poverty rate is 38%, and Myanmar has by far the lowest GDP per person in the ASEAN region.
In many ways, the World Economic Forum on East Asia, which was recently held in Nay Pyi Taw’s outsized convention centre, was Myanmar’s coming-out party, showcasing the culture, food and more open politics that have been on display since opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in November 2010. In the past year, Prime Minister Thein Sein, head of the nominally democratic government, has welcomed world leaders, including President Obama, and has promised business executives who want to invest in Myanmar’s future that he will bring good governance and freer trade with ASEAN neighbours.
During the meeting, Suu Kyi boldly announced that she wants to be president, with one of the ministers in Thein Sein’s opposing regime sitting beside her. A constitutional amendment will be necessary, but she’s obviously determined and projects confidence. Such audacity once cost her freedom. Despite the “Gangnam-style” bravado in the streets and Yangon salons, the conversation is still about “reversibility” and whether the military dominated regime can remain committed to economic and political reforms. But once you open your borders and let in the world, the pressure builds to lean forward.
With white sandy beaches and dazzling Buddhist temples, Myanmar welcomed 1 million tourists in 2013 and hopes to triple the number of international visitors by 2015 with smarter visa policies. Those goals compare to 22 million tourists in neighbouring Thailand, a country with roughly the same population and smaller land mass. But that’s still 3 million reasons against retrenchment. At the Forum meeting, ASEAN Tourism Ministers agreed to enact visa-free travel within their region as soon as possible, so that pilgrims and tourists can cross the border more easily. All those visitors will bring GDP and new jobs to Myanmar’s unemployed.
The journey to democracy and free markets is not without its challenges. But across the globe, and at the stunning Buddhist pagodas in this lovely country, people are praying that the government gets it right and that vision comes true.
Author: Kathleen Matthews is the Executive Vice-President and Chief Global Communications and Public Affairs Officer at Marriott International, USA. She is also the Chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on New Models of Travel and Tourism.
Image: A man fishes on a beach in southern Myanmar REUTERS/Staff