The situation in Myanmar

Boy fetching water in Yangon, Myanmar

I just returned from 7 days in Myanmar (formerly called Burma).  I’m going to make a couple of posts on my learnings and thoughts.

Part I: The Situation in Myanmar

Myanmar has been under military rule since 1962 after becoming independent from the British Empire in 1948.  Myanmar has made global headlines over the past few years on the following topics:

  • Continued house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi — the face of the democratic resistance and promoted recently by Bono in U2’s concerts
  • The ongoing international sanctions led by USA and EU to “pressure” the military into convert to a democracy
  • The Burmese monks protest in 2007 which was brutally repressed by the military
  • The devastating Cyclone (hurricane) Nargis in May 2008 which killed an estimated 150,000-200,000 people and left many more injured and vast damage
  • The new Burmese constitution being rolled out ahead of elections scheduled for later this year

In many ways Myanmar is a very dysfunctional place due to its military rule and international sanctions.  Here are just a few examples:

  • Cell phone numbers cost $1,500+ and (along with landlines), don’t work reliably
  • Automobiles cost 4-5x what they do in the USA (hence, out of reach for vast majority of 50M+ populace)
  • The country has been in civil war almost constantly since 1948 independence
  • Electricity is only available in major cities.  In Yangon (largest city at 5M+), it only runs 12 hours/day and less everywhere else (except the newly formed capital city in the middle of nowhere)
  • Internet access is severely restricted by censoring (probably worse than China)…and with electricity outages…
  • All non-government operated schools were banned in 1962 eliminating the best schools … and universities were purposely split up after 1990 dishonored elections
  • Essentially no banking system (for anyone) after 2002 foreign banks were pushed out and key domestic banks failed … so everything is a cash economy … literally!

Some of the bright spots:

  • High literacy rate — 90%+ … Burmese love to read!
  • Private schools, while still not authorized, are now tolerated and provide an option (for people with money)
  • Myanmar has vast natural resources – including timber, gems and oil/gas – and was once the world’s largest rice exporter
  • Private investment has been increasing in the past few years — both domestic and foreign
  • The currency is now pretty stable … with only 30% inflation
  • The Burmese people (and many other ethnic groups) are hard-working and English (the global business language) is the 2nd most used language
  • Elections are coming!  While the military has structured the new constitution so that they can continue to control, these are the first elections in 20 years and the first potentially elected government since 1962.

In the next post, I’ll share about the amazing range of interesting people I met with — including a former ambassador, some of the most interesting domestic and international NGOs at work in Myanmar, the head of the largest microfinance institution, government officials, a major local investor, the retired head national librarian, students who are preparing for overseas college, village leaders, village farmers and teachers, business people, librarians, children in villages and more.  Read more…

7 thoughts on “The situation in Myanmar

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