Deputy Director, Jenny Nicholson, reports on a recent trip to Myanmar.
Will Aung San Suu Kyi become President? That is the question on everyone’s mind. Aung San Suu Kyi is barred from the presidency as she has foreign children. Negotiations are taking place with the Chief of Staff for the change to the constitution needed for Aung San Suu Kyi to become President. Despite her assertion that she could rule above the President, the National League for Democracy (NLD)’s first choice is to amend or waive article 59 (f) of the charter blocking her from the presidency. This however requires the assent of the Tatmadaw which holds effective veto power over constitutional change through its allocation of 25 percent of the seats in parliament. President U Thein Sein’s five-year term ends on 30 March giving the NLD and the military time to reach a deal over nominations and power sharing arrangements.
Civil war began in Myanmar after the country became independent in 1948 and continues to this day. Aung San Suu Kyi recently proposed the establishment of a federal state to settle internal ethnic conflicts and achieve national reconciliation and has called for a ceasefire in the areas of ethnic conflict as a prerequisite for the country’s democratic development.
Much of Myanmar’s wealth is controlled by fewer than 20 business men (so called crony capitalists) who grew rich under Than Shwe’s military regime. The cronies supply services to the regime in return for lucrative contracts and import licences. Ironically the cronies may end up as partners to Western companies looking to break into the Myanmar market.
The President of Japan has even offered to write off debt if Aung San Suu Kyi becomes President. The Japanese have upgraded the railways, donated towards primary schools and financed the three main ferries in Yangon. The Chinese are already investing heavily in Myanmar. One of its biggest projects is building a gas pipeline from Rakhine State via Mandalay and North Shan province to Yunan province in China. This is very unpopular with local people as central government are well compensated but the local farmers whose livelihoods are threatened are paid much less. Rural Myanmar invest in pigs which are easy to feed and have two litters (each pregnancy is 3 months, 3 weeks, 3 days) of 10-12 piglets.
Aung San Sui Kyi has been criticised for not standing up for the Rohingya. The Rohingya are not regarded as ethnic Burmese as many have migrated from Bangladesh. Burmese friends told me that it would have been very bad for her campaign to support the Rohingya who are so unpopular that votes would have gone to the military/ethnic representative. Among the many supporters of the Rohingya is Malala “The Rohingyas deserve citizenship in the country where they were born and have lived for generations. Today and every day, I stand with the Rohingyas, and I encourage people everywhere to do so,” she said. I don’t think the Burmese I met would agree with her.
Military spending accounted for 12 percent of the total national budget in 2014-15, double the amount spent on education (6 per cent) and four times that on health (3 per cent), (no family planning). Infrastructure needs updating and schools need renovating. I was also told there are no insurance policies. In a recent car accident a driver was trying to avoid children playing on the road, hit another car, but one child died. The driver had to pay US$3500 to the child’s parents and was given a one year jail sentence. The highest tax rate of 25 percent will have to rise, I imagine, to fund these much needed programmes.
Burmese women have for centuries had equality and freedom. They are free to choose their marriage, don’t change their names and are free to divorce. It is not unusual for women to be in business when men care for the children. I rarely saw an overweight woman. Their staple diet is fish, rice vegetables and curries. But cancer rates are high due to smoking cheroots and chewing betel.
I asked a Burmese friend who was his favourite Prime Minister. Without hesitation he answered Mrs Thatcher. Why I asked. She was a strong leader he answered and he admired her stand on the Falklands.
Things will change, burgers will come to Yangon, Bagan will resemble Angkor Watt and Inle Lake will be overrun by tourists. This is inevitable. I am glad that I visited Myanmar before this happens. In 2015 there were 3.08 m tourists and 15 m tourists are expected in 2020. I can remember the sunset over the Irrawaddy, visiting temples in a pony and trap in Bagan and the glorious Shwedaung Temple in Yangon (in peace).