I’ve been in Burma (Myanmar), traveling with my friend Jana. With borders touching India, Bangladesh, China, Laos, and Thailand, Burma has been held in relative cultural and economic isolation for decades while many of the surrounding countries have rapidly developed. Burma’s isolation is partly due to strict sanctions imposed by the US and EU in protest of the harsh repression of dissent by the ruling military and ongoing atrocities committed in wars with ethnic minorities in border regions. But change is coming to Burma. In November 2010, a nominally civilian government was elected into power and the new president Thein Sein began making a series of gestures to indicate that Myanmar is in the process of converting to a democratic society and would like to begin engaging with the global economy. Many political prisoners have been released, including Burma’s beloved icon of democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi. The press has been given more freedom. The government is attempting to reach out to the dissenting ethnic groups, one of which (the Karen) it has been fighting for more than 60 years.
On the day that we arrived in Burma, the front page of the Myanmar Times announced in bold headlines “Historic Week for Burma” and “US to Establish Full Diplomatic Relations”. Since Hilary Clinton visited Burma last fall, meeting with both the standing government and with Aung San Suu Kyi, the international floodgates have opened. Dignitaries from all over Europe followed Clinton’s lead. Governments, investors, corporations across the globe smell opportunity. Everyone is cheering Burma on and the people are full of cautious optimism. A restaurant owner in Mandalay told me that this is the most hope she has seen in her country since the military took over in 1962.
All of this puts the country in a very interesting position. It is one of the few places in the world that has not been playing the globalization game which has been transforming our planet over the last several decades. Burma gives the impression, as Jana put it, of squatting in the crumbling colonial infrastructure built by the British in the first half of the twentieth century. Aside from the comparatively ridiculous excesses of military/government wealth, what remains for the rest of the country are the dregs of former times. Grand colonial buildings are filthy, crumbling, and often empty. The trains haven’t been upgraded since they were built. Roads are abysmal, where they exist at all. Sanitation, plumbing, health care is virtually non-existent. Whatever we may mean by development, relatively little of it has touched Burma in half a century.
In spite of this, or more likely because of this, the people of Burma are some of the warmest, happiest, least-encumbered people I have yet encountered. This seems to be the consensus among those who visit. You fall in love with the people. In my three weeks traveling there, I never once heard an argument or even a raised voice. Everywhere people were smiling, children playing. There are tensions of race and class, to be sure, and the litany of atrocities committed by the military is truly horrifying. But there is a tangible sense of well-being, of psychological freedom, of spiritual health in the lives of the people. No one is in a hurry. There is joy in family and community. There is little confusion about needs and wants. Aside from a few (already jaded) tourist hot-spots, there is a welcoming of strangers, genuine interest, and hospitality. Life, in short, is good.
This is all about to change.
It is difficult to gauge the motives driving the government’s apparent move toward openness. Some suggest that their gestures are, as always, entirely self-serving. Burma is rich in natural and human resources. As the economy opens increasingly to foreign investment and trade, those who control access to resources stand to get filthy, stinking rich. Even as overtures were being made to some rebel groups, the army was stepping up operations to gain control of lucrative mining and development areas. As the values of a globalized consumer culture work their way into local hearts and minds, those who control the flow of consumer goods into local markets stand to get filthy, stinking rich. There are less than noble reasons some might seek reform.
Still, Burma is in a unique position in regard to globalization. The Burmese are quite aware of the risks involved. They have seen the effects of free trade and global commerce in neighboring countries. They have seen how a country rich in natural resources, but little else, can become quickly despoiled and indebted via global integration. They have seen the vulnerability to global financial markets borne of highly integrated systems of exchange. They have seen the corrupting influence of consumerist values. Having sat out the first rounds, they are now positioning themselves to enter the game, but they do not want to sell their people or their environment out cheap.
A hopeful view will look at the recent reforms, and especially the recent landslide victory of Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy in parliamentary elections, as positive signs of a move away from military rule toward a real working democracy. A hopeful view will believe that Burma has seen enough of the promise and peril of globalization to be both very careful and very smart about opening. Hopefully, as the country moves toward democracy, the people themselves will be increasingly empowered to steer the course of their own development. What are the long-terms costs of globalized development, to both culture and the environment? Who exactly stands to gain? Gain what? Is it worth it?
Having spent a total of three weeks as a visitor to Burma, I really have no right to an opinion. One barely scratches the surface, and hopes not to scratch too deeply. To me, the inevitable changes, regardless of motive, are bittersweet. To decades of military repression, war, poverty, disease: good riddance. To democracy, to freedom of expression, assembly, and mobility: about time. But to the forces of globalized development, which will with increasing velocity certainly and irreversibly alter the land, culture, and character of this beautiful place, change the lives and values of its beautiful people, and make it less like it was and more like everything else: Be careful, Burma. You, who don’t have much, may have something to gain, but you have a lot to lose.