Myanmar: too much speed will end in a crash

Our neighbour can avoid a development disaster by conserving its ‘treasures’ now

After decades of isolation Myanmar has flung its doors open to the world to reveal a country overflowing with enormous opportunities. Unlike its neighbours, it need not worry about economic growth. In the eyes of investors, the country is one of the world’s last untapped markets and a treasure store of natural resources. Yet along with the opportunities come consequences and risks.

Myanmar has made it clear it needs foreign capital to boost national development. The foreign currency flowing in with the influx of tourists has provided the first such injection. However, the tourist boom requires a parallel boom in construction of hotels and other infrastructure. The fallout from this explosion of development will be damaging unless the authorities handle it properly. Recent hotel developments creeping onto the ancient temple-strewn plain of Bagan reflect the government’s poor handling of the biggest jewel in Myanmar’s heritage treasure.

But construction on the historical site is just the tip of an iceberg.

Tourism earns Myanmar much-needed foreign currency but is, at the same time, forcing changes that threaten to blight the country’s beauty and character. The government must now come up with legislation to curb the negative consequences of tourism development.

Bagan is being put at risk by weak law enforcement. In September the government ordered hotel developers at the site to suspend all construction. Developers have ignored the order and work proceeds on 20 hotels. Officials from the Department of Archaeology have been barred from entering construction sites.

The irony, of course, is that that the hospitality industry’s encroachment on Bagan will likely tarnish its allure for tourists and damage the economy in the long run. Hope for its preservation now lies in the Unesco World Heritage status being sought for the site. The label would also attract more visitors.

Bagan is a test case for whether Myanmar can put measures in place to ensure sustainable development. How the country handles its heritage will help dictate whether opportunity is turned into long-term benefit for all.

Bagan could see a mushrooming of hotels that reap a short-lasting tourism boom. Or its ancient forest of 2,500 pagodas and temples could be preserved for generations.

A similar scenario is overtaking the old capital, Yangon, where new high-rise buildings are needed to house the influx of foreign businesspeople and investors. Here also, development will backfire without proper rules that are rigorously enforced. The country’s first building code is still at the drafting stage two years after being mooted. Property developers are already concerned about the delay, which they say could bring problems in years to come.

Rules governing planning and development of heritage sites and cities must be tight at this time of economic growth. The government must strike the right balance between rapid development and conservation of its past. It can avoid development pitfalls by learning from mistakes made in other countries.

Businesses are, naturally, jumping at the opportunities offered by the influx of tourists. So far it has been easy to draw money in. The challenge now is how to channel the flow of new wealth to ensure sustainability. Failure to do so might not matter in the short term, but it will leave a legacy of problems that could hinder the country’s development for generations to come.


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