Myanmar’s road to growth: Will rich and poor share the prosperity of the country’s new dawn?

Myanmar sits between the two giant siblings of Asia – India and China – but its economy is a long way behind.

Half a century of military rule and economic stagnation has left millions of people in Myanmar stranded in poverty.

Take a walk around Yangon’s historic district and you realise it all could have been so different. At its peak in the 1920s, it was one of the most important cities in the region.

Yangon, as it was then known, was the headquarters for banks and businesses across Asia and had a larger multicultural population than New York.

Fashionable art deco office buildings lined the streets near the riverfront and flying boats delivered wealthy passengers to and from Europe.

“In those days, if you wanted to fly from London to Melbourne you had to come through Yangon,” author and historian Thant Myint-U told Foreign Correspondent.

Yangon was on track to become a thriving hub like Hong Kong, Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur. But history has not been kind to the people of Myanmar.

Instead of prosperity, they endured decades of military oppression and their economic hopes slipped away.

“The country has not benefitted at all from the general progress we’ve seen in Asia. And what that means is that first and foremost, we have 60 million people – 59 million of whom are poor in a way that they probably don’t have to be,” Dr Myint-U said.

But now Myanmar is opening up to the outside world. In the past two years elections have been held, freedom of expression has increased and foreign companies have started rolling in, eager to capitalise on the new market.

Dr Myint-U believes there is still a long way to go.

“I think the coverage of this country for a very long time has been simplistic,” he said.

“It was seen as a country where the only story was the story of the military junta and the generals, versus the democracy movement and Daw Aung San Sui Kyi, whereas in fact it was a much more complicated political situation.”

Human rights abuses and ethnic conflicts are continuing in Myanmar and economic growth has been undermined by poor governance.

“You get an awful lot of people coming in thinking this is the next frontier,” said former British ambassador Vicky Bowman, who leads the Yangon-based Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business.

“It’s a country which has probably up to 60 million people, so it’s very significant.”

The economic statistics tell different stories for different people across the country.

Half of all mobile internet users have come online in the past year and office rents in some parts of Yangon are higher than New York City.

But up to 70 per cent of people in Myanmar still do not have any access to electricity.

“Those are some of the key problems that potential manufacturers now are saying that they would like to come in here, they would like to take advantage of Myanmar’s cheaper labour, but they don’t have the electricity, they can’t run the diesel generator 12 months a year in their factories, it’s too costly and it won’t make them competitive,” Ms Bowman said.

Myanmar is relying on the capital and confidence of a foreign investment boom to revitalise its economy.

But it is unclear whether the growth will enrich those already in power or reach the millions more who are desperate for change.

“What I hope is the economy will grow, we’ll continue to see a more open political environment, but that we’ll be able to learn lessons from the experiences of other countries and catch up in a way that actually benefits the majority of people here,” Dr Myint-U said.


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