As I dragged my luggage through the long terminal of the ridiculously hot and humid Yangon airport a few days ago, I thought back to my previous visit to Myanmar, in November last year. We touched down in Air Force One and I sat in the cramped jump seat of US President Barack Obama’s limousine as we made our way into town. In the months since I left government service, my standing and style of travel have, shall we say, changed somewhat. Still, I was looking forward to seeing for myself the remarkable changes inside Asia’s newest baby tiger.
The first surprise was the presence of mobile phones. Myanmar has long been considered a land of the disconnected in a networked world. But a nationwide telecommunications tender is under way and there is sporadic coverage in the bigger cities. My young customs official was momentarily distracted from my passport by her ringtone, a sudden blurt of Canadian singer Carly Rae Jepsen’s pop hit, “Call Me Maybe”. Progress can cut both ways.
Yangon in 2013 is a mixture of many places – Shanghai in 1980, Saigon in 1987, Moscow in 1990 and Gold Rush California in 1849. It is part geopolitical game, part sales pitch and part snake oil. Hotels are filled with frontier capitalists who have come for a gander. During a trip to a hotel bar, you can overhear discussions about aircraft sales, palm oil plantations, gas-powered turbines and ports. Intrepid southeast Asians, adventurous Europeans, relentless Korean and Japanese company men and ubiquitous Australians (but a distressing dearth of Americans) are all in the hunt. Tall talk of big deals over cold beers. It’s damn exciting.
In the west, discussion of Myanmar’s prospects is focused on whether the change to date irreversible or whether the military could come roaring back to power. This preoccupation misses the point. The real question about modern Myanmar is not whether it will go back but, rather, how it will go forward. There are already a few hints about what to expect.
Perhaps most important is that, as with Indonesia before it, power has shifted dramatically and rapidly from the people still wearing uniforms to those in the civilian sphere who have just taken them off. Former commanders have proved much more adept at both formal and informal politics than anyone would have expected. This can be seen in a few ways. The legislature has already asserted its new power and is challenging the executive branch at an institutional level – on laws, oversight and budgets. So, too, has the middle tier of former military officers who now staff many of the ministries; labour, energy, transport, to name a few. These officers are demonstrating previously unseen skills in implementation and analysis. The top brass worries that it is being left behind.
Corruption is a big concern but there is a remarkably open public commentary about alleged abuses and sinister power plays. The cronies from the previous regime are desperately trying to maintain relevance in the shifting political and economic landscape, sometimes by allying with external forces such as China. The lack of laws and reliable sources of power impede new investment. Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader and Nobel laureate, is more relevant and relentless than ever, and she will probably play as important a role in her nation’s immediate future as she did in its recent past – not least because there is a deep chasm between the progress beginning to take hold in many cities and the lack of change in areas with oppressed ethnic minorities.
In short, the phase of powerful ceremony and gesture in the opening up of Myanmar is drawing to a close. We are heading into the hard work and daily slog of implementing reform. With expectations rising across the world, a still weak government is struggling mightily to deliver. Ministers and citizens alike are openly asking about the still small scale of western investment; and about when the trickle will turn into a steady flow. As one sports-minded minister put it to me on the trip: “You have watched the game from the sidelines long enough – we need you out on the pitch.”
The writer is chairman and chief executive of The Asia Group and former assistant US secretary of state for east Asian and Pacific affairs