Myanmar: Poised On Cusp Of Growth?

Via USA TODAY, an interesting article on Myanmar’s growth prospects.  As the report notes:

In saffron robes and flip-flops, Buddhist monk Ashin Uttama browses the feast of cheap Chinese electronics assembled for a trade fair in Rangoon, Burma’s commercial capital. A tablet computer would let him scroll through the sutras he must chant daily, and record his community work.

He touches a Longtron Wopad, made in south China, but dreams of the genuine article.

“I’d prefer to buy a real iPad,” says Uttama, 27, from a monastery in Rangoon’s Chinatown. “I hope the U.S. will lift sanctions; then we can have a U.S. products show here, too.”

That prospect, long unthinkable as Burma kept abusing its people and imprisoning its top dissidents, now appears less distant following a year of remarkable change here, capped by the historic visit earlier this month of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Unlike the street-led revolutions that swept the Middle East this year, Burma, known officially as Myanmar, is experiencing top-down change, as its authoritarian rulers pursue a transition to democracy, half a century after the military took power.

The U.S. has said it will consider lifting its sweeping sanctions on Burma if further progress is made in political and economic reforms.

The sanctions, tightened in 1997 by then-president Bill Clinton, prevent most U.S. companies from trading with Burma or investing here. Fear of boycotts forced several U.S. firms to quit this resource-rich, yet desperately poor Southeast Asian nation.

Among its 62 million people, the average income per day is $2.20, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Corruption and mismanagement are rife, while ATMs and decent roads are rarities, and large swaths of the country have suffered from civil war for decades.

Yet, the economic potential is undeniable.

“There are huge business opportunities here,” says Phone Win, a businessman and non-profit founder in Rangoon, citing an $80 billion deep-sea port that Chinese investors are circling. “If you invest, in three to four years, you’ll get it all back; in 10 years, you start making money.”

The markets for similar investments in neighboring nations are “saturated,” but “this country is virgin,” Win says “All the Western countries are losing right now.”

New housing developments have been popping up here and there in Rangoon. Star City, “a model community of tomorrow,” will include hundreds of apartments billed as chic riverside living beside retail shops and a golf course near the Bago River.

Apartments that are still being constructed are selling for $50,000 to $170,000, marketing executive Soe Thiha Hlaing says. He predicts first Asians, then Americans and Europeans will come to explore “one of the few frontier markets in Asia.”

“Burma is headed in the right direction,” Thiha Hlaing says. “We’re taking baby steps, but we’re getting there.”

Rangoon, the city’s busiest industrial hub, has seen the creation of new highways and bridges in recent years that link its port to factories and farms in the region.

But people in the villages that surround Rangoon live in poverty. Electricity is spotty, and garbage is piled in open dumps.

Doing business here is not for the fainthearted.

At the Chinese trade fair, representing export powerhouse Guangdong province, Zhen Qiaoling of China bemoans Burma’s notorious import procedures.

“This market was not open before, and it’s still very complicated to import,” she says.

But at least business prospects are good for her firm, Jinyee Motors, and its $1,000 motorized tricycles in a land where few citizens own their own cars.

“It’s not a very developed economy; people are poorer than I expected,” she says.

Over menacing roads 90 minutes’ drive from Rangoon, the busy market in Twante draws buyers and sellers by bus, bicycle rickshaw and horse cart.

Traditions run strong in Burma, where about two-thirds of the population still work in agriculture. Most rural women and girls apply a cosmetic paste made from tree bark to their faces.

In Kyauk Slit Kone village Ma Thae, 35, splits bamboo canes to sell as fasteners for bunches of market vegetables. About three pounds of bamboo sells for 50 cents. Her husband works when he can as a rice harvester.

Ma Thae and her family live in a simple bamboo-and-rattan house that was rebuilt after Cyclone Nargis struck in 2008. The storm killed 138,000 people.

She says she misses her sons, ages 11, 13 and 15, who have spent the past year working as waiters in a Rangoon tea shop.

“They must work because we are poor, and they must help support the family,” she says.

A key obstacle to economic development is decades of ethnic conflicts.

In several areas home to Myanmar’s ethnic minorities, who make up 25% to 33% of the total population, “widespread and systematic violations of human rights continue to take place,” says Benjamin Zawacki, Southeast Asia researcher for Amnesty International, a human rights group.

“The situation has actually gotten worse,” in the past year, he says, as conflicts in border areas have intensified.

“Without peace, there cannot be development, from a school to a huge multinational project,” says Vernette Myint Myint Sann, 55, a representative of the Karen ethnic group, who met with Clinton during her Burma trip.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, January 17th, 2012 at 4:37 pm and is filed under Myanmar.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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