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Myanmar: From Pariah to Powerhouse

In the last six months, Myanmar has seen a flurry of commercial and investment delegations from important transnational corporations, all looking to get a foothold in the newly opened market
By The News · 27 of September 2016 09:15:24
Kutho Daw Temple in Myanmar, No available, photo: Wikipedia

It used to be that Myanmar — or as some people still prefer to call it, Burma — was a textbook example of a pariah state.

Starting as far back as 1962, when Gen. Ne Win took control of the former British colony — first as a military ruler, then as a self-appointed president and later as a full-fledged political kingpin — the Southeast Asian nation has seen one despot leader after another.

When Ne Win was finally forced to resign in 1988, due to massive student and public protests, the brief promise of a Burmese democracy was almost immediately crushed by another military takeover.

And while multiparty legislative elections in 1990 resulted in the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) winning a landslide victory, the junta opted to ignore the Burmese people’s will and placed the party’s leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for the 21 years.

In late September 2007, the oppressive regime brutally squelched protests over increased fuel prices led by pro-democracy activists and Buddhist monks, killing at least 13 people and arresting thousands for participating in the demonstrations.

A pretense of a free election was held in November 2010, with the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) garnering over 75 percent of the seats.

But despite the tyrannical nature of the USDP autocracy and its military henchmen, slowly — ever so slowly — political and economic reforms began to take shape in the long-isolated country, and two years later, hundreds of political prisoners were released and laws promising protection of basic human rights and freedom of the press, association and civil society began to slip through congress.

Finally, in November 2015, Myanmar held its first real democratic parliamentary elections, with Aung San Suu Kyi’s party winning the majority of the votes and the Nobel Peace Prize winner becoming the country’s de facto leader.

Myanmar’s first civilian-led government celebrated 50 years in office in March of this year, and since that time, the former international outcast nation has become the new darling of the global investment community.

And for good reason.

With full diplomatic relations with the United States restored and nearly 80 percent of economic sanctions against Naypyidaw lifted, Myanmar is well on the way to becoming a major player in the booming Southeast Asian and South Asian marketplaces.

In the last six months, Myanmar has seen a flurry of commercial and investment delegations from important transnational corporations from Microsoft to Chevron, all looking to get a foothold in the newly opened market.

In addition to the promise of a stable government, geography is a big factor in attracting global entrepreneurs to Myanmar.

Bordering both China and India, Myanmar is expected to be within five hours of half the world’s consumers by the year 2025.

And the country’s own 60 million-strong population, which had long been denied access to many foreign goods because of the former sanctions, is now a welcoming target market for imports from the United States, Europe and the rest of Asia.

Notwithstanding, there are a few obstacles in Myanmar’s economic horizon, mainly the nation’s still-watchful military’s reluctance to release what it considers to be key parastatal industries or throw open the doors of individual freedom too quickly.

And, of course, if Myanmar’s army begins to think its underlying grasp of the nation is being threatened, it may revert to its old tricks and stage another coup.

But, hopefully, the financial advantages of an open society will also benefit the military brass and Myanmar will take its new place as a regional economic powerhouse.

And that would be a good thing for everyone involved.

Thérèse Margolis can be reached at [email protected]