Myanmar: Weaving together the old and new

WHEN I first came to Myanmar, also known as Burma, in 2009 it felt like a country frozen in time due to its years of isolation and stagnation. Indeed I recall penning an article for Jet Star, something along the lines of it being one of the few places left you could glimpse the Asia of old, one that existed some 50 years ago. And at that time, within the glittering modernity of much of Asia’s new sky rise cities, that was oddly appealing but also a rather simplistic perception.

Today, five years after the country’s first ‘democratic’ elections, that sense of it being a new frontier has well and truly been cemented, both for tourists and business, and as a result much is changing, particularly in Myanmar’s cities and well-visited tourist spots such as Yangon, Inle Lake and Bagan.

Tourists have poured in with record visitor numbers every year and surface changes have been enormous – not only is there the freedom to vote but also the freedom to drive a car, to get a SIM card or handset (cost prohibitive for some even 12 months ago), watch foreign television channels, access an ATM and speak freely.

Names like General Aung San and his daughter Aung San Suu Kyi can be uttered without having to look over one’s shoulder and their photos adorn the street side pavements, walls and other spaces without any fear of reprisal.

Road surfaces and cars have improved, supermarkets now stock Western goods like cheese, bread and Ovaltine, and there are rumours of KFC about to launch (most likely to be the first major international chain in the country).

“So what?” you may well ask. The truth is minor changes like these alone have revolutionised the country. People are connected not only with each other but the outside world, and there is a freedom for people to express themselves whether in their hair, clothes, voice, profession or hobbies.

With that have come some interesting parallel developments – locals discouraged that new-found democracy often is not bringing the changes they’d hoped for, and the challenge of how to develop commercially with the threat of development on every corner, while balancing and preserving culture and traditions, or simply a colonial building or age old pagoda.

Classic downtown colonial buildings in Yangon. Pic: Joanne Lane,

A classic old building in Downtown Yangon. Pic: Joanne Lane,

In my conversations with locals across the city last month I asked them whether they thought the country had improved since the 2010 elections.

Yangon tour guide Saw Hla Moe was dubious about the changes Myanmar has experienced and didn’t think the country could handle democracy. He said bus drivers never raced along and so flagrantly disobeyed traffic laws under the former military rule.

“This is democracy,” he said pointing at the chaos of traffic that gridlocked much of the city as if to illustrate the point. He also pointed out the paved over cemetery which now houses the huge shopping mall Junction Square as an example of progress not considering tradition.

Traffic has indeed escalated in Yangon due to the increase in the city population to 4.5 million and the relaxation of laws that now enable everyday people to get a driver’s license. The freedom of wealth has also enabled many to afford cheap, foreign cars. But Saw Hla Moe bemoans all the new vehicles on the road saying tradition has been lost with decades old buses that “worked fine”, thanks to constant maintenance by ingenious mechanics, now being consigned to the scrap heap.

Melody on the other hand, an English education consultant who has been in the country since 2005, says one of the positive changes in the city has been the ability to sit in a taxi and lean on the door without the fear of it suddenly flying open.

Australian Andrew Rogers, who works in Yangon in conjunction with MyKids Australia and Myanmar Vision International on developing sustainable businesses, said the increased traffic was just a sign of a prospering nation. He said many locals had become “jaded” about the changes but there was no doubt there were far more liberties available to everyone now.

He said the ability to visit people’s homes without fear of reprisal was a significant change for foreigners. He also noted the introduction of fibre optic cables, a city-wide rubbish collection system for improved sanitation, increasing commercial and residential development, and the installation of telecommunications backbones and phone towers around the city.

Typical Yangon street wiring. Pic: Joanne Lane,

Typical Yangon street wiring. Pic: Joanne Lane,

This doesn’t mean of course that sagging power lines, rubbish strewn streets or pot holes are a thing of the past in Yangon, but they are slowly being dealt with. And they are not the only areas in which significant leaps have been made. Melody said changes in the style of education with increasing adaptation of Western style curricula and teaching methods has improved the learning experience for children.

“New schools have started that are not state schools and we are seeing new styles of teaching and how that’s been effective as children are flourishing without the use of the stick. It’s exciting to see those kinds of schools being established and that kind of practice being taken on by local people,” she said.

Of course the flip side to all the development is that some things will be lost. Professions like roadside phone shops are now almost obsolete, as are the traditional mechanics, typewriter clerks and rubber stamp makers – all outpaced by cheap mobile phones, cars with microprocessors, computers and photocopiers. Much of what used to occur on Yangon’s streets and pavements is also starting to move indoors to air conditioned shopping malls and office blocks.

Melody sees some negatives in this.

“You don’t want the West to be imposed everywhere. I look at the people and think don’t lose your identity dying your hair and wearing a shorter skirt, you want people to have the freedom to do that but there is a style that they have… You think ‘don’t throw it away because you think ours is better’,” she said.

She had also noted the increased number of people driven to interface with their phones rather than each other, the sky rocketing cost of things such as hotel rooms without the quality to match, and the potential loss of old buildings and heritage with increased development.

In some ways of course development can and will help preserve culture and tradition. For example photography, which is burgeoning in Myanmar, is helping to record and document age old traditions before they are lost entirely. During my visit to the country this month I went to the promising Myanmar Deitta, a fantastic documentary art space in Downtown Yangon on 44th Street. In this community space local photographers are encouraged to showcase their work and there is a regular changeover of images featuring Myanmar’s cultural, social and other scenes or photographs from as far afield as India or Iran.

The exhibition on display at the time was by Myanmar Street Photographers capturing moments in city life from its pavements, parks and markets. Myanmar Deitta also showcased work from the group in the My Yangon My Home Art and Heritage Festival in which art galleries and even public spaces across the city displayed work from local artists from March 1-15. A photographic installation was put in place on Pansodan Bridge with images from a recent competition featuring the home. The British embassy by the iconic Strand Hotel also showcased images on their walls. This kind of public installation would have been unheard of several years ago.

Photography installation on Pansodan Bridge. Pic: Joanne Lane,

Photography installation on Pansodan Bridge. Pic: Joanne Lane,

Photography and art are not the only mediums opening up. Media has developed substantially with 20 daily newspapers and dozens of weekly journals now operating in the city, although many operate under a kind of self censorship and that’s because the risks of open criticism of the country’s institutions, such as the military or religious orders, are still high and real.

The recent arrest and imprisonment of New Zealand bar manager Phil Blackwood for insulting Buddhism is a key example of this and many fear what this says about the country’s path towards religious freedom. Ex-pats, as reported earlier on Asian Correspondent, were surprised at the harsh verdict handed down to Blackwood and two of his Burmese colleagues given the other freedoms now allowed in the country. But they also said to some degree it was a useful wake-up call to be careful of any behaviour that could be considered in the same light and that not all things have relaxed.

The speed of development and change in the country has arguably played a part in the legal decision, with monks pushing for adherence to the country’s major religion, perhaps to some degree as a reaction to recent liberalisation and loss of traditional values. The current push in Myanmar towards religious nationalism has however seen the removal of freedom for minorities, in particular the Muslim Rohingya population.

Monk in Downtown traffic, Yangon. Pic: Joanne Lane,

A monk walks by the crush of traffic in Downtown Yangon. Pic: Joanne Lane,

This balancing of tradition and change is a struggle Myanmar will continually battle in the years ahead. As with most things here, the issues are complex and a tourist’s romantic notion of the preservation of all age old practices such as street side markets or decaying colonial buildings is far too simplistic.

Melody said there was also a responsibility within the liberalisation and new freedoms to use them to better the country.

“In the road they’ve gone down towards voting and democracy, there is a responsibility to vote as some say ‘I don’t bother it’s the same old regime and it won’t count’,” she said.

“The challenge is also what do they do with that freedom. Do they address the injustices, the street kids that don’t get an education because they’re working for the family or living on the streets? How are people going to use that freedom? Will they sit back and live for themselves or do they use it to bring about greater change?

“The change is there but it’s minimal in many ways. I remember in the past being asked what it’s like sitting on an airplane. I’ve had young people tell me ‘we are jungle people’. That’s the tension; this generation has gone from living in the jungle, cooking on the fire and living under the stars to have the opportunity to go overseas and live in a city that’s developing at an extraordinary rate.”

Dr Thant Myint-U, chairman of Yangon Heritage Trust, said in an interview with the ABC: “I think we can be reasonably confident that this degree of political liberalisation will continue. We can be somewhat confident that moves towards democracy will continue as well, but I think how ordinary life will change, whether income inequality will simply get worse and whether the lives of the poorest half of the country – two thirds of the country – if that will change, I think remains a big question mark.”

You don’t have to travel very far from downtown Yangon to see that the majority of people in the city still live without regular electricity services and that despite a vast increase in foreign investment projects in recent years and an incredible increase in mobile internet users (half have come online in the past year), real change is still a long way off for some.

And for people like Andrew, Melody and Saw Hla Moe a sense of delay in some areas of city life is also welcome.

“One of the good things is that not too many regulations have come in so the place keeps that sense of madness,” said Melody. “They haven’t got it all sorted so it still holds what is quintessentially Burmese; the street sellers, the crazy pavements that demand you watch every step you take and the sense when you go around the corner that you don’t know what you’ll find. All madly brilliant things.”