Ayee Macaraig
After historic reforms, Myanmar – the former pariah state – is now at the center of political and economic interest in the region

Known as the Golden Land, Myanmar is a country of magnificent pagodas, warm people clad in the skirt-like longyi, and a democratic transition coinciding with its chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). After historic reforms, the former pariah state is now at the center of political and economic interest in the region.

Myanmar is the largest country in mainland Southeast Asia, strategically located between China, India and Southeast Asia. It is transitioning from an authoritarian dictatorship to democratic governance, and from a centrally directed economy to a market economy after 5 decades of a brutal military rule. Investors call Myanmar the “final frontier,” the last large Asian economy to be globally connected.

Also known as Burma, Myanmar is home to 53.9 million people with 135 different ethnic groups. It is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in Southeast Asia. The largest ethnic group is the Burman people, and its native language Myanmar (also called Burmese) is the official language. Buddhism is the dominant religion, with 88% of the population Buddhist, according to the CIA. The Buddhist monkhood is considered one of the most revered and strongest institutions. Ethnic and religious conflicts especially violence and discrimination against the Rohingya Muslims plague Myanmar. 

The Myanmar people consider two cities as capitals. Yangon (also known as Rangoon) was the British colonial-era capital and remains the commercial center. In 2005, the then military government created a sprawling administrative capital from scratch. Naypyidaw, which means “the city of kings,” houses government buildings and luxury hotels, with civil servants as its primary residents.

The national currency is kyat but the US dollar is widely accepted, especially from tourists. Myanmar is famous for golden temples, ancient stupas, and colonial-era architecture in Yangon, Mandalay and Bagan, an old Burmese kingdom capital. Women wear the traditional make-up or thanaka while people on the streets chew and spit the betel nut. Mohinga, rice noodles in fish soup, is considered the national dish. Teashops are the go-to places for food and conversation.

Myanmar is one of Asia’s poorest countries. It has a huge development, human resources and infrastructure deficit. The education system is in dire need of reform. Roads and the transport system are poor, and blackouts frequent. Internet connection is notoriously slow but the entry of foreign telecommunication firms is expected to improve the 1% to 3% penetration rate.

Politics and government

From 1962 to 2011, a military junta ruled Myanmar that in the words of the BBC “suppressed almost all dissent and wielded absolute power in the face of international condemnation and sanctions.” The junta was infamous for corruption and rights violations, particularly its crackdown on the student-led 1988 uprising and the monk-led Saffron Revolution in 2007, and its refusal to recognize the victory of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) in the 1990 polls.

All this changed when the nominally civilian government of President Thein Sein introduced political and economic reforms that opened up the hermit state. These include the release of hundreds of political prisoners including democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, ceasefire agreements with major armed groups, and gradually reducing restrictions on freedom of the press, association and civil society. The reforms drew global praise and the easing of most sanctions. 

Yet the transition remains incomplete. The military remains influential, with the 2008 Constitution reserving a quarter of seats in parliament and top ministerial posts for generals. Suu Kyi is pushing to change the charter, which gives the military too much power and bars her from being president. 

In November 2015, Suu Kyi led the National League for Democracy (NLD) to a majority win in Myanmar’s first free election in 25 years. Her official title is state counsellor. 

Another factor that threatens to undermine the transition is the so-called apartheid-like policies against the Rohingya, stripped of citizenship in 1982. This forced many of them to stay in refugee camps or to flee to Thailand and Malaysia. The United Nations (UN) calls the Rohingya “one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.”

‘Rich country pretending to be poor’

Myanmar is a resource-rich country. It is the world’s largest exporter of teak and a main source of jade, rubies, pearls and sapphires. It is also abundant in petroleum and natural gas. It was once a top exporter of rice. Its biggest trade partners are China, India and Thailand.

Isolation and mismanagement though left Myanmar poor, with the military and cronies controlling key industries. Most of Myanmar’s people do not benefit from the resources. The World Food Programme said 26% of the population are below the poverty line and close to 3 million are “food poor.” Infrastructure problems hamper the provision of health and education services. The World Bank said 73% lack access to electricity.

Myanmar ranks 145 out of 188 countries in the 2016 UN Development Programme Human Development Index. Aid workers then call it “a rich country pretending to be poor.”

ASEAN and international relations

Myanmar became a member of the United Nations in 1948 after gaining independence from the United Kingdom. It also belongs to several international organizations like the UN, World Bank, World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund. 

The country joined ASEAN in 1997 and was first due to take on the chairmanship in 2006. Yet it did not assume the position amid fears Western countries will boycott meetings there. Analysts saw Myanmar’s 2014 ASEAN chairmanship as an opportunity to highlight its reforms, and to boost its global profile after hosting the World Economic Forum on East Asia and the Southeast Asian Games in 2013.

But pundits also said that a primary question was whether or not Myanmar can deftly manage relationships with ASEAN, the United States and China, Naypyidaw’s biggest political and economic ally. As China grows increasingly assertive in the South China Sea, analysts said Myanmar has to show a balanced stance on maritime disputes, and not to appear to be siding with Beijing as Cambodia did in 2012.

Chairing ASEAN also placed Myanmar’s internal religious and ethnic conflicts under greater international scrutiny. Analysts said the country should confront controversial issues like human rights, religious freedom and the environment, lest its human rights failings overshadow its chairmanship. –

Sources: BBC, Reuters, Time, National Geographic, The Diplomat, The Irrawaddy, CIA World Factbook, US State Department, United Nations, World Bank, Asian Development Bank, Asia Foundation 

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