Mingalabar From Myanmar!

Pagoda
Shwedagon Pagoda at sunset.

While I may not be able to read the beautiful Burmese script in all its circular glory, I do know how to say hello. Everywhere we go in Myanmar we are greeted with enthusiastic mingalabar’s. When people find out we are visiting from the United States, they grow even more excited. For a country closed off from the rest of the world for many years—and facing continued criticism for a conflict that has caused many human rights leaders to question the country’s leadership—tourists can be an encouraging sign.

In our first two days of meetings we’ve concentrated on how Myanmar is working to recover from these years of isolation—and what’s holding the country back. We met with the people in both the public and private sector, and, with four company visits in the books, some themes have become clear.

  1. In Myanmar, internet is equivalent to Facebook: Some phone sellers will even go as far as to help people set up Facebook accounts when purchasing a device. As a result, Facebook is the main source of information for many Burmese people. What makes this even more interesting, is that, because of the political situation and the sanctions, many Burmese people jumped straight from having no computers to having smartphones with Facebook.
  2. The biggest opportunities come from the agriculture and infrastructure sectors. There are so many possibilities in the former that can drastically change the lives of Myanmar’s farmers. Almost 30% of Myanmar’s grains and produces is destroyed while almost 60% of grocery store products are imported. Additionally, access to capital for farmers in nearly nonexistent. Which leads me to theme No. 3.
  3. It’s nearly impossible for farmers to get bank loans, and those that do are required to use land as collateral. One of the most important initiatives in recent years has been the Investment Law, which makes it easier and safer for foreigners to invest in Myanmar.
  4. Years of economic sanctions and military rule mean that capacity is not where it needs to be—skill levels don’t meet the job requirements leaving many unemployed and many available positions that can’t be filled by capable candidates.
  5. People are nostalgic for the days of military rule and are critical of how the current government is stacked with party loyalists who are older and not as well versed in many of the issues that they oversee. Bottlenecks in decision making are common, making processes that should take hours or days take months. To me, this was perhaps the most shocking theme we heard. Before this class, most of what I knew about Myanmar was the international excitement about the opportunity of a new democratic government.

 

Proximity
Visit to the Proximity Design offices in Yangon, one of the largest non-profits in Myanmar.

We have three more days to of visits, but, after beating the Yangon traffic on Monday, we had some time for touring. At sunset we visited the Shwedagon Pagoda, the holiest pagoda in Myanmar (partially because it’s said to hold eight strands of Buddha’s hair). It’s enormous and is a landmark of the city’s skyline. Covered in hundreds of gold plates and encrusted with thousands of diamonds it sparkles from a great distance.

-Miriam Krule ’18

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