gather around the Shwedagon Pagoda during the Warso Full Moon Festival
in Yangon, Myanmar, on July 15, 2011. The past few years have seen
sweeping changes in the Asian country.
Picture it: pagodas, palaces, parks—a paradise for
photographers. Keep clicking. Through your lens you see the "new" and
"mysterious," the "mystical" and "magical" Myanmar, also known as Burma.
There is so much for tourists to see: Buddhist temples,
royal gardens, tranquil rivers, and paddies. (See related photo gallery:
"Land of Shadows.")
But wait, wasn't this Myanmar once a xenophobic, tightly controlled,
reclusive, repressive country? How can the same place that limited visas
and travel for decades now be attracting planeloads of tourists—and branding itself for its "hospitality" and welcoming atmosphere?
Yes, the same country that until 2010 kept its leading dissident, Aung San Suu Kyi,
under house arrest, markets itself today as the "Golden Land" of
mystical charms and exotic attractions. Sounds almost schizophrenic. But
Myanmar may be the best example of a once-closed land that has now
discovered the upsides (and possible downsides) of openness, public
diplomacy, and tourism.
The Lure of Lucre
Last year alone, according to the research firm Quartz, one
million people visited Myanmar. A country that once locked up
dissidents who dared to criticize its political leaders is now busy
upgrading airports and hotels to meet the rising tide of
visitors—expected to reach three million by 2015, and seven million by
2020, according to its own projections.
That's a lot of people ... and a lot of revenue. According to the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, Myanmar garnered $500 million dollars last year from tourism, up from $315 million in 2011.
Companies are flocking in. In June, Myanmar played host, for the first time, to the World Economic Forum's Asia Summit.
Over 900 participants from 55 countries attended the gathering,
including chief executives from Chevron, General Electric, Mitsubishi,
and Visa. Coca-Cola already has a bottling plant outside of Yangon, and
recently announced that it is investing $200 million over the next five
years in production and distribution in Myanmar.
Buddhist novice monk Kyaw Thiha plays during heavy rainfall at Shin Ohtama Tharya monastery in Yangon.
Photograph by Soe Zeya Tun, Reuters
The welcome mat was rolled out as part of a larger process
of political and democratic reform in Myanmar over the past few years.
In 2010, voters elected a nominally civilian government—led by a retired
army general—ending decades of harsh military rule. Foreign governments
and companies, sensing opportunities, have rushed to encourage
Myanmar's progress and to create incentives for continued reform. All
And yet ... there's a "but" to this story.
Democracy is a process, not a product. The president of
Myanmar, Thein Sein, has shown himself over the past two years to be an
advocate of economic and political opening, but he is also a former
career army officer. The old military guard is still very influential in
Myanmar, and their ranks include opponents of democratic change.
Backsliding remains a concern.
We have seen other cases around the world—Egypt is a prime
example—where the military steps slightly to the side, only to step back
in with both boots if it sees an opportunity or necessity to do so.
How Thein Sein balances the civilian-military equation is
yet to be seen. He recently made his first trip to the White House, and
has shown himself capable of bold moves--like releasing hundreds of
prisoners, including political detainees; allowing parliamentary
elections in 2012 (an election that brought Aung San Suu Kyi back into
government); and liberalizing the press. But progress can easily be
rolled back, as we saw after the revolution in Libya, where many
democratic gains were quickly lost.
Thein Sein has promised to release all political prisoners
by the end of the year—a stark reminder of how dissidents have been
handled in the past. But the real test will come later. Dissent is not
easy for any government to tolerate—especially governments that are used
to secrecy and tight control—and there is still much to criticize.
It takes time to root out corruption and cronyism, and
Myanmar has a long way to go. Although the West has eased sanctions and
the United States has an ambassador now in Myanmar, the embassy issues
regular reminders to American companies that reforms remain
"unfinished," in the words of the U.S. government's own press release.
That is code for "transparency not yet achieved."
Independent newspapers are springing up, new broadcast laws have been
adopted that reduce official censorship, and there's been massive
growth in the numbers of Facebook users. But a more open media is not,
by itself, a guarantee of freedom. It is possible to shut down dissent
even with an open press. Russia is a good example of a country that saw a
rise of independent radio and television stations. But when Putin wants
to crack down on dissent, he finds ways to do so, sometimes by locking
people up or changing laws.
Motivation is also important. We don't yet really know what
the government of Myanmar truly wants beyond tourists, revenue, and
investment. The country is moving from pariah to player—in part because
its appalling economic conditions required it. But with benefits come
responsibilities—like fair play, open business rules, and
It remains to be seen if Myanmar will really embrace the
relative chaos of a free market and full-fledged democracy. The
temptation to revert to old ways, to control events and determine
outcomes, will be powerful.