I’ve just returned from a month in Myanmar – my second trip to this extraordinary country. It’s in the middle of one of today’s most remarkable revolutions. Every aspect of their society is facing significant change.
My first visit was only nine months ago and in that short time alone (to say nothing of the change many have seen over several years) the pace is staggering. ATMs are popping up (for decades they have had a nearly non-existent formal financial sector); development (buildings that is) is running rampant, with new shopping centres that feature more bespoke stores than a common Aussie centre; and the east-west mix is gaining speed (eg an ironic billboard promoting Captain America was adorning a building in downtown Yangon). The day I flew out there was a massive planned political demonstration. For it to be even allowed is incredible.
Amid all of this change, wealth, glamour and luxury are co-existing with poverty in a way that is challenging what I think about poverty and what I think about development.
A riverfront village in Bagan
In this riverfront village in Bagan, residents are not the poorest in the country but their housing and access to services is certainly on the lower end.
In the greater Bagan area, it is quite common for someone working in hospitality to earn USD$20 per month. That’s 70c per day. The United Nations stops ‘measuring’ income at $1 per day.
In this village you’ll find fishermen with their families. In the high season, the row of boats is used to take tourists out on the Ayerrywaddy River (the road to Mandalay).
I had met one of the boat owners after suffering not one but six tyre punctures from my cycling adventure. Here’s where my worldview gets challenged.
The boat owner had a friend who, among other things, had a small stall for fixing things like tyres. So there’s the boat owner, the tyre repairer and a bunch of mates – having what seemed a pretty good Saturday, while my tyre was being fixed. Every now and then they would pop over to update me. You have a puncture…(they get back to their conversation)…actually, you have three…(silly white woman, next time stay on the roads)…no, you have six…(she clearly doesn’t do things in halves). They were warm and hospitable but what struck me was that their economy is founded on community. I have a feeling the boat owner didn’t ‘get’ anything for introducing me to his friend. It comes back around. He got my business a few days later as I enjoyed one of his boat rides.
You can’t overlook the realities of life impacted by poverty and you can’t fall back on the very risky, very short-sighted ‘they are poor but SO happy’. But, what I did see yet again meant that my idea of ‘development’ and ‘poverty’ had to stretch that much wider.
In Australia we have better access to services and quality roads and there might be a stronger sense of human rights and ‘empowerment’ (though I even question that at times). However, we have been losing community in the face of development while the people I’ve met in Myanmar have a wealth, at least in community, that has fundamentally enabled people to survive in a context where 70c a day just doesn’t add up to a sustainable life.
I hope this isn’t interpreted as someone romanticising poverty. I’ve spent time with young women who have been regularly abused, people who have lifelong disability for the want of basic health care, children who are severely stunted in their development because of a lack of nutrition, people who lost 14 years of their life for being jailed without trial, and communities whose water supplies have been cut off. Life for many in Myanmar is tough. Most are invisible. I’m not that confident that many aid programs even make it to where everyday people are…certainly not the dozens I meet who represent thousands of people in overlooked communities.
However, our crumbling western economies aren’t exactly beacons. So, it is with caution that I hope the ‘west’ brings magnanimous development to countries like Myanmar.
In the final week I was there, employees from UNICEF and the World Bank were moving in (the World Bank having been absent for two decades). All of a sudden, Myanmar was popular again. Coco-Cola and Google were talking with the President about launching into the country. McDonalds and Starbucks are bound to have real estate agents already hunting the best territory. This is not all bad but I hope development organisations pause before launching another program disconnected from everyday life…and businesses pause before they buy out the culture.
It is true, part of me is concerned that faceless development will destroy community. I’m concerned that the traditional society will be marginalised and made to feel second rate to a westernised one. Nine months of change has made the traditional longi (the most common clothing for men and women) the exception rather than the rule in the shiny new shopping centres. Sure, everyone has a right to wear what they want but we don’t need another generic country. We need to keep the roadside teahouses even while skyscrapers become inevitable.
My concerns aren’t really because I’m a purist. I’m just a westerner. And after 30+ years of my lived experience, I’m not at all convinced that we’ve had it all right. The fragile global economy is the product of western greed. Money wins. And money, too often, crowds out the very things that people get on a plane and travel to a country like Myanmar to see and experience. At least this Aussie believes you can’t buy authentic community.
So, to the ‘influxers’, please tread carefully. The ground you walk on is only poor by some measures. By others, it is wealthy beyond measure. Please contribute to the country developing as its people want it to. Please carry the lessons from decades of western successes and failures, because in decades to come, I won’t be surprised if people from Myanmar travel to countries like Australia to bring development assistance with them – to help our weak civil society and fractured communities figure out what it means to live.
PS Written from a world where there’s no excuse for anyone living on 70c a day.