I haven’t been back to Myanmar for about 8 months, so I was very excited to be back and see the changes because I read and heard that there were many positive changes since I left and especially since the last elections that saw an outstanding win of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party. Of course I had my doubts as rebuilding and changing a country that has been destroyed from the inside for half of a century cannot come back from its ashes that fast and be totally changed this fast… Anyway, I believed there would be some significant changes in the country, but I needed to see them with my own eyes.
The second I stepped on Yangon International Airport, I was amazed by the new airport terminals. We used to have only one old terminal for international departure and arrival, but now we have two huge and beautiful terminals. Even though it’s still far from international airports I have travelled recently, like Hong Kong and Bangkok, this is already a huge improvement and even the organization of the terminal is nothing as it was before… I guess we didn’t have a choice given the millions of tourist that arrive here every year now. Well that’s a good first… but there is still plenty to see, and change is not only seen with one infrastructure change, even it is major. So I was still, wondering if other areas would have caught up.
After my family picked me up, I asked them to drive me around the city, as I was curious to discover more, and of course asked them to bring me to have some Burmese traditional food for lunch, I have been missing it so much. I know I was supposed to expect, but I was surprised and a bit excited actually at seeing the new shape of the city. In less that a year, Yangon has indeed developed quite a lot, since I found new high-rise buildings, new infrastructures, overhead bridges and new shopping malls. There were new bus lines and tramlines for the public transport with reasonable fees. Yet, the traffic in the city was still pretty bad, there is still a lot to be done in the transportation infrastructure, but things are going in the right direction it seemed. Crossing the road in the city is still a real adventure, though :).
The inveterate habit of Yangonites to throw rubbish on the street needs to be changed and it is not only the responsibility of the citizens but also the governments. I mean, is it that difficult to place rubbish bins around the city. Look at cities like Singapore or Hong Kong, nothing lies down on the streets and there have rubbish bins everywhere. If the government can provide sufficient amount of rubbish bins in the city, I believe people will choose to throw into the rubbish bins. Some education might be needed on the way, but that would be a real first step to Yangon’s cleanliness. I had to hold onto my used tissues for half an hour till I found a rubbish bin.
The other chronic habit is about bribing officials. The former government have tried a few stuff, had made spruce announcement about fighting against corruption and bribery, but this has not changed much in my opinion. Reducing that kind of practices has to be a top priority target for the new government, but that will take time. One of my friend told me about her experience renewing her ID card, as she lost it a few days before. In order to get her ID quicker, she had to give some extra money in an envelope. Not surprised but disappointed, I asked her why she didn’t wait for a few weeks to get the ID card. Everybody was paying to get their ID quicker, so in the end she wouldn’t know when she would get her ID and couldn’t afford that, so she just did the same as everyone, it has become common practice. But it is funny to me, since in the end you don’t get it quicker, everybody is paying, so does it really accelerate the process for anyone? I don’t think so.
So yes, change can be seen in Yangon and the city is on the way to be more prosperous. But the condition of the people is not changing; it doesn’t seem to be improving yet. People are still struggling to own a house because the installment system to buy houses is still impossible to establish due to undercapitalization. Less than 30% of the citizens in Yangon own a house or an apartment. And prices increase in housing and land will certainly not help for that process.
After spending a few days in Yangon, I decided to visit some rural areas, so I went to Thabaung Township in Ayeryawaddy Division. I visited many villages there and they are still facing the same lack of clean water because of Arsenic poisoning in the water. Many NGOs are helping in those areas in order to build more water purifiers and toilets. Many students still have to walk to other villages for many hours because they do not have schools in their villages. But NGOs cannot make the job of a government; these people need help, not money or subsidies. But simple infrastructures like water filters/purifiers, schools, and health care… basic needs of the people.
Myanmar seems to be developing so fast, with investment coming in, tourists numbers increasing exponentially and big cities landscape changing, but most of this development is just external, and it profits only a few. The life conditions of the average citizen have not yet been improved. For sure we cannot blame the newly elected government, since they just took power. But they need to act fast and efficiently so that the changes and development of Myanmar profits the whole population and not only a very small part of it as it used to be for the last 50 years or so. We need to wait patiently and help our government to recreate our golden country, to recreate what used to be the most prosperous country in South East Asia. So we need them to act, but we need to be the change that we want to see as Gandhi used to say…