Being a tourist in Myanmar

By Kristina Jönsson, Associate Professor
Department of Political Science, Lund University

The political changes currently seen in Myanmar (former Burma) were for most observers unthinkable only a few years ago. I am not a specialist on Burmese politics, but have over the years followed the developments in the country from a regional perspective in relation to the neighbouring Laos and Cambodia, countries I have studied more closely.

Recently I travelled in Myanmar for three weeks, not as a researcher but as a tourist on an organised trip. Although I spent my time doing touristic activities, enjoying the beautiful country and friendly people, I could not help making a few observations based on my academic background.

Men wearing longyies in Yangon

Men wearing longyies in Yangon

I was not certain what to anticipate, but my impression of the country was more positive than I thought it would be – probably because of all the negative publicity over the years. Practicalities did overall work better than expected during the tour, and my impression was that Myanmar is a country with great potentials to develop rapidly under the right circumstances. Yangon with its bustling atmosphere reminded me of Thailand, the tourist spots made me think of Cambodia and the countryside of Laos.

However, the pace of change varies. To mention a few examples, modern materialism, such as cars and smart phones have been made affordable to the non-elite after years of exorbitant prices. ATMs and the use of credit cards are spreading as international business and tourism expand. These changes co-exist with the widespread use of traditional longyies. It is impossible for foreigners to use their cell phones with a foreign subscription. Also, most of the country has yet to get electricity and the indicators for health and education are among the worst in the region.

Still, the political development is the most noteworthy change. The control over media has relaxed and political prisoners are released en masse. The by-election in 2012 was a victory for the National League for Democracy (NLD), and Aung San Suu Kyi is now a member of the parliament. President Thein Sein has even indicated support of changing the constitution in order for Aung San Suu Kyi to run for presidency (which is currently impossible because of her marriage to a foreigner).

Aung San Suu Kyi and her father, the national hero General Aung San, are highly present in everyday life through pictures and calendars, both in Yangon and in the countryside. We saw many NLD offices in the villages but only a few bureaus of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). In general, the support of the opposition seemed widespread except where the army has its bases (e.g. close to conflict areas).

Party office of National League for Democracy

Party office of National League for Democracy

The outcome of the 2015 election will be an important indicator of the real political changes. What will happen if NLD wins a landslide victory as in 1990? Will the result be accepted or will there be a backlash? Are current political changes a serious attempt to democratise the country, or just a survival strategy for the regime to achieve ‘performance legitimacy’? The top-priority of the regime is clearly stability, and what we can see so far is a strictly controlled top-down transformation. This has been going on since 2003 by implementing the seven-step roadmap towards the establishment of a ‘disciplined democracy’, including a new constitution and elections.

Many issues threaten a positive development. For instance, the issue of ethnic conflicts is still unsolved, the drug trade is apparently increasing, and communal strife between Buddhist and Muslims is increasingly violent – amply illustrated by the persecution of the Rohingyas. And even if the ‘freedom of press’ has improved, journalists have recently been arrested and there are reports of the army assaulting civilians.

Party office of Union Solidarity and Development Party

Party office of Union Solidarity and Development Party

Moreover, there is an emerging symbiosis between business and the state, supporting crony capitalism and corruption empowering a narrow oligarchy, not the least in the borderlands. Besides the extraction of natural resources, the tourist sector is booming. Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake may have difficulties coping with the influx of foreign visitors, but the prices for hotel rooms etc. are increasing, enabling lucrative business. Ordinary citizens may benefit from this development, although it is probably the elite, the army included, who make the largest profit.

The development in Myanmar may not be unlike other Southeast Asian countries that have experienced similar development trajectories. Some draw parallels to Indonesia due to historical similarities. Others make comparisons to Cambodia, where external pressure led to the introduction of democratic institutions without significantly altering the political-economic powers structures under the authoritarian rule of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Another issue is the effects of the political changes in Myanmar regarding regional dynamics. Myanmar used to be ‘worst in class’, but now the regime gets international praise and heads of states have been queuing for audience with President Thein Sein. From 2014 Myanmar even holds the chair of ASEAN. This development indirectly puts pressure on countries like Laos and Vietnam to introduce political reforms.

So, what are the ‘pros’ of being a tourist on an organised tour? You see a lot of the country (even if some areas are not accessible because of opium cultivation and armed conflict), you do not have to apply for permits (the guide takes care of that), and you experience comfortable hotels as well as unpretentious home-stays.

Tourist spot Bagan

Tourist spot Bagan

But perhaps this is also the ‘cons’ of being a tourist. You have a pleasant experience, but only see changes on the surface in parts of the country where people gradually are improving their lives. Those with lesser means probably will have to wait a long time for a better life, while others with the right connections rapidly can further their wealth.

Sources and further reading:

Croissant, Aurel & Kamerling, Jil (2013) Why Do Military Regimes Institutionalize? Constitution-making and Elections as Political Survival Strategy in Myanmar, Asian Journal of Political Science, 21(2): 105-125

Holliday, Ian (2010) Ethnicity and Democratization in Myanmar, Asian Journal of Political Science, 18(2): 111-128.

Jones, Lee (2013) The Political Economy of Myanmar’s Transition, Journal of Contemporary Asia, 44(1): 144-170.

Jones, Lee (2014) Explaining Myanmar’s regime transition: the periphery is central, Democratization, DOI: 10.1080/13510347.2013.863878. Published online 28 Jan 2014.

Renshaw, Catherine Shanahan (2013) Democratic Transformation and Regional Institutions: The Case of Myanmar and ASEAN, Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs, 32(1): 29–54.

Rieffel, Lex (2012), Myanmar on the Move: An Overview of Recent Developments, Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs, 31(4): 31-49.

Taylor, Robert H. (2012) Myanmar: From Army Rule to Constitutional Rule? Asian Affairs, 43(2): 221-236.

Taylor, Robert H. (2013) Myanmar’s ‘Pivot’ Toward the Shibboleth of ‘Democracy’, Asian Affairs, 44(3): 392-400.


Farming is Ugly: Reform, Friction and Bishan Commune

From 2014, Anhui Province will pilot a reform of the residential land market in China, thus integrating rural Anhui in the national housing market. On the opposite note, artist and activist Ou Ning has proposed the Bishan time money currency, intending to establish an alternative economic circuit in Bishan Village.

 

Bishan Village. A new and an old Hui-style house side by side, fronted by a very blue tele company commercial.

Bishan Village. A new and an old Hui-style house side by side, fronted by a very blue tele company commercial.

 

Bishan Village, Yi County, Anhui Province

At first sight, Bishan village doesn’t come across as a poor village; the traffic conditions are good, the small county seat is only 15 min away on electric scooter, the preferred vehicle of most villagers, and the county seat can boast of a new hospital, a new school, rows of new townhouses and apartment blocks, construction sites and smaller factories. There are similarly plenty of newly build houses in Bishan. Nevertheless, the wealth represented by these new houses, does not come from the local economy, but is almost entirely based on young people going to the city to work, sending money home, building houses they do not themselves reside in. Old people and small children constitute the actual population as most young people have left to work in the more developed urban areas. Furthermore, many families, who have migrated to the city, have had no legal way of selling the land they no longer reside on, leaving the village dotted with empty houses.

Yi County is renowned for its well-preserved Hui-style villages, and the growing reliance on tourism through the past ten years has altered the economic foundation of these villages considerably. Bishan is, however, not one of these tourist sites. Even though Hui-style remains the predominant architectural feature, the many newly build houses cause a lack of visual, rural authenticity so crucial to urban tourists. Nevertheless, Bishan has become attractive to investors, mainly within the hotel sector, who wish to take advantage of its proximity to famous tourist destinations and good traffic conditions.

In this Huizhou village on the foot of the Yellow Mountain range, artist, curator and editor Ou Ning and his colleague Zuo Jing initiated Bishan Commune in 2011; a call for a return to the countryside and a renewed relationship between urban and rural areas, countering the official line of further urbanization.

 

Ou Ning's house Buffalo Institute

Ou Ning’s house Buffalo Institute

 

A house for Bishan Commune

An old compound in traditional Hui-style in the centre of Bishan constitute the headquarters of Bishan Commune. Ou Ning bought the house in 2010 and called it Buffalo Institute. In the spring of 2013, he moved permanently to Bishan with his family (mother, younger brother, nephew, girlfriend and her son). The move indicates a significant turning point for Bishan Commune, entering a phase of action and interaction.

A constant flow of visitors, foreign and Chinese, urbanities and local villagers, pass through the house and stay for longer or shorter periods, either to work and discuss with Ou Ning, to do smaller projects like investigations of the local folk music or handicrafts, fieldwork studies of the countryside or, as many do, experience the traditional Hui-style houses in a new condition.

The house occupied by Buffalo Institute used to be the dormitory of the sent down youth during the Cultural Revolution. A story that now somehow repeats itself, albeit under very different circumstances. Buffalo Institute is a gathering space of free, independent learning and sharing and where elaborate discussions on the unfolding of Bishan Commune and the future of Bishan village continuously take place, which is also the result of Ou Ning and his family’s warm curiosity and generosity.

 

Informal land market

Ou Ning was not legally allowed to buy the house in 2010, so the proof of ownership still carries the name of the previous owner. In the countryside there are roughly three categories of land: farmland (collectively owned by the villagers), state owned land and residential land (the land your house is built on). Farmland can be expropriated and converted into state owned land and then sold or leased to developers and the like, but residential land can so far not be traded within the law. However, circumvention of state regulations unofficially sanctioned by local officials has created an informal residential land market in Bishan and Yi County making it possible for Ou Ning, Zuo Jing and others to purchase houses in Bishan. Due to the unofficial character of this residential land market and the consequential lack of real estate agents, it still requires good connections with the villagers to purchase a house, since you need introduction to the farmers who are willing to or can be persuaded to sell. Moreover, not many people dare to undertake the costs of buying a house without the necessary legal protection in case of expropriation or the like, further limiting the scope of this informal residential land market.

To address these issues, Anhui Province is from the beginning of next year piloting an official market for residential land in a selected number of counties (scmp.com), including Yi county under whose jurisdiction Bishan is placed. This pilot residential land market makes it possible for external actors to purchase or lease houses and land within Bishan village legally, something which can potentially transform the appearance and demography of Bishan once again.

 

Zhang Yu, to the left, from Young Official's Garden visit a local horseradish farmer.

Zhang Yu, to the left, from Young Official’s Garden visit a local horseradish farmer.

 

Farming is ugly

Ou Ning explains that it is often urban people of wealth who are able to buy the old houses and undertake the high costs of restoring them. Mrs. Liang, who has recently purchased a house in Bishan, expresses that she wants to convert the land in connection to her house into a flower garden, since “it is not pretty to look at cultivated farmland”.[1] This statement suggests a problematic attitude towards the rural cultural landscape.

If the further opening up of the housing land market implies an invasion of unscrupulous capital with no consideration for and appreciation of the existing rural cultural landscapes and practices, then Bishan might be on the path of a dangerous development, turning the village into an urban playground, designed to fulfill the ever-expanding needs of urban residents and tourists. When not properly integrating the rural residents in the decision making process, this kind of development tends to neglect the needs of the rural population by not creating any real job opportunities for often uneducated farmers and causing a fluctuation in housing prices and general living costs.

This is also an aspect where the presence of Bishan Commune in Bishan can be a significant factor. Bishan Commune and their like-minded continuously make an effort to influence newcomers to the area as well as local villagers and officials of the importance of preserving rural culture as a visible feature of Bishan and direct the development in a more sustainable direction. If they succeed, then Bishan might be able to change for the better, providing job opportunities that will allow young people the possibility to choose to stay in Bishan. The need of Bishan to develop economically is a stated priority of many of the local residents, who generally support expropriation of farming land, since it allows capital to enter. Ongoing discussions with the villagers on this subject, make the economical aspect a concern Bishan Commune have had to take into consideration. Even though they might not always agree with Bishan Commune on the terms of development, local villagers and officials show great support for the initiative.

 

The common space at Han Yu's Pig's Inn no. 3, which used to be an old oil station. Most of the furnitures are second hand, bought or found in the area.

The common space at Han Yu’s Pig’s Inn no. 3, which used to be an old oil station. Most of the furnitures are second hand, bought or found in the area.

 

Alternative economic circuit

As a means to establish an alternative economic circuit in Bishan, Ou Ning recently proposed the Bishan time money currency, where smaller tasks such as housekeeping at the local guesthouse Pig’s Inn or helping in the fields of Young Village Officials Garden, can be exchanged for a meal at the local hotel Tailai, books at the soon-to-open branch of the Nanjing bookstore Librairie Avant-Garde, or second hand artifacts donated to the shop Ou Ning will open at Buffalo Institute and so forth. All the Bishan time money members listed above agree to this system of exchange. Even though the system valorize labour in a manner maybe not entirely consistent with Kropotkin’s  concept of “mutual aid” advocated by Ou Ning and maybe won’t bring any direct job opportunities, it still provides an important alternative to the existing model and manages to incorporate the villagers’ concerns for some sort of economic possibilities. Furthermore, Bishan Commune can be an important marker of identification and will give Bishan a special standing in relation to the neighboring villages, providing that “something different”, which will be important when attracting the right kind of “caring” capital to the village.

The Bishan time money has yet to be put into effect, but Ou Ning expects it to be set in motion sometime around next spring. In my opinion, the most interesting aspect of the Bishan time money, is how the villagers will embrace this new system, if they will make it their own, thus creating the possibility of this alternative currency to exceed the core members and entering the village society as a whole. When asked whether Ou Ning has discussed making an independent monetary system in Bishan with the local officials, he answers: This I do first, and then I ask.

The coming years will show, how the presence of Bishan Commune in the village and the introduction of Bishan Time money combined with a reformed residential land market will affect Bishan and which direction the development will take. But to answer the question Tom Cliff asked in his introductory article on Bishan Commune: Is intention sufficient? I think it is safe to answer, that with this kind of project intention can never be sufficient. But intention is an important trigger for agency, and in Bishan Commune’s case it is an agency that is constantly reinvented and renegotiated in collaboration with local actors, thus aiming at creating new spaces of possibilities in Bishan and beyond.

Mai Corlin is enrolled as PhD fellow at Aarhus University, Department of Culture and Society, China Studies. Her project is entitled Utopian Imaginaries in Rural Reconstruction – Urban Artists in Rural China and is concerned with socially engaged art in the countryside of China.


[1] Informal conversation with Mrs. Liang, Yixian, October and November 2013.


Developing Vietnam with whom?

Restoration 2.0 for the Resurgence of Modern Vietnam

 

By Mia Ji Sørensen

”Wouldn’t you define Vietnam as a middle-income country?” I was asked this rhetorical question last week. Despite its emerging economy status, with a growth rate of approximately 7 per cent during the past two decades, it is still one of the poorest of the ‘Next 11 Countries,’ and even though Vietnam has been in vibrant development, it is now faced with stagnant economic growth. There is a lot of potential for Vietnam to move up the ladder, as it has a vast young workforce, 50 per cent of the population being younger than 26. In addition, Vietnam has gone through a gradual shift from the agricultural sector towards an industrial sector that has attracted a great amount of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). FDI has been the primary focus of many developing countries over the past decade, as most host countries have liberalised their FDI regulations. FDI has been the primary source of the buoyant economic growth in the Southeast Asian economies, and in contrast to other regions, which over the past years have experienced a decline in their FDI inflows, Southeast Asia increased by 2 per cent annually ($110 billion)[1]. Here, Singapore is the leading host destination for FDI, which also improves FDI levels in the lower-income countries in the neighbourhood such as Vietnam, Myanmar and Cambodia.

According to the IMF, Vietnam is defined as a lower-middle-income country (also referred to as a developing country), as its GNI per capita falls in the range between $1,026 and $4,035. Developing countries are regularly stimulated by aid from developed countries, and this is also true of Vietnam. Before the end of the Cold War, the Soviet Union was one of the central donors to Vietnam. After the conquest of South Vietnam in 1975, and the strain between the Chinese and the Vietnamese, the elimination of Chinese aid in 1978 compelled Hanoi to look to Moscow for economic and military assistance. This made the Soviets the largest contributors of aid, in addition to being a pivotal trade partner. But frequent occurrences of distrust between the two, in the context of Sino-Soviet contemplations, entailed that the Soviet resented their enormous aid burden in the beginning of the 1980s, as they perceived it a wasted investment. As a consequence of the Soviet experience, Vietnam is uneasy about dealing with its donors.

Developing interaction with developed countries

The European Union (EU) is by far the largest donor to Vietnam; 2013 disbursements are measured to be EUR 743 million, and the Union is also the second largest investor of FDI, surpassed only by Japan.  Nevertheless, there has been a vibrant wave of European donors shifting their relationship with Vietnam from disbursing millions of euros for Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) towards developing their respective partnerships into a more strategic manner. This goes hand in hand with more EU member states gradually phasing out donations.

In fact, during the past decade, Vietnam has conducted more than ten partnerships. Of these, four are European: Italy (2013), Germany (2011), the UK (2010) and Spain (2009). France is currently negotiating one, and two European member states have contracted sectoral partnerships that focus on climate change. Deepening relations with external partners is clearly an important aspect of Vietnamese foreign policy. The partnership agreements with the European countries should match the strategic importance in regard to the security, prosperity and international standing of Vietnam. Strategic partnerships are established to diversify the external relations of a country and for proactive integration of it into the world, by helping to develop the country and make it more resilient to external shocks. From this point of view, a partnership with real potential to create prosperity for Vietnam is the one with Germany. Germany is one of the most important EU members when it comes to economic relations, as it accounts for more than one-fourth of the overall two-way trade between the EU and Vietnam. Germany is also the second largest contributor of ODA, subsidising 8.4 per cent of overall EU grants. In 2012, the EU market became the largest export market for Vietnamese products, overtaking the United States, which had until then been the central export market ever since the trade-embargo was lifted between the two partners in 1995. It is not just because of Germany’s economic strength that Vietnam draws a great deal from this European partner. The common history of the two Germanys and the two Vietnams has connected the former DDR and North Vietnam in the framework of socialist solidarity; also, a German-Vietnamese University will be established in order to promote sustainability in the relationship between the two countries.

In April this year, a conference between Vietnam and Germany was held in Hanoi in order to discuss the process of developing a social market economy in Vietnam, utilising Germany as an example. Social Market Economy stands for an ideal compromise between two ideological ways of organising and coordinating an economy: social democracy and economic liberalism. Soziale Marktwirtshaft was an idiom introduced by former German chancellor Konrad Adenauer, and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Hanoi was thus the host of this event. Several prominent academics were invited to the conference to elaborate on the importance of reaching this ideal compromise.

Avoid the middle-income trap

In this regard, and in numerous other international gatherings between European partners and Vietnam, the Vietnamese rhetoric of what Europe can do for Vietnam focuses on avoiding the middle-income trap. The middle-income trap refers to a situation in which a middle-income country fails to transition to a high-income economy due to rising costs and declining competitiveness. A situation only a few developing economies have managed successfully, as seen in East Asia where South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore have made a transition to advanced economies. Domestic forces drove the transitions on a political and bureaucratic level for each country, albeit with different national obstacles. For Vietnam, there are several detrimental challenges; one is the correlation between growth, public governance and corruption. This is a challenge when aiming for a less closed and dynamic Vietnam, because the government maintains austere control. As the legacy of Stalinism remains, the Communist Party of Vietnam and its one-party structure largely determine the outcome of any reform and proceeding. The government maintains strong control over land ownership and enterprises of the most influential sectors, which is why the State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) remain powerful, and thus impedes private enterprises in becoming more competitive. In the current context of booming free trade agreements taking place in Asia (more than 30 were completed in the Asia Pacific in the past two decades), the SOEs and their influential presence in the Vietnamese economy is a factor crucial to the lack of sustained economic growth. As the SOEs in Vietnam are a pivotal income source for public officials, these officials are hesitant in negotiating free trade agreements.

Since the economic reform, the doi moi introduced in 1986, Vietnam has recorded impressive growth rates. Doi moi means restoration in Vietnamese and was intended to push forward a much-needed renovation process in order to reshape the regional and international agenda of the country. The Vietnamese restoration process has contributed to a successful escape from the poverty trap into the emergence of a middle-income country. Notwithstanding, there is still a long way to go; the economy is now characterised by slow growth and frail international competitiveness. For seven years, the average GDP growth rate was recorded to be 8.7 per cent (from 2000 to 2007) whereas in 2012, the growth rate has dropped to 5 per cent[2]. In the latest investment outlook conducted by The Economist (2013), Vietnam’s macroeconomic troubles have taken the shine off the country’s once strong appeal as investments and growth have a cohesive and reciprocal effect (investors are more attracted to invest in countries with a high growth vis-à-vis investments help to create growth). One of the main challenges to economic growth in Vietnam is the SOEs, and in order to continuously sustain growth, there is a demand for restructuring them.

The asymmetrical relation between private and public enterprises is a paradox because of the significant performance of the private sector in Vietnam. After the doi moi, private enterprises gained legitimacy, and their contribution to economic growth has been remarkable. According to the General Statistics Office of Vietnam, the private sector accounted for 50 per cent of the total industrial output in 1989, whereas 15 years later, this figure nearly reached 73 per cent. The private sector is also responsible for creating the majority of new jobs in this period.

By contrast, the SOEs are challenged with debt, while the public authorities, the owners of SOEs, give favourable conditions to the SOEs. The government’s mismanagement also entails a society with incomplete domestic supply chains, creating dependency on other supply chains (such as China’s) to provide the necessary components, which in turn leads to wage inflation and less attractiveness for investments. Subsequently, before we can start talking about a competitive state circumventing the middle-income trap, there are domestic obstacles that have to be dealt with by the government – obligating the public officials in showing true strength. This will require a new model of thinking within the Vietnamese government and public officials, who are rather rigid and still bound to traditional socialist ideologies.

Obviously, the German model of a social market economy seems appropriate for Vietnam because of the shared ideologies about market and state, but it will only function in practice with true political determination of adapting to it, particularly in relation to market reforms. The central idea of a social market economy is to protect the freedom of the market participants, on both the demand side and the supply side, while securing social equity. If the country is to avoid falling into the middle-income trap, there are domestic challenges that have to be solved, as there is restricted freedom for private enterprises, which creates a gap in social equity. If the officials are serious about a social market economy, one of the key responsibilities for the government is to establish a policy framework which is effective for competition. This will require openness and transparency and a serious alternative to ingrained public preferential treatment. This is the challenge in a one-party state and the process is now in a reactive phase, rather than a proactive one; hence a significant demand for change has already arisen. Ultimately, if the Vietnamese politicians and public officials want to put Vietnam in focus, overcome stagnant growth and middle-income traps, it all begins at the core of the one-party system.

What is necessary is a new doi moi, a restoration process 2.0 in order to make the essential shift from rhetorical promises to action taken to start/create a structural reform that can renovate and renew the notion of a modern Vietnam.

 

Mia Ji Sørensen,

MA Student in International Studies and Social Science, Aarhus University,

Affiliated Workplace Student at Nordic Institute of Asian Studies Political Science, University of Copenhagen

Bibliography:

 

  • Freedom House: Countries at the Crossroads 2012 freedomhouse.org
  • United Nations Conference on Trade and Development UNCTAD STAT Database
  • General Statistics Office of Vietnam (GSO)
  • East Asia Forum – Economics, Politics and Public Policy in East Asia and the Pacific: Developing Asia and the middle-income trap http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2013/08/05/developing-asia-and-the-middle-income-trap/
  • EUROSTAT Comext Statistical Database HS2,4
  • International Monetary Fond, imf.org 2013
  • The Economist Corporate Network 2013: Investing in Accelerating Asia
  • Vietnamnet.vn: article published April 26, 2013 “How many strategic partners are enough for Vietnam” by Le Hong Hiep
  • Nguyen, T.T. & Dijk, M.A. (2012). Corruption, growth and governance: private vs. state-owned firms in Vietnam. Journal of Banking and Finance 2012.
  • Kokko, A. (2011). EU and Vietnam: From a Parental to A Competitive Relationship. Retrieved from academica.edu

[1] UNCTAD: United Nations World Investment Report 2012

[2] Data and own calculations retrieved from UNCTAD 2013.


The gunslinger state of Laos

On December 15, on his way back from work, the Laotian director, activist and award winner, Sombath Somphone, mysteriously disappeared. The last people to see him, according to leaked surveillance footage, were the Laotian authorities at a police control post, where he was pulled over, and then driven away in a different car.

Despite that, the Laotian government still went out with a full denial of any knowledge as to why Sombath Somphone was detained…by their own officers. Since then, there has been no sign of the director, and no explanation as to why he disappeared.

Just weeks before, another activist had a run-in with the Laotian authorities – the director of the Swiss NGO Helveta, Anne-Sophie Gindroz, were expelled with a 24-hour warning for writing a critical letter.

The Laotian government explained that she “dismayed” the government with her “improper behavior.” Whatever that means – a quite surprising argumentation for throwing a peaceful activist out of a country.

Somehow , though, Laos has still managed to successfully present themselves as a charming little nation with a slow pace and idyllic farm life for the ever-smiling population. Relaxation, leisure and spirituality are key words in any glittered tourist brochure on Laos.

Truth is that the life in Laos is far from idyllic, and the pace is very, very far from slow. Since the 90s, the Laotians have built dams, constructed hydropower plants and made deals with neighbors Thailand, China and Vietnam so efficiently that the economy is today the fastest growing economy in ASEAN.

The country has recently joined the World Trade Organization, hosted an ASEM-summit – the biggest diplomatic event ever to take place in the country – and they have co-signed a range of international agreements, putting them into a world market that they could only dream of entering just a few years ago.

The main reason for the excellent economical performance is the energy sector. 30 percent of the country´s BNP comes out of natural resources converted into energy, mainly hydro electricity from plants and dams on Mekong and it´s many tributaries.

And while making this profit and shining in the spotlight of international recognition, Laos – quite on par with the behavior in the cases of Somphone and Gindroz – ignores that there are people living on and off these rivers.

Right now, Laos is constructing a dam called the Xayaburi Dam. Since the proposal of the project in 2007  it has been met with protests from experts, governments, activists, NGOs…pretty much everyone, who knows anything about water: It will hurt the migration of fish, it will endanger a number of species of fish – including the rockstar of Mekong; the Mekong giant catfish – and it will affect crops cultivated in and near the river. WWF estimates that a whopping 60 million people will be affected by the dam in its present form.

Naturally, there are negotiations going on, both with international experts and with the neighboring countries, on how to construct the dam with minimal damage. Both Vietnam and Cambodia have officially called for a halt in construction.

The Laotian response? Well. They ignore all the fuss and carry on building.

Laos has risen from dirt-poverty into a flourishing trading nation, and the fact that it will hurt some groups in the population – namely the poor and the minorities – seems to be of minor importance. The logic is: You cannot make an omelet without breaking some eggs.

But you know what, Laos? Economy is not an omelet and people are not eggs. There are ways to have economic growth without shattering the lives of the most vulnerable groups in your nation.

It is so, though, that the cases of horrible governance, the breaches of basic human rights, the bypassing of negotiations and good advice – all these things factor in, when you new lucrative, international friends are to do business with you.

You don´t seem to realize it, but the spotlight is on you now, Laos. What are you going to do with it?

 

Anya Palm, Journalist and NIAS Associate

Palm Writings

 

 


Myanmar – a country opening up?

After 50 years of isolation Myanmar, formerly named Burma, is finally opening up to the outside world. According to the media the country is now welcoming tourists, foreign investment and development aid. But exactly what does the picture of openness look like in reality?

 2012-11-18 07 08 42 (2)

Photo taken in a small village in the Ayeyarwaddy Delta: children curious to see what is happening at our meeting inside the monastery.

Having spent a month (restricted time period for tourist visa) collecting empirical data for a master’s thesis in Myanmar, the general picture of ‘openness’ has become more nuanced and complex. The mysterious Myanmar is a country known for a variety of reasons ranging from its beautiful landscapes decorated with golden pagodas, Buddhist monks dressed in saffron-coloured ropes to a repressive military rule followed by fear and poverty. As a master’s student in International Development Studies and Communication I had a desire to explore the country and to study how the development of civil society in Myanmar is influenced by the political changes in the country, and what role development organisations play in this process. This required a field visit to Myanmar.

With the help of the Danish Embassy in Bangkok a collaboration with ActionAid Myanmar was established. ActionAid Myanmar is managing two projects, amongst others, implemented by a consortium of local (and international) NGOs named the Thadar Consortium. The two projects are implemented in the Dry Zone, in the central part of Myanmar, and in the Ayeyarwaddy Delta, in the southern part of Myanmar, respectively, and both projects focus on the strengthening of civil society and improvement of livelihood.

The field visit was an eye-opening experience, based on positive as well as negative surprises, and by sharing this experience I am hoping to give the reader a deeper understanding of what it is like to do fieldwork in a country like Myanmar that has just “opened up” to the outside world. What challenges can you expect to meet when working under these circumstances?

Background

Before getting into a detailed description of my fieldwork I consider it necessary to briefly describe the country Myanmar and to highlight the most important historical and political events. In 1962 a military coup led by General Ne Win and the Burmese Socialist Program Party (BSPP) changed Myanmar from being a wealthy country to a country of repression, isolation and gradually increasing poverty. From 1962 – 2010 the situation in Myanmar was characterized by a number of uprisings against the military regime. One of the most well-known uprisings was in 1988 where large groups of students took to the street and, despite continued military ruling, managed to generate the resignation of the unpopular General Ne Win. However, the uprising was violently suppressed, and a large number of students died.

Seeing her country in that stage of repression, Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of Myanmar’s national hero Bogyoke Aung San (assassinated in 1948), made her entrance into the political arena to fight for a free and democratic Myanmar. She established the political party NLD ‘National League for Democracy’, but in 1989 she was placed under house arrest. 1989 was also the year when the government decided to change the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar, which caused further anger and frustration. In 1990 an election was held and the NLD won a landslide victory, but unfortunately, the military regime refused to recognize the election results, allowing the regime to stay in power.

The second well-known uprising, named the Saffron Revolution led by monks dressed in saffron-coloured ropes, took place in 2007. This event was violently suppressed and the action made the outside world aware of the critical situation in Myanmar.

Another event that attracted the attention of the outside world was when Cyclone Nargis struck and killed around 150.000 people in the southern part of Myanmar in 2008. For months NGOs were denied access to the areas.

From 2010 onwards the country started changing. In fall 2010 Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest – by this time she had been in house arrest for 15 years. A week before her release the government held a Parliamentary Election, but the NLD decided to boycott it. In 2011 a new democratic government was officially formed, with the leadership of the pro-democratic president Thein Sein, and this gave birth to a number of democratic reforms. In April 2012 the NLD won a landslide victory in a by-election, which meant that the party was now represented, although with a minority part of Parliament.

 

Fieldwork in Myanmar

 Freedom of speech

Judging by national and international media channels it appeared that Myanmar had actually opened up, allowing tourists, development aid and foreign investment to enter the country. This, however, didn’t necessarily mean that the Burmese people were ready to express their opinions on sensitive issues like politics, the military government, civil society or democracy, topics upon which my master’s thesis is based. In order to adapt to these circumstances the research and interview questions were moderated accordingly.

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 The streets of Yangon: a young nun talking on her blue smart-phone

On arrival in Yangon, and all during the two weeks spent in Yangon, the picture given by the media appeared to reflect reality. To my surprise the changes in the country were visibly and audibly reflected in the city-life in Yangon. The majority of the taxi-drivers were eagerly explaining, in well spoken English, how the new government is better than the old one, and that they believed this transition would change their lives to the better. Many had a picture of the national hero, Bogyoke Aung San in the car, indicating that they were now free to voice their opinion. Others explained how Aung San Suu Kyi had saved the country. Judging by the Burmese history the people have been suppressed and restricted for the past 50 years, particularly in regards to freedom of speech. In my opinion, this openness characterizing the people of Yangon is an indicator of the changes in the country.

The prospects of the fieldwork now appeared more promising, as open-minded people are easier to interview. Unfortunately, the hope for success faded already after the first meeting with the Thadar Consortium. The Consortium emphasised the need to be extremely cautious with sensitive issues, like the political reforms, when entering the project areas. This obviously came as a surprise to me, as I got the impression from people in Yangon that they were now free to voice their opinion.

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Village in the Ayeyarwaddy Delta Region

 

Permission

Obtaining permission to enter the project areas turned out to be more challenging than expected. Through correspondences prior to the field visit to Myanmar it was decided that the empirical data should be collected in the Dry Zone project, as this project seemed more relevant for the research. However, after arrival in Yangon, the Thadar Consortium didn’t succeed in obtaining permission to visit this area. In fact, no foreigner apart from project staff had ever been granted permission to enter that area, and even local people have to apply for permission to enter. After this discovery, which also seemed to be a surprise for the Consortium, efforts were made to obtain permission to visit the Delta project. Unfortunately this did not prove successful in the first place, and after a new attempt was made for the Dry Zone (also unsuccessful), a visit to the Delta finally worked out. This process cut a week off the limited time available for fieldwork.

Based on the impression from the media that Myanmar has opened up, it came as a surprise to me, and apparently also to the project staff, that it was this difficult for foreigners to enter certain areas of the country. In fact, before leaving Denmark a Burmese friend of mine, living and working in Denmark, encouraged me to stay a couple of nights in the homes of local people, as this would give me a deeper understanding of the Burmese culture. With this encouragement in mind it was particularly surprising to discover that even local Burmese people need to apply for permission to stay at the house of a friend or relative – and foreigners shouldn’t even bother applying, as they would not get the permission. This is today’s Myanmar.

Going “undercover”

During the preparatory meetings in Yangon I was briefed by the Consortium on how to present myself and on what to be aware of when operating in the field. First of all, I could not introduce myself as a student doing research in the villages. Apparently, the word ‘research’ is extremely sensitive, as it may raise suspicion among the local authorities of interference in local affairs. Under these circumstances I was given an “undercover” title as employee from the Thadar Consortium, and the purpose of my presence in the local villages was to collect information to write the Thadar Consortium newsletter. On the one hand, this new title made it possible to travel and conduct research in the project area. However, on the other hand, these precautions may have affected the answers given by the interview persons. They considered me as part of the Thadar Consortium, placing them in a position where they did not feel free to express their true opinions, for fear of jeopardizing their relationship to the organisations supporting them. This was of course unfortunate, but without the support of the Thadar Consortium it would not have been possible to enter the villages.

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Photo taken in the Ayeyarwaddy Delta: poor family


Furthermore, words like “political reforms” and “democratic reforms” could not be used – not during the interviewing and not even casually. In fact, it was extremely important that the interview questions were not in any way political or critical of the former military regime. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, ActionAid as a non-political organization is emphasizing the importance of not interfering with national or local political affairs. Secondly, the local authorities do not want outsiders spreading political information, possibly for fear of local resistance or unrest. Thirdly, despite the fact that the country has opened up the villagers living in the local communities still may feel insecure when being confronted with political issues. It is difficult, if not impossible, for the villagers to obtain information about the changes in the country, and they therefore may have a lack of knowledge about which rules have been abolished and which still apply. For example, during the fieldwork it turned out that the term ‘civil society’ was banned until after 2008.

These restrictions made it challenging to obtain comprehensive information from the interview persons. As an alternative to the sensitive terms I used the term “change” anticipating (and hoping) it would be understood as “political changes”. Unfortunately, this was not always the case. However, despite the restrictions and different understandings of “change” it was possible, by re-phrasing the questions and thus approaching the central issues in alternative ways, to achieve satisfactory outcomes of the interviews.

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Travelling by boat to the villages in the Ayeyarwaddy Delta: interpreter and interviewer taking a nap after a long day in the field.

One morning, when travelling by our usual motorised boat to one of the small villages, one of the project officers received a phone call from the police. He explained to me that he functioned as the contact person for the police in the township where we were staying, because they wanted to know our exact whereabouts every day, and they wanted to make sure that we returned from the villages before nightfall. The project officer assured us that there was nothing to worry about. Whatever the reason for their concern, I now decided to save the interviews recorded in the villages on three different digital devises – two of them located on our bodies. If the recordings of the interviews were confiscated by the police it would of course be devastating for my research, but my greatest concern was the safety of the interview persons. Later that night, when returning from having dinner at a small restaurant, our trishaw driver told us that the police were in our hotel. They were concerned because a Californian project officer, the only other foreigner in the township – and entire area, had not returned from the villages. We, on the other hand, didn’t need to worry, because the police knew where we were – having dinner at the small restaurant by the water. This constant surveillance emphasised the necessity in saving the interview recordings in a number of different places. This could have been an over-reaction, but after thus far having encountered numerous surprises in this country I was not going to take any risks.

It appears that the authorities have a need to constantly be in control by knowing the exact whereabouts of foreigners staying within their area of responsibility. Before the country started changing the NGOs, international NGOs in particular, were denied access to the rural areas. Today the situation has changed, but in my opinion it seems that the fear and need of control is still evident in the behaviour of the authorities.

The changes in Myanmar

Without doubt, Myanmar is changing. In cooperation with Aung San Suu Kyi and NLD, the pro-democratic president Thein Sein and his government is working to democratize the country, a political development that was unimaginable a few years ago. However, it appears that these changes are mostly evident on a national level. In the poor villages in the rural areas the changes are still tentative, and as a foreigner it is extremely difficult to get access and to operate in these areas. There is still a long way to go.

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Photo taken in the Ayeyarwaddy Delta: grandma smoking a cigar

Marie Ditlevsen
Master’s student in International Development Studies and Communication, Roskilde University
Workplace student at NIAS


Incredible India Designs by Ravinder Kaur

Photo courtesy is Ministry of Tourism, Government of India.

In 2002, the government of India embarked upon a highly ambitious image campaign to create a new brand identity for the nation. The idea was to transform India into “a global brand, with worldwide brand recognition and strong brand equity” that will bring high end tourists and investors to the country. But how does one establish a unified image of a country like India? And how does cohere India’s image as an ancient civilization in a new globalised world? The policymakers and designers with faced with an “extremely difficult and complex (project) to establish a clear, precise identity for a multiproduct destination like India. India is a land of contrasts, a combination of tradition and modernity, a land that is at once mystical and mysterious. India is bigger than twenty-three countries of Europe put together and every single state of India has its own unique attractions.” During my fieldwork in Delhi, I was often reminded of these challenges by the advertising professionals who had been entrusted with the task of creating a “global identity without losing the essence of the nation.”

The result of this exercise was a campaign called ‘Incredible !ndia’ that attempted to re-visualize India in a contemporary context. The campaign was released in major foreign markets in both print and digital media, and in a very short time gained a high visibility and recognition with its distinctive ‘!’ logo mark. The most remarkable aspect of this campaign is that even though it was aimed at foreign markets, it has gained a far wider popular constituency among the Indians living in India as well as in diaspora. The seductive pictures and mocking, witty words have created a narrative of India that conveys a contemporary feel and global sensibility. The reason for its popularity precisely lies in the fact that this newly designed India can now be ‘shown’ and ‘seen’ in the outside world with pride.

In India’s recent history, this is the most expansive image making exercise that seeks to manufacture a global identity on one hand, and on the other, to subvert the identities given by the colonial powers. The distinctive ‘!’ has become a visual unifier and a sign of post-reform India that is recognized both at home and abroad.

Ravinder Kaur, PhD
Associate Professor,
Director, Centre of Global South Asian Studies
University of Copenhagen
Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies

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Ravinder Kaur is one of the organizers of the workshop Spectacle of Globality which is  taking place 29-30 August 2012 at National Museum, Ny Vestergade 10, Copenhagen. The workshop which focuses on India’s makeover as a global power is a part of the research programme Nation in Motion and the first in a series of four international workshops organized within the programme.

More information about the workshop and the research programme


Myanmar open for business, not its people

by Gerhard Hoffstaedter, School of Social Science at the University of Queensland

Aung San Suu Kyi has just left Myanmar (Burma) for the first time in 24 years visiting Thailand and Europe and calling for more foreign investment in Myanmar. Meanwhile, ethnic tensions in Myanmar continue to erupt to the surface in a country that is slowly shaking off its pariah status in international affairs.

The recent by-elections in Myanmar, in which Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy claimed 43 of the 45 seats available, have awakened hope and a flurry of activity around the world to weaken if not dissolve the Western sanctions regime against the ruling military junta.

For now, Suu Kyi will take her seat in a parliament that remains firmly in the hands of the military-backed ruling party.

The by-election follows extensive market reforms, the release from house arrest of Suu Kyi, the re-registration of her party that allowed her to contest the election, the freeing of political prisoners, and the relaxation of media censorship controls.

It seems like Myanmar is coming in from the cold. More than that, Myanmar is open for business and everyone is lining up to enter a large domestic market of 60 million untapped consumers and a largely un- or underdeveloped natural resources sector.

Thailand has a long trading history with Myanmar, dominated by logging and the import of natural gas among other natural resources. It is, however, the access to cheap labour in Myanmar that is seen as a great drawcard for manufacturing industries. Already Thailand is profiting from the cheap labour of Myanmarese refugees in Thailand who work illegally in the agriculture and manufacturing sectors, most often on an itinerant basis.

Long the preserve of Thai business interests and cross-border trade, Myanmar is of great geo-strategic importance to the region as a whole, and its other neighbours are entering the fray. Two global players are increasingly overtaking the Thai special relationship: China and India.

At the forefront of this regional engagement is the Dawei Deep Seaport currently under construction in Myanmar’s south. It will offer an alternative entrée into the Indian north-east and Chinese southern markets. It will also be the country’s first special economic zone as well as the entire region’s largest combined port and economic zone.

Thailand stands to gain most from this endeavour. Firstly, as its closest neighbour, long-time investor and main trading partner, Thailand will have direct access to cheap labour, resource abundance and offer itself as a transit point for goods to Cambodia and Vietnam. Already, a Thai construction company is the main contractor for the first phase of the project and further investments in the energy and manufacturing sectors are in the offing. The figures are staggering. The first phase alone of the $US58 billion project is worth $US8.6 billion.

Secondly, Thailand still houses millions of irregular migrants in its borders, most of whom have fled or left Myanmar for Thailand. This massive scheme offers a way to resettle and offer opportunities to, especially, the economic migrants.

Indeed, some have begun to trickle back to Myanmar, including political exiles. The government is wooing them back for their expertise and capacity to support the burgeoning economy.

However, the Myanmar government has its work cut out to capitalise on these opportunities. On the one hand, China, in particular, will require order and stability in Myanmar to provide safe transport links for their products as a viable alternative to the South China Sea. On the other, the West and some ASEAN members will require Myanmar’s rulers to, at least, offer some vestiges of democratic governance (as we are seeing at the moment) and a durable solution to the refugee crisis along the Myanmar/Thai border and wider ethnic tensions.

Some of these tensions have resulted in all-out wars with intermittent ceasefires. The situation in the uplands and ethnic held areas continues to be tense, and despite the recent political changes in the capital, the situation for ethnic minorities has not changed significantly.

Thousands are still fighting insurgencies and vast stretches of the country remain off limits to government troops. These conflicts continue to elicit a steady stream of refugees and asylum seekers fleeing the fighting to Thailand, Malaysia, Bangladesh, India and beyond. The diaspora networks of these refugee populations span the globe with small minorities settling in Europe, the US, Canada and Australia.

Since last June, for example, the army has been in a protracted war in Kachin state, again displacing thousands of civilians. While some ethnic conflicts have calmed and ceasefires have been in place, the Kachin conflict is again causing destruction in the poorest, remotest and most disadvantaged areas of Myanmar.

Asked about the tens of thousands of refugees living in Malaysia recently, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi said that it was too early to return to Myanmar as, “They have got to have something to return to.”

Indeed, but the situation for them in refugee camps in the region or living as illegal immigrants in places like Malaysia, which does not recognise refugees, is no solution either. Late last year, Malaysia introduced a new registration program for illegal migrants, called the 6P program.

The program was designed to find out how many undocumented workers are currently in Malaysia and whether they can be retrenched into specific sectors that are in need of labour, or repatriated.

The program has been aided by the mass mobilisation of the army, police force, immigration department, and RELA, an auxiliary police force that is undertrained and poorly resourced but ideologically driven.

In addition, the Malaysian home minister proposed an immigration detainee swap program last year, no doubt inspired by the so-called Malaysia-swap agreement between Australia and Malaysia. The deal would see Myanmar nationals detained in Malaysia ‘swapped’ for Malaysian nationals detained in Myanmar.

The Malaysian government’s attempt to systematically register illegal immigrants living and working in Malaysia is aimed at enabling better law enforcement. However, the final part of the program is ‘repatriation’, i.e. deportation of those not needed in the Malaysian economy and those deemed unsuitable, e.g. those with criminal convictions. Caught in the midst of all this are the thousands of asylum seekers, political exiles and refugees who have fled Myanmar’s enduring conflicts.

It is they who fear ‘repatriation’ most, as they have no homeland to return to, much less interest in doing so.

Author’s note: The people I work with, mostly ethnic refugees from Myanmar, call the country Myanmar because calling it Burma invokes the notion that the country belongs to the Burmese Bamar, the dominant ethnic group. Most Western governments refer to the country as Burma.

Gerhard Hoffstaedter is a lecturer in anthropology in the School of Social Science at the University of Queensland. His first book Modern Muslim Identities: Negotiating Religion and Ethnicity in Malaysia is published by NIAS Press.

This article was first published by the ABC Drum.