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.