In March I was able to spend some time in the remote and mysterious land of Burma, the last major country in Asia that I have got to know. I say ‘major’ for Burma, or Myanmar as it is now called, is no tiny appendage to the Asian megapowers of China, India, or Japan. It is a huge variegated land mass of 673,000 square kilometres, bigger than Britain and France combined, comfortably peopled by over 60 million sturdy inhabitants. It features a bustling capital of 6 million citizens – Yangon (formerly Rangoon in the days of the British Empire) and boasting an impressive array of national assets such as oil, natural gas, minerals (jade, sapphires, rubies, emeralds), gold, timber (especially teak) as well as agricultural products like rice (until recently the world’s leading exporter), maize, beans, tea, jute, tobacco, betel nuts, cotton and sugar cane.
After a few days in Burma, one realises that, in spite of its atmosphere of poverty, backwardness and lack of urgency, it is in reality a rich country of untapped wealth, blessed geographically by a horseshoe formation of mountain ranges guarding the vast interior plains around the Irrawaddy from invasion, whether from India, China or Thailand. Her northern border with China is flanked by the Tibetan range of mountains, where passes are rarely lower than 3000 metres above sea level and which contains South-East Asia’s highest peak – Hkakabo Razi (5900 metres or 19,000 feet).
In spite of its size, natural wealth and advantageous geographical location, Burma has never been a totally homogenous nation. In fact, one has to stretch one’s imagination to call Myanmar a state. Actually, it consists of seven regions (or divisions) plus seven separate states (Kachin, Shan, Chin, Kayin, Kayah, Mon and Rakhine). Each state has different histories and traditions, costumes, philosophies, agendas and aspirations. The biggest state (Shan) has nearly 5 million inhabitants, its area of 60,000 square miles forming Burma’s eastern border with China, Laos and Thailand. Kachin State in the north (population 1.2 million) is currently at war with the Myanmar government!
Burmans – the common core
In spite of striking regional differences, anomalies and conflicts, the biggest tribe – the Burmans themselves – form a visible national core. Burmans count 70% of Myanmar’s population. They would not be described as ardent nationalists, but speak of their country with some pride, though in humble terms. Certain features are common to all the area’s inhabitants, even the outlying states. These are the wearing of the longyi by both men and women, the use of thanaka yellow cosmetics on cheeks, betel and lapet (pickled tea), peasants’ carts drawn by twin oxen, weaving and lacquerware, ubiquitous monks in the countryside and in the streets of the cities, groups of nuns, novice monks (children) carrying rice-bowls, millions of Buddhist structures – pagodas, shrines, statues, images of Buddha, frequent festivals and processions, numerous monasteries and nunneries dotting the landscape.
Preoccupation with religion
The foreigner is inevitably impressed by the friendly nature of the people, their humility, their relaxed serenity, their slow, steady tempo of activity, the simple beauty of the countryside, the challenging flow and breadth of the Irrawaddy River, the stunning colourful dawns and sunsets. Most of all, one is amazed at the intensity of the people’s preoccupation with religion. As the founders of Theravada Buddhism, Burmese regard themselves as champions of the creed, influencing Buddhist followers in neighbouring countries. Burmans of all ages seem to devote one or two hours daily to religious pursuits – prayers, worshipping, maintaining millions of Buddhist structures – statues, shrines, pagodas, monasteries etc. On the Sagaing hill cluster, overlooking Mandalay, there are no fewer than 554 monasteries and nunneries; there are over 4,000 pagodas in Bagan alone, while near Monywa, where the world’s tallest Buddha (424 feet) is visible from a distance of ten miles, there are 500,000 almost identical images and life-size statues of Buddha lined up in a cemetery-like array over several acres. It is evident that the scrupulous maintenance of these structures and the support of the huge monastic population imposes heavy demands on the national economy, yet society seems to expect nothing in return save the merit gained through their religious devoutness and the guardianship of the monks. Building pagodas guarantees better reincarnation in the next world, while imposing considerable financial hardship in this one! This search for merit is observable in practically every aspect of Burmese daily life. With the advent of globalisation (and Burma has, until recently, been one of the last strongholds of its exclusion) one asks oneself: what is the future of this long-hidden land? Continued pre-occupation with religious pursuits or a switch to concerns of economic progress? Comforting spiritual seclusion or international integration?
Signs of change
At the time of writing, there are some signs of change (it has been described as ‘a fragile opening’). Aung San Suu Kyi’s long struggle and repeated periods of house arrest has borne some fruit. The junta of generals resigned in March 2011. Parliamentary rule was established and the multi-party elections held in October 2010 had resulted in the government party winning a rigged contest. The Prime Minister of the former military government, Thein Sein, became the new civilian President in March 2011 and began to initiate courageous reforms in August. His first meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi took place the same month and her party, the NLD was allowed to stand in the elections the following April. She and her party won 43 of the 45 seats up for election. Hillary Clinton, David Cameron and UN Chief Ban Ki-Moon visited Myanmar in the following weeks. Some American sanctions against Burma were lifted. Thein Sein is currently touring Western countries to establish better relations. It remains to be seen if Aung San Suu Kyi will be given a meaningful government role in the near future.
This modest opening of the political system can have a much greater significance. Over the next few years, Asia’s geography will see a fundamental re-orientation, bringing China and India together in an unprecedented manner. For millennia these two countries have been separated by near impenetrable barriers: jungle, deadly malaria, the Himalayas, the high wastelands of the Tibetan plateau, the difficult terrain of North Burma. For the last decade India and China have united many of their commercial aims and aspirations for greater power by creating, along with Russia and Brazil, the significant union BRICS, an alliance which embraces 4 states with nearly 50% of the world’s population and soon to surpass more than half of the planet’s GDP. Rivalling the influence of the developed West (USA, Britain and Western Europe), they seek greater clout in such organisations as the World Bank and IMF, based on their size and rate of growth. What they currently lack is smooth coordination, hampered by incomplete geographical proximity and differences in cultural make-up. Brazil is out on a limb, though Russia and China have a long border. Dr. Thant Myintu has written about the proposed new configuration of the East, where Asia’s last great frontier can disappear and Asia can be woven together as never before. At the heart of this change lies Burma. China refers to the ‘Malacca Dilemma’ where 80 percent of her vital oil imports have to pass through Strait of Malacca near Singapore. She is now building a pipeline across Burma, which will significantly shorten oil routes. Along new Burmese highways, China will be able to export her own goods directly to European markets, bypassing the Indian Ocean route. India foresees a busy, profitable overland trade route from Calcutta to the Yangtze basin. Both China and India can help develop Burma’s raw materials riches, particularly useful for the industrial development of China’s southwest. Some experts predict the making of a new Silk Road like the one that in ancient times coupled China to Central Asia and Europe.
A new Tiger?
However things come to pass, it seems likely that Myanmar’s key location will cause her to be increasingly involved in the movements of her giant neighbours. Tourism is already exploding, but the prospect of bilateral treaties and industrial development may rapidly transform this conservative land into something quite different during the course of the 21st century. The four Asian Tigers – Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore – have undergone their transformation and prospered. Myanmar’s territory is more than five times as big as all the Tigers combined. Her area is almost as extensive as the whole of Indo-China (Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia). Will Myanmar figure, along with Vietnam, as one of the next bunch of Asian Tigers? Sandwiched between two ambitious BRICS, will she be carried to prosperity in tandem with them?