International media has been afire with Myanmar news this month, also known as Burma, beginning with pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s landslide victory in by-elections on April 1st, leading up to the suspension or easing of financial and/or travel restrictions on Myanmar by Australia, the EU, the US and most recently Canada.
The choice of these Western powers to disassemble the dam (if cautiously) around the pariah nation shows approval and encouragement of the “civilian” government’s sudden aberration towards reform policies. If all parties work to keep the carrots coming, the Golden Land could be heading for a Golden Age.
Despite the National League for Democracy’s (NLD) boycott of parliament’s first session over a row concerning the wording of a lawmakers’ oath, optimism is still in the air: parliament will hold an “ongoing session” while kinks are being worked out; Ms. Suu Kyi will be making her first trip outside of Myanmar in 24 years, first to Norway then Britain.
Why Myanmar — still called Burma by those in protest to the legitimacy of the military junta — has decided to take such an uncharacteristically magnanimous road is under debate. Did sanctions actually work? Or has this been a more “organic” transition? Personally — I think that the approval for Myanmar to chair ASEAN in 2014 would not have been given without these reforms. After decades of sanctions imposed by the West, Myanmar’s opening up was likely instigated at the behest of powers within the Southeast Asian community. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Addul Tun Razak believes this as well.
Last November, I went to Myanmar and subsequently wrote a travel piece for CNNGo that detailed how these reforms were affecting tourism. However, so swift have been the changes that I feel the need to provide an update on their progress.
1) Myanmar finally got rid of it’s idiotic two-tier currency regime and decided to float the kyat, starting at 818 kyat per dollar. Black market currency exchangers, the only place to previously get a proper exchange rate, will likely have to ply a different trade.
2) ATM installations are growing. Recently local news reported that private banks are “starting to roll out ATM machines in shopping centers, convenient stores and gas stations in addition to their own branches.”
3) In the run up to by-elections, the once eerily quiet front gate of the NLD compound became abuzz with campaigners selling posters of merchandise. In recent memory this would have been a crime punishable by detention.
More Myanmar stories to come… Stay tuned.