Journalist finds Myanmar in
the throes of massive change

RNZ journalist Graeme Acton spent two weeks reporting from Myanmar on an Asia New Zealand Foundation media travel grant – and encountered many changes since his previous trip.

Watch a slideshow of images Graeme Acton took while on assignment in Myanmar

I intended to visit Myanmar in the lead-up to the 2015 election, a significant marker in the country’s political development, but visa delays meant I wasn’t able to travel till February 2016. 

This meant I had to change the focus of my project because the election period had passed by the time I arrived in the country. A degree of normality had replaced the excitable scenes of early November.

The story was now about the challenges facing a brand new government under the possible leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi, like many of her fellow MPs, an activist turned politician.

I decided to focuss on issues facing the new government, such as ethnic tensions between states, the role of the army, the economic and social rebuild, the process of national reconciliation between central government and restive states, and the problems posed by the Rohingya and other Muslim minorities in the Rakhine State and elsewhere.

The components of the radio programmes eventually broadcast by Radio New Zealand (RNZ) were recorded in Yangon, Naypyidaw, and in and around the Rakhine state capital of Sittwe.

I spoke to NLD politicians, Kachin state activists, UN officials, Rohingya community leaders, human rights workers, aspiring business-people, nationalist politicians, political analysts, and representatives of the media.

The visit was not marred by any serious difficulty, just the moderate strain of working single-handed in a developing country where English is still not widely spoken and where there is a distinct suspicion of the media from the authorities, and some members of the public.

My dealings with the Myanmar bureaucracy were extensive but always cordial. Gaining entry to the Rohingya IDP camp near Sittwe must go down as some kind of career achievement.

Radical change – but change that has only just begun  

This trip to Myanmar was, in fact, my second, having visited the country in 2013 as a tourist. On that visit, I encountered a country emerging from a long hibernation, where you couldn't make an international toll call on a cellphone, and where things were still very much under the boot of the army.

This first trip opened my eyes to the impact of a military government and the banality of dictatorship in such a fantastic place. It gave me the idea I could return as a journalist and do something worthwhile for RNZ. With the Asia New Zealand Foundation's assistance, that became a reality.     

While Myanmar has still not bought into anything like a Western corporate business model, what struck me was the increase in Western firms and money since I was last in the country. Big corporates from across the globe are lining up for a piece of the action in the next "emerging democracy", in areas like construction, telecommunications, and transport.

The country now has around 40 million cellphone subscribers – a radical departure for a sector that for decades operated under a monopoly held by the state-owned Myanmar Post and Telecom. Simcards for now cost around NZ$1.50 – a far cry from the $250 of just a few years ago.

And as the price of simcards drops, so does the price of cellphones. With Myanmar's young population, the tendency has been for a leapfrog in technology, from no phone at all, straight to 3G. 

While much of rural Myanmar remains in the mid-twentieth century, Yangon is really a unique amalgam of colonial capital and modern Asian city. Parts still look unchanged from the 1940's, with a relaxed feel that reminded me of Singapore before it was "modernised". Yangon has a nightlife, a cultural life, a restaurant scene.

But infrastructure problems remain, with regular power outages, wastewater and drainage issues, and the fundamental change on the roads.

A lifting of restrictions over vehicle imports has seen tens of thousands of vehicles flood into Myanmar in the last couple of years and in Yangon the traffic issues in the CBD are now approaching those of cities like Jakarta and Bangkok.

Elsewhere, the changes have really been around tourism, with hotels popping up quickly as the country attempts to cash in on the tourist dollar influx. Many of the new hotels are Chinese owned, and just how much of the tourist dollar is flowing back to Myanmar is unclear. One of the challenges for the new government will be the management of the tourism sector, and the protection of the country's many sacred sites. 

In short, the country has changed radically since my visit in 2013, but that change has only just begun. 

The future of Myanmar will be very much an exploration of unknown territory for a government more used to being political activists than lawmakers.

Stories about Myanmar by Graeme Acton: