To the casual visitor, Yangon is a city on overdrive. Its arteries are clogged with a steady stream of honking vehicles that occasionally block the circulation of traffic. Buses, so bare and ancient that they often look like metal skeletons on wheels, are crammed to the brim, threatening to topple over at the slightest tremor. Fruit vendors jostle for space on the sidewalk, their wrinkled eyes keeping close watch over pyramids of mangoes, custard apples and dragon fruit. Mobile phone sellers alternate between shouting out to passersby and launching mouthfuls of red betel spit at their sandals. Adding to the heady mix of sounds and smells is the sun, its merciless rays beating down on one and all, quickly transforming pedestrians into sweaty puddles streaming into the closest (air-conditioned, please) café.
A few weeks in the city, however, gives one the chance to start peeling away the semblance of chaos that lies on the surface, and to gaze at the layers of local life underneath. Just before sunrise, I awake to the familiar, mournful wails of the local rag-and-bone man as he plies the streets, piling trash onto a wooden pushcart. At daybreak, street vendors fling pockets of samosa dough into tiny charred woks that sizzle with hot oil as the pungent scent of fish sauce wafts by. Locals, hunched over tiny metal tables, slurp up their breakfasts of mohinga, a flavourful fish broth considered by many to be the national dish of Myanmar.
As the mercury rises at the approach of midday, young couples share intimate moments on the shores of Inya Lake, holding giant umbrellas to shield themselves from curious onlookers, their faces fresh with thanaka, a cosmetic made from ground bark, and youthful romance. As my feet pound the pavement, Yangon draws me into her embrace, her humid arms engulfing me as I pause, mid-jog, to sit drink-in-hand by the street-side. I know I have a few minutes to bask in the heat of the sun at its strongest before the clouds break, heralding the arrival of yet another October afternoon thunderstorm. As the first drops of rain fall and people fumble for their umbrellas, there is a moment of tranquillity. The city heaves a sigh of relief as it welcomes its daily shower, the patter of the rain drowns out the cacophony of street life, and time takes a temporary pause.
But the pause is short:Yangon does not idle for long. Myanmar is in a frenzy—she is making up for lost time. Decades of international sanctions against the ruling military government left the economy stagnant, underdeveloped and cut off from the rest of the world. In 2012, these sanctions started to be lifted following domestic reforms, leading to large inflows of foreign investment into the country as multinationals rushed in to make the most of a new market opportunity.
The historic elections of 2015 hurriedly ushered in a new political and economic era. The pace of construction has left many in a perpetual state of disorientation—sturdy new overpasses to ease traffic congestion have mushroomed alongside swanky, modern shopping malls catering to as-yet-unacquired tastes—their storefronts still empty because vendors have not yet had time to move in. Bubble tea, bakeries, supermarkets and smartphones, sitting next to every imaginable import from neighboring Thailand. SIM cards, one taxi driver told me, used to cost $2,000 apiece. He grinned through the rear view mirror, fingers fiddling with his brand-new mobile phone as we swerved disconcertingly from one lane to the next, “Today, you can buy them for $1.”
Yangon may be the next South East Asian poster child for breakneck economic progress. Yet, as tends to be the case in rapidly developing countries, the promise of prosperity for everyone often remains just that—a promise. Many people stand at risk of falling through the cracks. Poverty is not always apparent, but he is there. He appears in the frail body of an aged man, taking a bath under the neon lights of a shopping mall’s signboard, washing off the day’s sweat before he lies down again amidst the grime of the dark streets. He shows up in the face of the ten-year-old boy knocking gently on your taxi window, cradling a naked infant in his bosom, begging for money. He emerges in the group of children, sitting on the floor by your restaurant table, their hands clasped together, asking for any kyat you can spare.
How long, I wonder, will it take before we can grasp poverty by his hands, put enough food in his mouth, build a nice roof over his head? Governments and companies often launch slogans and campaigns laced with noble aims—eradicate hunger and poverty, facilitate economic empowerment. Big ideals; bigger buzzwords. In reality, the path to shared prosperity can be extremely long-winded and sometimes painful. It can take generations before a stable political system is put in place, and for sound economic fundamentals to be taken for granted. Then, there is always the challenge of building or improving the institutions that will provide health, education, training and myriad other social services so that people can take up jobs that will allow them to earn a living, stay healthy and enjoy their lives.
Further, in a region plagued by corruption and nepotism, beset with the natural resource curse, and hampered by policies that at times favor a small elite over the rest of the population, will shared prosperity ever be possible for everyone? There are many unknowns, but few ready answers. Perhaps, then, as is often the case, the journey ahead starts with asking the right questions.
This essay was first published in Eastlit (Author: Brendan Chia)