Celebrated Burmese author explains Myanmar's 'watershed moment'

YANGON, Myanmar — At the Savoy Hotel in Yangon, Burmese writer and scholar Thant Myint-U told a group of journalists that, “It’s probably not incorrect to say that we are at the most important historical watershed for this country at least since 1962, perhaps since independence in 1948.”

At a conference hosted by GlobalPost and Open Hands Initiative, he noted that the nation would have to make difficult choices, and would have to undergo much more change in order to successfully acclimate to the 21st century.

Thant Myint-U posited that the key to understanding Burma’s current predicament lies in understanding the country within a historical context:

“What’s been perhaps mistaken, or mistaken from the outside, is first to have seen the situation before as entirely static, without hope, sort of dark, without any sort of nuance," he said. "And then to see this as almost an inexplicable or miraculous change.”

Throughout his comments, he cast most international media coverage of the country as Manichean and oversimplified: the deeply entrenched military as bad and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi as overwhelmingly good, with change arising because goodness has triumphed.

The noted Burmese author asserted that change in Burmese society has actually arisen because of three major events in the last 20 years: 1) The constitutional changes that occurred in the late 90s which have allowed for gradual political openness;  2) The resignation of Myanmar’s top general, Than Shwe, which created a power vacuum in what was more of an autocracy than a military junta and 3) The official realization that the rest of Southeast Asia, including Laos and Cambodia, have begun to pass Burma by in terms of development and growth, leaving it as one of the most impoverished countries in the region.

While observers say President Thein Sein’s newfound willingness to speak publicly on reducing poverty, which his predecessors never did in decades of military rule, is a win for transparency, Thant Myint-U argues that Burma must develop its educational and economic leadership to allow for equitable growth instead of only benefiting a privileged few.

"You're missing an entire technocratic class of people," he said, suggesting that Burma invest in agribusiness, which makes up the vast majority of the nation’s economic output.

Thein Sein's government will choose to what extent it will lease land to multinational agribusiness corporations, which exacerbates an already dangerous trend of Burmese working on leased land domestically or as migrant workers in neighboring Thailand "in some of the most terrible labor conditions you can imagine," he said.

“While there have been times in Burmese history where people have moved around, I think it is fair to say that people are moving around now like never before, at least in modern history,” Thant Myint-U added.

However, he explained, the government could support small farmers throughout the countryside, boosting incentives for the majority of the agricultural sector in Burma that are primarily family-run farms operating on three to five acres of land.

These projects are dependent, according to Thant Myint-U, on how the nation involves its growing youth population. He explained that “a lot of the social services are the same as 50 years ago, you might have that one school, one police station… but you have many, many more people.”

More socially liberal, cosmopolitan, and less insular than older Burmese generations, the youth population in Burma will need a solid infrastructure, in the form of roads, electricity, security, enforced property rights and a viable financial infrastructure to prevent disillusionment and disappointment.

“So much needs to be changed,” he said.