Myanmar’s need for a shared long-term vision

14 July 2018
Myanmar’s need for a shared long-term vision
PHOTO - U Thant Myint-U

U Thant Myint-U has called for a shared long-term vision for Myanmar.
The historian, writer and conservationist was speaking on the 8 July at the "Yaw Mingyi Zayat" roundtable organized by the Institute for Strategy and Policy.
The title of the roundtable was Myanmar's Future 2015. 
The title of his speech made at the start of the roundtable was "Myanmar's Future."
Please find the full text below:
About two thousand years ago, the earliest bronze-age farmers in Myanmar grouped together, built their first urban settlements, and began to connect with the wider world, importing Buddhism and new ideas about government, art, and science, ideas that transformed their societies. A thousand years later, at Bagan, kings and courts worked hard to be part of a dynamic region, synthesizing knowledge and styles from around the country and overseas, creating a sublime city and one of the most impressive little kingdoms of medieval times.
Whenever Myanmar has reached out and been open to the world, Myanmar has prospered intellectually as well as materially. Whenever Myanmar turned inwards, from fear or lack of confidence, the country has faced impoverishment and foreign conquest.
Myanmar is now in an emergency. The people of Myanmar must radically re-think the lives they want and their position in the world to come. The failure of politics is a failure of the imagination. Myanmar needs a completely new story, a new vision of the future. One that can bring everyone together to address collectively the real challenges to come.
Half of Myanmar’s population is under 30. The vast majority will live until 2050 or beyond. The world by then will be an entirely different place.
The biggest threat we face by far is climate change. We are entering into a time of extreme weather, more frequent cyclones like Nargis in 2008, scorching heat that will make parts of Myanmar uninhabitable, increased snow melt in the Himalayas that will cause flooding on an unprecedented scale, and rising sea levels that will inundate coastlines and eventually Yangon as well. We live in a part of the world that will be hit incredibly hard by climate change. The disruptions to agriculture and food security will be enormous. People will simply not be able to live as they are, where they are.
We also live next to a rapidly evolving China. The speed of transformation of China’s society is breathtaking and will almost certainly continue. Even in Yunnan next door, one of China’s poorest provinces, the number of poor has fallen from 13 (out of 43 million people) to just 6 million over the past five years. The proposed China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, if even half implemented, will integrate Myanmar tightly with China’s hinterland. The arrival of an industrialized or post-industrial China on Myanmar’s doorstep may overwhelm this country like nothing else over the past twenty centuries.
There are other, big global changes underway: Enormous flows of migrants around the planet, now numbering at least 250 million, including millions from Myanmar, overturning notions of home and belonging. And a pace of scientific progress unmatched in history, producing transformative technological change, especially in the areas of artificial intelligence and genetics. We see also new security threats, not least cyber-warfare, asymmetrical warfare linked to weapons of mass destruction, and the potential rapid spread of new pandemic diseases. Myanmar is nowhere near ready for the global transitions now taking place.
Myanmar will soon age quickly, having experienced one of the biggest falls in fertility in the world since the 1970s. Like the rest of ASEAN, Myanmar will have a large old population by mid-century; unlike most others, Myanmar may well become old before it gets rich.
Myanmar will also almost certainly urbanize, with a projected 5-10 million people moving to Yangon and other cities over the coming decade or so. Urban life may define the future of Myanmar: we may have livable cities that are the engines of creativity and productivity, or urban disaster areas that breed crime and social unrest.
Myanmar people need to understand and address these challenges. They need as well to have a vision for what they want.
Where should people live, as the climate changes and, perhaps, China looms over all? Should Myanmar have one big city (like Thailand) or several major cities? Or keep intact the countryside, with many small towns and villages?
What kind of economy should it have? Should it be like Thailand where tourism earns $50 billion a year and is 15% of GDP? Or be a county reliant on migration and remittances? Should it pursue the same growth model as the rest of Eastern Asia, with export-driven manufacturing, a culture of consumerism, and the destruction of much of the natural environment?
Does Myanmar want a few big local companies to grow and dominate the economy? Or foreign firms to have a major role in the economy and if so from where? Or create an economy based on small and medium sized businesses?
Most importantly, does Myanmar want to prioritize economic equality or accept being a society with big differences between the rich and the poor?
These are not decisions for experts. These are political decisions about what kind of future people want.
Myanmar should not sleep walk towards economic future that will have enormous consequences for daily life. A Mandalay for example that caters to millions of Chinese and other tourists a year through thousands of small businesses will be entirely different from a Mandalay that is an industrial city, controlled by a handful of firms, exporting to Yunnan.
What is 100% certain is that the Myanmar of the past is fading away, quickly.
But the politics of Myanmar is still rooted in past divisions, past notions of the future.
Take for example, debates on inter-ethnic relations, long connected to ideas of autonomy and federalism. What will this mean if the vast majority of people are living mixed together in a few cities, in a hotter, wetter world?
Myanmar needs to get beyond its myths of past prosperity, past self-sufficiency, and endless natural resources, and understand that a very dangerous and uncertain future is now at hand
Myanmar politics needs to wake up and see that we are in an emergency situation
Myanmar also has big assets – but they are not what people think.
The future world economy may not want Myanmar’s natural gas, or timber, or minerals. But it may value Myanmar’s cultural diversity, it’s amazing bio-diversity, it’s architectural, artistic, and literary heritage, and the flora and fauna of its remaining forests, coastlines and islands. Myanmar runs the risk of destroying what will be valuable in future only to enrich a very few today.
Myanmar needs to realize too that it is reaching for two twin objectives – democracy and a free-market economy – at a time when the ability of either to help meet tomorrow’s challenges are increasingly everywhere in doubt. Myanmar is debating 20th century solutions when it is at the forefront of 21st century problems.
Far more innovative thinking is needed. And a new story to bring all the peoples of Myanmar together.
What is absolutely clear is that further international isolation is not an option. Like the bronze-age farmers of ancient times and Bagan a thousand years ago, Myanmar must now embrace outside knowledge without hesitation, think big, and think creatively. Otherwise, this country may, within people’s lifetime, disappear.