Burma starts work on its tattered image

  • 12 June 2012
  • From the section Business
Elderly Burmese monk sits under sunshade
Out with the old: Burma's image is changing

"We understand the need for PR," says Burma's industry minister, Soe Thein, smiling broadly, and inviting his BBC visitors to orange squash and cakes.

This is true. If any country is in want of an image makeover, it is Burma.

For 25 years the few pictures coming out of Burma, also known as Myanmar, have been of students and monks on the streets, followed by the army crushing the dissent.

Even in recent days, sectarian violence in Rakhine province has brought the familiar sight of army troops taking control, and spiralling violence.

All of which is troubling to a government, keen to show that it has turned a new page.

During the past few months, Burma's tarnished reputation has been rapidly making way for more positive messages.

Now, Burma seems to be all about investment opportunities, visits from foreign dignitaries and T-shirts with Aung San Suu Kyi's face on them.

Industry Minister Soe Thein says Burma is like a beautiful girl

"At the moment we are just like a beautiful girl," says the minister. "A lot of people come every day."

In Soe Thein's ministry, posters of the previous head of state, General Than Shwe, opening infrastructure projects, flanked by military personnel remain on show. The current government is still staffed by former officers. But the message is new.

"Before, we were appointed by the General," the minister says. "Now we are elected by the people."

He talks about creating a level playing field in the economy, shaking up vested interests and putting the people's needs first.

"We have to work for our people. They need this reform."Burma starts work on its tattered image

Visible change

In the commercial capital, Rangoon, colonial era buildings are crumbling, the paint is peeling, and the pavements broken, but there are some visible signs of change.

Much of Rangoon's property could also do with a makeover

Businessmen carry mobile phones. Glossy new cars sit bumper to bumper with second hand 1980s models.

Even the handful of business tycoons who have dominated Burma's private economy for the past quarter century are doing their bit to soften the country's image.

Zaw Zaw is one of those who profited most under the military regime. His Max Myanmar group combines hotels, banking, gem mining, timber, rubber and construction.

He remains on the US sanctions list, labelled a regime crony for his close ties to the government.

But in person he appears modest, dressed in plain shirt and longyi, the traditional Burmese sarong. He casts himself first and foremost as a philanthropist.

Business tycoon Zaw Zaw says he wants to help the Burmese people

"My goal is not only money," he says.

"My goal is how I can contribute to society, how I can help the Myanmar people."

He spends his money on schools and hospitals.

Zaw Zaw remains on message when it comes to the question of reform.

"Foreign investment will create jobs and competition, which will be good for consumers," he says.

"Maybe one day we can say we are the best country in Asia.

"That is why I am really ready to have economic reform. In my heart."


Burma's image relaunch appears to be working. The United States has joined the rest of the western world in easing sanctions.

And foreign business executives are flocking in, crowding the hotels and smart restaurants, hiring estate agents, investment advisers and recruitment specialists.

Rangoon's gem traders expect more customers

Even small-scale traders selling pearls, jade, precious stones and jewellery from the stalls in Rangoon's Bogyoke Aung San market, are expecting business to pick up as more tourists flock in.

"It's good for me. I want to expand the business," says one young stallholder. She is selling sapphire necklaces and ruby rings with price tags in the tens of thousands of dollars.

Up until now, it has been rich Burmese and Chinese buying her wares. Now she plans to create designs oriented at more western tastes.

"It's much better than before," says the man behind a neighbouring jade stall. "In the next year or two a lot of tourists will come. Sanctions are going. It will be good."

A longer wait

For some people though things have changed very little.

By the dockside in the northern Burmese city, Mandalay, women and children have made temporary homes in makeshift wooden shelters along the banks of the Irrawaddy.

Working the docks on the Irrawaddy is still hard work

These villagers have drifted in from the countryside to look for work.

They are paid a few dollars for loading goods on and off the boats. But they only get a day's work three or four times a month and they often go hungry, says one mother, rubbing her stomach.

Further south, alongside the main north-south motorway between Rangoon and Mandalay, live Tin Myint, Aye Mu and Kyu Kyu. They grow rice and mangoes and guavas. They fish. They keep chickens and cattle. They survive.

What do they think about the changes the government is making?

"Has the government changed?" they ask. It has not registered here yet.

Opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi has warned against against "reckless optimism" over Burma's reforms.

"I do believe in the sincerity of the president," she said. "But I also recognise he's not the only person in government and as I keep repeating, there's the military to be reckoned with."

Burma's military and people close to them control large parts of Burma's economy from retail to raw materials. And there are fears that liberalising the economy could serve their interests without benefiting ordinary Burmese.

So why the change?

What remains a mystery is what prompted the military government to take the road to democracy and an open market.

Minister Soe Thein says they looked at the economy and realised change was needed.

For rural farmers, the government's changes don't mean much

"At that moment you have to criticise yourself," he says.

"Relatively, Myanmar people are poorer than (people in) Cambodia and Laos. It's not good for us, for our country.

"In resources, land, population, we are not the lowest in ASEAN. So, infrastructure, institutions, policy and management, that is why we are poor."

The former government economic adviser, Khin Maung Nyo, goes one step further.

"Our leaders became older. They want to leave a good legacy, before they die," he says.

"They are feeling guilty. They know they are responsible."

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