Almost five years have passed since Irrawaddy editor-in-chief Aung Zaw appealed for a national leader to stand up and articulate a bold and bright future for Myanmar. The country, however, has continued to stumble along, making that message as pertinent as ever.
We live in an age of “cautious optimism,” when no one can say with any certainty what the future holds for Myanmar, but many believe that it will, in any case, be better than what we’ve had to live through in the not-so-distant past.
That caution may well be justified, but perhaps it’s time to start focusing on the need for greater optimism. This is not to deny that many daunting challenges lie ahead. At the same time, however, we can’t afford to become so wary of them that we lose sight of the equally enormous opportunities for positive change.
As a journalist who has spent more than two decades in exile, I speak from experience when I say that Myanmar is in many respects a very different country from the one I and many others once felt forced to flee. Many who once denounced the former regime are now returning, eager to assist the ailing nation through participation in the peace process and by sharing their experiences with the opposition, civil society, media and the government.
Internationally, Myanmar is now seen as an exciting new frontier for investors and tourists alike. Foreign leaders fly in to meet President U Thein Sein and Nobel laureate Daw Aung San SuuKyi, and journalists from around the world are closely following developments here to meet growing demand for information about a nation that until recently was regarded as a pariah.
There are many reasons for this sudden burst of intense interest. One is that Myanmar’s natural resources are still relatively untapped, and thus extremely attractive to its more developed neighbors and other richer countries. Another is that it is strategically located between the world’s two most populous countries, and is also at the crossroads to Southeast Asia, one of the world’s most economically dynamic regions.
With the steady lifting of Western sanctions as the government moves forward (however haltingly) with reforms, there is hope that Myanmar will have even greater opportunities to develop its economy, not only in the resource sector, but also in areas that will give ordinary people jobs and a chance to develop new skills.
The trouble here, of course, is that Myanmar has a huge capacity gap, which will not be easy to close. But even this should not be a cause for undue pessimism: Even during the darkest days of military rule, when students were treated like criminals and universities were routinely shut down, Myanmar’s people demonstrated a strong appetite for knowledge and a willingness to do anything in their power to improve their minds and abilities.
Many foreigners, for instance, have remarked on the language skills of children hawking postcards to tourists. In order to eke out a meager existence, some will learn not just the rudiments of English, but also of any other language that might help them find new customers. This is no mean feat for children so poor that they have to spend their days earning a living rather than learning in school.
In other areas, too, the people of this country have shown themselves to be more than capable of acquiring whatever skills they need to survive. Until recently, for example, most motorists were forced to rely on vehicles long since abandoned by their original owners in other countries—something that would have been impossible without the resourcefulness of Myanmar’s mechanics.
In the public sphere, despite repression by the authorities, civil society organizations sought their own solutions to Myanmar’s pressing social problems, often with little or no help from outside aid agencies. What they may have lacked in “capacity,” they more than made up for in their sheer determination to make a difference.
Myanmar’s intellectuals—its scholars, artists and writers—also showed that they could be stubbornly independent, even in the face of draconian thought control. Now that they are no longer forced to work in the shadows, the world is discovering a vibrant culture that went almost completely unnoticed just a few years ago.
Of course, it will take more than the efforts of individuals, small groups and even whole communities to move Myanmar beyond the level of mere subsistence. To realize its full potential, the country needs the involvement of all of its citizens; and for that, it has to address the greatest capacity gap of all: the lack of leaders with a vision of the future.
To me, Myanmar is like a dilapidated old house. Neglect has taken its toll, but it’s still possible to imagine it in its former glory. All it would take to restore it is someone with a clear idea of how to get the job done, and the ability to communicate that idea to others.
Myanmar has never had any shortage of leaders, but somehow this has never translated into the sort of leadership the country really needs. The military strongmen who once ruled (and who remain in positions of power today) often seemed driven by paranoia and delusions of grandeur, rather than by an understanding of the needs of a nation with many ethnic, political, social and religious divisions.
Even deeply popular leaders, such as Gen Aung San and his daughter, Daw Aung San SuuKyi, are better known for what they opposed than for what they hoped to achieve. In the case of Gen Aung San, this is because his life was cut short before his dream of independence could be fully realized. In his daughter’s case, many have been disappointed by what they see as her inexplicable silence on many pressing issues.
It’s not too late to hope that Daw Aung San SuuKyi or some other leader who emerged from Myanmar’s pro-democracy struggle—or even one of the more enlightened ex-generals—will someday be able to articulate a compelling vision of the country’s future. But the sooner that day comes, the better—before the optimism that’s in the air is squandered, and Myanmar loses yet another golden opportunity to rebuild itself anew.
This article first appeared in the October 2013 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.