Obama Visit Underscores Lack of Change for Myanmar's Poor

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YANGON, Myanmar -- The center of Yangon is filled with signs that capitalism is on the march in this former socialist military dictatorship. Coca-Cola and Pepsi compete on billboards, a car dealership seems to open every week, and hawkers sell copies of the new Foreign Investment Law to motorists stuck in traffic -- the clogged streets a perverse but potent symbol of the country's transformation.

But 45 minutes away, on the outskirts of the city, is a different Myanmar. Children splash in filthy puddles along deeply rutted roads, and day laborers sleep away the afternoon in rickety wooden shacks awaiting jobs that come too rarely.

"Things have been the same here for 20 years," Daw Thein Yi, 53, said as she watched over her grandchild while slapping wet laundry against a stone.

Residents of the sprawling suburban slum, known as New Dagon Township South, have little of the hope and expectation voiced in central Yangon about the democratic changes that have helped open up one of the world's most reclusive countries and helped inspire a visit by President Obama next Monday -- the first by an American president.

U Sein Maung, a 50-year-old day laborer and father of four, squinted in puzzlement when asked about the pending visit. "We didn't hear he was coming," he said.

Twenty months of sometimes breathtaking economic and political changes in Myanmar under the civilian government of President Thein Sein have touched only a small sliver of the country's 55 million people, those tracking the process of change say.

"Most of the changes have happened in the upper parts of society," said U Yan Myo Thein, a former political prisoner who frequently writes commentaries for Myanmar's news media.

It may be too soon to expect broad portions of the country's impoverished population to benefit from overtures to the world and its businesses. Many parts of the countryside look like scenes from another century, with farmers using wooden carts to transport their crops and plowing rice paddies with oxen.

But some in Myanmar are concerned that the failure to reach the indigent majority points to wider problems with an overhaul program trying to free the country from the legacy of its military and socialist era.

"The government has not yet succeeded in unleashing the market," said U Phone Win, director of a law firm, Maw Htoon & Partners, that advises foreign companies looking to invest in the country.

Mr. Phone Win says small businesses remain frustrated by thickets of restrictions and the hierarchical habits of government employees used to working for military leaders. Even something as basic as opening a restaurant, shop or boutique hotel can be blocked by bureaucrats accustomed to waiting for superiors' orders.

At the high end, Mr. Phone Win says, he has hosted a parade of foreigners looking to invest in the country. Many leave unfulfilled. "Billionaires are coming here on their private planes, but no one can make deals," he said.

The common refrain among foreign investors these days is "wait and see."

Before elections in 2010, Myanmar was both one of the most brutal dictatorships in Asia and a closed, command economy where government factories churned out a variety of items like soap and bicycles.

Since then, Mr. Thein Sein, a former general, has moved the country rapidly away from its dictatorial past, hoping to revive an economy eroded by decades of inept leadership and corruption. Those changes, including freeing political prisoners and allowing multiparty elections, have earned cautious accolades and led the United States and others to ease sanctions meant to cripple the junta.

Easing the sanctions opened the country to a flood of curious would-be investors hungry for the country's natural resources and eager to sell to a population that had little in the way of modern conveniences like cars and cellphones.

Stephen Groff, vice president of the Asian Development Bank, the Manila-based institution that re-engaged with Myanmar this year after a 25-year absence, compared the economic changes here to the liberalization of Vietnam's economy, which began allowing free enterprise in the late 1980s. In both countries, changes came from within the leadership and thus were much more gradual than the convulsive uprisings seen, for example, during the Arab Spring.

The streets of Yangon today testify to that relative stability. Residents say violent crime remains rare in central Yangon, despite ample opportunities for theft. Because credit cards have been introduced only in recent months and banks remain dysfunctional, residents carry around large amounts of cash. Secretaries and office workers use rice sacks to haul stacks of money for their businesses.

Continuity and stability have obvious advantages, Mr. Groff said. But it also means that the same government workers who served under the highly repressive junta are now responsible for breaking down the system they helped build.

"The legal and regulatory environment and the financial system remain very, very weak and underdeveloped," he said.

Advisers to the government who are helping introduce new policies say changes coming from Mr. Thein Sein's office are being bogged down at lower levels in the government.

"The international community expects too much -- they need to lower their expectations," said U Tin Maung Than, director of the Myanmar Development Resource Institute, a research organization with close ties to the president's office. "And the people need to lower their expectations, too."

For Mr. Sein Maung, the day laborer, expectations could not be much lower.

He has no refrigerator, television or anything that runs on electricity, save a single neon bulb that hangs from the ceiling. His wife and four children sleep on the uneven planks of the shack he built from scratch.

As he answered questions from a reporter -- a rare outside visitor to the slum -- he held his youngest child, a 4-month-old boy.

What will become of his son in the new Myanmar?

"He will never be rich," Mr. Sein Maung said matter-of-factly. "There's no way for people like us to get rich. We just hope he gets an education."


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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