This column was published by The Myanmar Times on Monday, 27 July 2015
KFC’s arrival in Yangon isn’t simply about adding another unhealthy option to Myanmar’s smorgasbord of deep-fried delights.
Nor is it just about filling a big hole on the global fast-food map. KFC outlets in Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh, and Mae Sot, Thailand, have long marked the extent of the totemic American brand’s regional spread.
Its arrival in Myanmar is actually the product of 1,000 decisions about political and economic change that are now starting to really add up. KFC’s bold positioning is yet another reminder that the old Myanmar is being shunted aside, whether we are ready-or-not.
Of course not everybody is happy. Criticism of the corrupting influence of globalised fast food has followed KFC’s Myanmar thrust.
But these moans of displeasure can’t compete with the cheerful reaction of local fried-chicken lovers. Long queues at the central Yangon outlet testify to the attraction of Colonel Sanders’ secret herbs and spices.
As the cash registers hum with activity, those who can afford a few dollars for a small meal are following a well-worn path to calorific overload and so much more.
KFC is a signpost on the road to economic transformation and global enmeshment. It is also a signal of something profound for Myanmar society – KFC’s arrival in wet-season Yangon is merely a symptom, a well-managed commercial response to a much bigger trend.
The trend to watch is the emergence of Asia’s newest middle class.
Even a decade ago it was impossible to speak of a coherent Myanmar middle class. Stripped to the bone by a quarter-century of socialist isolation, and then handicapped by the insipid economy that followed, those who wanted to get ahead usually sought opportunities abroad.
In Singapore, Sydney, San Francisco and countless other places, an expatriated Myanmar middle class carved out comfortable lives far from the battles and frustrations of living under the State Peace and Development Council.
They are now joined by a new middle class, which is taking up lots of space all over Yangon, Naypyitaw and Mandalay.
With tens of thousands of kyat in monthly discretionary spending, they flock to the gleaming shopping malls, hanker for the best gadgets and keep a watchful eye on trends in status and style.
In some circles it is still hip to dismiss such rising social classes as inauthentic, compromised or petty. Many look with disdain on the supposed gaudiness of their instincts. From this perspective the middle class supposedly get too fat, talk too loudly and simply follow the herd.
Their spoiled children are also easy targets for those who lament the arrival of money and leisure. KFC, with all its grinning mass-produced distraction, is taken as a sign of what is wrong with Myanmar and the world.
Yet such put-downs misunderstand the lessons of aspiration: the universal creed of middle classes around the world. People with a bit of extra money have a track record of providing jobs, offering incentives for investment and building for grander futures.
We can’t forget that this jumble of desires for improvement is ultimately what pulled a billion people out of poverty across Asia in the past 30 years.
If there’s a fundamental problem with the Myanmar middle class it is that it is still far too small. A few years back a consulting firm estimated that some 5.3 million people were members of the country’s affluent and middle classes.
They guessed that this number would double by 2020. Such projections are always hazy, but that estimate implies that a solid fraction of the urban population is moving up quickly.
Middle-class folks tend to be early adopters of technology, and while they may not prove the most agile or nimble, they are often consistent in their collective instincts. They will continue to run the bureaucracy, edit the newspapers, educate rising generations and build many of the small businesses that keep the economy ticking over.
They will also develop new political ideas. Given its proximity, it is only natural that many look to Thailand as a warning about what happens when a rising middle class takes a reactionary political turn. That country’s two most recent military coups have been predicated on a partial middle-class disavowal of electoral democracy.
In the future Myanmar will not be immune to similar forces, and will need to manage carefully the inclusion of middle-class interests in the new political compact. Building a prosperous, equitable and socially inclusive society takes patience and luck, and a critical mass of middling folks who work to make it happen.
Unfortunately, we still often pretend that the solution to Myanmar’s problems will come from on high, from an elite echelon of powerbrokers or from the very bottom, with mass resistance from workers and peasants.
The fact is that elite policies and grassroots action only count for so much. Nowadays, most of the time it is the KFC eaters, and their millions of self-interested decisions, that set the terms of political change.
New Mandala co-founder Nicholas Farrelly is a partner at Glenloch Advisory and a fellow in the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at the Australian National University.