This column was published by The Myanmar Times on Monday, 20 July 2015
It’s easy to make a list of what’s going wrong in Myanmar: the Rohingya conundrum, continuing ethnic conflict, religious extremism, economic inequality, elite political deadlocks, tense regional relations.
Last month former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed went so far as to call for Myanmar to be expelled from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. For him, the treatment of the Rohingya justifies that drastic action.
Such strident comments from a retired regional statesman point to one of the problems that Myanmar faces right now. At a time when life is arguably better than ever for most of the country’s people, the tendency is toward ever more criticism and consternation. Getting the story straight requires more than bombastic spin.
Frankly the best antidote to the grim prognoses is to spend time immersed in Myanmar’s changing social, political and economic realms. There is no substitute for direct experience of what is going on, including in the country’s far-flung corners, like Rakhine State.
So much of what gets written about Myanmar is a rehash of a few dominant stories. There is the story about great new economic opportunities. Another tale tilts toward the persistence of dictatorial practices and the wars they create. Then there is the one about everything falling apart, with new pressures compounding the old problems.
In no sense, though, do such appraisals get close to explaining the ways that ordinary life, so apparent on almost every street in the country, is improving. New cars and motorbikes jockey for position, restaurants buzz with trade, classrooms echo with millions of eager voices and the news the media reports is perhaps as close to reality as anywhere in Southeast Asia.
There is more money, more freedom of movement and greater awareness of the potential for things to keep getting better. It is an intoxicatingly positive mix but one that still encourages some to look for the dark linings in the silver clouds.
The lead-up to the November 8 election is likely only to exacerbate the speed with which bad news will spread. There will likely be mud slinging, political bastardry and even violence. With so little recent experience of serious electoral competition, the rules of campaigning are yet to be fully agreed. We hope that the duelling elites can keep their foot-soldiers in check.
Yet throughout the political contest everything else is likely to continue in the fashion of the new normal. That means beer stations will throb with conversation, university students will queue enthusiastically for class and the roads will become ever more clogged with traffic.
Clearly a sunny disposition is not an adequate response to every experience or potential grievance at this time. Like anywhere else, structural issues continue to make life tough, especially for those at the bottom of the pecking order. More needs to be done to share the benefits of Myanmar’s rapidly shifting economic model.
If Myanmar manages to get more people working in the right kind of jobs, there is no doubting the democratisation of the economy that can follow. It is just that the self-interests of established economic players, from the cronies on down, don’t leave much confidence of quick or easy wins.
Instead, ordinary life in Myanmar will also continue to present frustrations for those who are struggling to find ways to support their families, educate their children and protect their hard-won cultural identities.
The threats to their success will not, however, come from the headline-grabbing human rights challenges that have a habit of drawing megaphone attention.
In almost all cases it will be the ordinary threats – petty officialdom, selfish neighbours, workplace bullies and exploitative bosses – that will destroy chances for happiness for the tens of millions of people seeking to carve out better lives for themselves.
Some of these ordinary problems will be explained by connections to high-level political conflict, but often there will be no simple, or single, cause. Of course, in such a multi-dimensional society the ordinary tensions that are grappled with on a day-to-day basis also have the potential to be used for other purposes.
But even what we have seen in Rakhine State, with the aggravation of age-old resentments and the explosion of anti-Muslim rage, is best understood in its ordinariness. There does not need to be a plan for things to go wrong. This is perhaps the hardest lesson of Myanmar’s recent turbulent experience.
What this means is that when things don’t go right there may be no immediate policy fix or wise solution. Yet such awareness of the potential for persistent difficulties should not cloud our assessment of how much better ordinary life has become over this last, busy half-decade.
The many stories of education, enrichment and contentment that have followed the changes to Nay Pyi Taw’s politics are reason enough to expect many good things to follow.
Nicholas Farrelly is co-founder of New Mandala and the director of the Australian National University’s Myanmar Research Centre