This column was published in The Myanmar Times on Monday, 22 February 2016.
Over the years, I have been lucky enough to visit most of the country’s major provincial hubs. From Kengtung to Myitkyina, Dawei to Sittwe, I find they each have a unique appeal.
With variations in local food, language and culture, these towns are excellent examples of Myanmar’s diversity. Sadly, they also showcase shared experiences of mismanagement during the decades of choking military rule.
Regional garrisons take up prime real estate and, in some towns, people lament that only the roads used by the local commander get first-class upgrades.
They hope that the National League for Democracy can offer better government. A whole new generation of legislators is expected to rapidly master official responsibilities. Tempered expectations are prudent but, in the long term, prosperous and peaceful provincial towns should be the priority for the NLD.
Why does this matter?
First, these towns all service vast hinterland regions. For the majority of Myanmar’s people, many tens of millions, they offer a rare window into rapidly changing economic and political conditions.
Bustling with commerce and energy, far from the razzle-dazzle of Yangon, or the uber-elite preoccupations of Naypyitaw, each presents a glimpse of what the country could become.
Thriving towns will have improved healthcare, education, communication and transportation. Everyone benefits when opportunities in provincial areas grow to match what is on offer in the cities.
Second, all the big towns see people on the move. Many are migrants from the countryside, hoping to exchange their sweat and toil for a regular cash payment. Others have made some money and are looking to get up the first entrepreneurial rungs.
Then there are those who use their time in the provinces to save and plan for the next journey toward social and economic success: Mandalay, Yangon or beyond.
This connective role becomes apparent when you spend an afternoon at a bus station, down by a river port, at a railway terminus or waiting for the next flight out of town. While journeys are long and often bumpy, there is no shortage of people queuing to get on the move.
Third, the major provincial centres are already hotspots of political intrigue. The stories do not always make the national news, but there is no doubting the level of local interest in electoral competition.
Under the 2008 constitution, it is the 14 state and region capitals that host the most accessible sphere of legislative action. In many cases, the hluttaws have taken up space in old State Peace and Development Council facilities.
After the 2010 election, meeting rooms of the dictatorship were retrofitted as legislative chambers. These are the same chambers that are now welcoming the“red wave” of victorious NLD politicians. They carry the hopes of local voters, fed up with the entrenchment of Tatmadaw interests.
Finally, and most importantly, many of Myanmar’s provincial hubs are directly adjacent to areas defined by long-term conflict. The first time I went to Kengtung in the early 2000s, I remember a friendly Shan intellectual offering a potted history of the region’s wars.
By his count, there were elements from 34 different armies and militias in the surrounding mountains. I still don’t know if that was an exaggeration.
With such troubled histories, the peace process will rely on life getting better in the major towns. Hpa-an is another good example. The last time I drove the road out to Myawady on the Thai border a handful of armed groups, including the Tatmadaw, sought to control the traffic and collect their fees.
Such low-level extraction fades into insignificance when we consider the super profits funnelled through towns like Lashio and Myitkyina. So much of Myanmar’s wealth is in the hands of those who call the shots in the provinces.
None of this will get any easier to manage, at least until the central government can generate unanimous support for a muscled-up federal model.
For now, there are already indications of direct challenges to the NLD, especially in Rakhine, Shan and Kachin states. It is not obvious that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s instinct for centralisation will offer the space for a new conversation with the provinces. Finding the right balance between local preferences and national politics will need goodwill on all sides.
As these stories develop, it is helpful that better information now tends to be available promptly.
When big news breaks in Sittwe or Dawei we usually hear about it before too long. Journalists can hunt around for local stories without much fear of official reprimand. Even foreign academics have succeeded in gaining long-term research access in important provincial towns.
This new knowledge of local politics and economies will benefit national decision-making and should also help to dilute the emphasis on Yangon, Mandalay and Naypyitaw.
Myanmar’s provincial towns will never get as much attention as their big-city peers. But their development should be watched carefully by anyone hoping to understand the next chapter of political and economic change.
Nicholas Farrelly is director of the Myanmar Research Centre at the Australian National University and co-founder of New Mandala. His column appears in The Myanmar Times each Monday.