Photo by Christopher Michel on flickr

Photo by Christopher Michel on flickr

This column was published in The Myanmar Times on Monday, 7 March 2016

The rush of foreign visitors wanting to see Myanmar “before it changes” exhibits a curiously misplaced mix of nostalgia and voyeurism. What some people think they want to experience is a place before the wave of 21st-century hyper-modernity has crashed over it.

The “authentic” Myanmar, in this view, is face powder and sarongs, rice curries and street typists, colonial colonnades and glittering pagodas, clapped-out Corollas and long lines of novices collecting their morning alms.

In fairness, there can be something magical in continuity. But there are also times to break from the past, especially when it was a period of such suffering. Recent experience for tens of millions of people in Myanmar comes with all sorts of problems.

Most obviously, there was the dominance of the military in political and economic affairs. The “old” Myanmar was one where a small group of senior army men organised an unflinching stranglehold. They kept the country poor, condemning the population to erratic and often lacklustre healthcare, education and other social services.

The military government decided the extent of public discussion, using intimidation and severe punishment to keep the people in line. In “un-changed” Myanmar there were still champions of free speech, but they were forced to operate in the shadows.

That was the only semi-safe place for different ideas about political organisation. Whether it was General Ne Win’s isolated socialism or Senior General Than Shwe’s muscled-up nationalism, political ideology was dictated from on high. Too many brave people were locked up for merely hinting at alternative governance arrangements.

The democratic opposition, spearheaded since 1988 by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, caught the world’s attention for its righteous resistance. Let’s not forget that the National League for Democracy has always been in the business of changing Myanmar.

It is strange that those I expect to welcome the surge of democratic success are sometimes uncomfortable with the wider revitalisation of society. I wonder whether the insistence on seeing Myanmar before it changes is not an ill-conceived affection for destitution and hardship.

But this is the big point. It is wonderful that Myanmar’s economy has been growing at something like 8 per cent each year in recent times. My guess is that in certain neighbourhoods in the major cities, economic improvement is running much hotter than that national average.

This growth means that Myanmar citizens are rapidly shifting their horizons. The changes are all around us: miniskirts and burger chains, shiny new sedans and Facebook frenzies, real estate speculation and K-Pop imitations, cram school ambitions and media exposés.

Under the military, life may have been simpler. It was also grimmer, shorter and often sadder. Misplaced nostalgia for the old days misses the costs that came with long-term economic paralysis.

When Myanmar was a pariah it was cut off from the global financial system, doing any deal was a hassle; there were days when even street hustlers were reluctant to take soiled foreign currency. Inefficiencies piled up, all weighed down by low hopes for anything to get better.

And foreign visitors tended to stay away.

The notion that this system was worth preserving, and that today its remnants should serve as a tourist attraction, misses the desperation and depression that it caused.

The old system was a product of dire social and financial conditions, where peace was implausible, where families were torn apart by poverty, where children grew up too quickly.

Very few people voted in November 2015 for the resurrection of the old military system and the slim opportunities it could provide. Instead, Myanmar’s people want more of the options readily available to the rest of the world.

It all starts with personal and family aspirations. Just look around at the boom in education and it is easy to see the latent energy and creativity unleashed. Students who are currently making their way up through the ranks will not want to return to the system that their parents suffered through.

Before long their memories of a time before smartphone connectivity and mega-marts will fade. There will be more international brands, increased foreign investment and a general slide towards familiar, globalised ways of doing things.

Not everyone will be happy. Yet, in a democratic system, it must be up to Myanmar’s elected government to decide the scope of change.

So instead of lamenting the loss of what Myanmar once was, visitors should be prepared to embrace the nation it will become. It will be messy, contradictory, loud, unexpected and volatile. The point is that, in so many ways, it will be better than before.

This shift is an idea worth promoting to foreign visitors. Their curiosity will keep people in jobs and pay for much-needed infrastructure. Most important of all, their presence will reinforce the idea that there is no going back to entrenched military rule.

Nicholas Farrelly is director of the Myanmar Research Centre at the Australian National University and co-founder of New Manadala. His column appears in The Myanmar Times each Monday.