Locals queue for the opening of Myanmar's first KFC in Yangon.

Locals queue for the opening of Myanmar’s first KFC in Yangon.

Is the opening of Myanmar’s first KFC in Yangon the triumph of democracy or crony capitalism?

In the wake of the military junta-led political and economic reforms, a new ‘Colonel’ is getting settled into the former Myanmar capital, Yangon.

The colonel in question – the fabled Colonel Sanders from Louisville – is an outsider; a potent allegory for the changing fortunes of Myanmar’s economic ‘liberalisation’.

Regardless of speculation over the ‘herbs and spices’ used in Sanders’ deep-fried chicken recipe, the rabbit-hole gets ever deeper and more intriguing when we take a look at how the first Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) branch in Myanmar ended up opening its doors on 30 June, in Yangon; a feat inconceivable just a few years ago.

The irony is that while military officers don civilian garments under the guise of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), it is the so-called ‘crony capitalists’, and their conglomerates, who are the real movers and shakers in Myanmar’s political economy.

In this instance, the Singapore-based conglomerate, Yoma Strategic Holdings Ltd – chaired by the previously exiled Chinese-Burmese tycoon, Serge Pun – has been awarded the lucrative KFC contract, in partnership with Kentucky-based Yum! Brands, Inc.

On the one hand, this shows that the state and its political economy really is undergoing radical reform, as figures previously barred from entering the state are now the talk of Yangon. On the other, the shady characteristics and limitations of Myanmar’s economic liberalisation are on open display.

Like many of these crony capitalists who have been steadily taking advantage of the multitude of murky opportunities up for grabs in the state’s liberalisation process, Serge Pun (who also goes by his Burmese name, Theim Wai), now holds numerous permits and licences provided by the transitional Myanmar state; ranging from interests in the nascent tourism industry, to real estate.

Forebodingly, many Myanmar-watchers have argued that the progress of reform is being, and would continue to be, dictated by the interests of a handful of crony capitalists operating in the borderlands, Naypyitaw, and from abroad, with an influx of foreign investment. It is these elite few who have been the principal beneficiaries of the changing political economic landscape.

Most strikingly, there have been predictions that Myanmar may even be on a Cambodian trajectory in its economic reform process. Some groups, such as the Asian Human Rights Commission, have drawn parallels between the two states since the introduction in Myanmar of the controversial 2012 Farmland Bill, fuelling fears that a Cambodia-esque land-grabbing epidemic may be on the horizon.

It is telling, that like Cambodia, which has awarded numerous patronage opportunities to Vietnamese outsiders such as Sok Kong of Sokimex under the personalistic rule of Hun Se, the hijacking of Myanmar’s democratic transition, and the path it seems to be following, demonstrates that, perhaps, the regime is equally dependent on outsiders – be it individuals exiled by previous reincarnations of the Burmese state, or the global economic order which fuels resource extraction and rent-seeking opportunities.

While KFC may or may not be affordable to the average Bamar, its presence on Bogyoke Aung San road might just symbolise that a new set of patrons are shaping the scope, as well as the pace, of the state’s reform process.

No other symbol seems more appropriate at highlighting the underlying irony of Myanmar’s democratic transition than the beaming motif of Colonel Sanders. As the Tatmadaw take a step back from politics, following decades of isolation and outright military rule, it seems that a fast-emerging oligarchy – enhanced and empowered by an irresistible neoliberal economic order – is stepping forward to take the reins.

Ultimately, rather than symbolising the triumphant spread of a liberal, Western-style electoral democracy, the opening of KFC in Yangon shows that Myanmar might finally be heading in the direction of the modern, Southeast Asian democratic model.

We may, however, be waiting a while until the officers of the Tatmadaw – which includes their colonels – are either satisfied with the democratisation process, or have become sidelined by growing inter-elite competition, which the regime has grown dependent upon to develop the state apparatus and its infrastructure.

Timothy Simonson is a master’s student at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.