Tuesday, July 25, 2017

No firm ballast for democracy in Myanmar

Passengers on the Yangon-Mandalay express train are familiar with the sight of human waste along the railway tracks in Yangon’s suburbs as well as near the major stops all the way to Mandalay.

Myanmar’s rickety democracy train is wobbling toward an uncertain future. (Kaung Htet/The Myanmar Times)Myanmar’s rickety democracy train is wobbling toward an uncertain future. (Kaung Htet/The Myanmar Times)

The narrow-gauge tracks were laid by the British in 1889 after the conquest of Mandalay; the human waste has been added by the people trapped in the 21st-century slums along the railway.

This poverty is a testament to the failure of democratic nation-building that has its origins in the decolonisation of Burma in the 1950s.

Growing up in Myanmar in the 1980s, I often travelled by train with my parents. Now when I return to the country, I notice that little appears to have changed as far as railway transport is concerned: I see the same old tattered cars featuring ceiling fans and windows that can be opened and shut at will, the same old hard seats for second-class passengers, the same old wobbly ride, rocking you like a baby in a madman’s cradle.

Hawkers still rush up and down the aisles selling steamed sweet corn, boiled peanuts, betel quid, cigarettes, cheroots or tea. The army men in their shabby uniforms follow the colonial-era tracks to their new posts. Some of them, if they’re sent to the frontlines, might never see home again.

The only difference these days is that most passengers – even some of the army men – flaunt their mobile phones.

Recent changes in Myanmar have been drastic and discernable, as commentators like Nicholas Farrelly and the president’s advisors in Nay Pyi Taw are fond of reminding us. But what about the value changes caused by the sudden invasion of the global market into Myanmar life? The convergence of strategic and economic interests between the global elite and the Myanmar elite has turned the country into a neo-liberal arcadia, where people are increasingly under the spell of false needs created by market forces.

Even in the global market, Myanmar people are being short-changed. What Myanmar as a country, or Myanmar as a people, are having to give up is not proportionate to what they are getting back. Like in Cambodia or Ghana, the mobile phone penetration in Myanmar may soon exceed 100 percent.

But has the quality of life in terms of clearer air or cleaner drinking water improved for much of the population? In a recent media debate on drinking water in Myanmar, most participants extolled the virtues of purified bottled water. Yet none of them mentioned the environmental cost of bottled water or the fact that drinkable tap water should be provided by the government, and not by privatising water delivery as it is reportedly planned for Yangon.

Meanwhile, public education in Myanmar is critically endangered. This issue lies at the heart of the recent student protests for education reform. Even in the quasi-socialist era, parents could count on free education for their children’s social mobility as demonstrated by the inspiring story of Myanmar blogger Navana. He writes that during his days in Samatekhone village near Myingyan, children like himself who could not afford shoes or rubber flip-flops could go to school in wooden flip-flops. These days children in his village cannot afford any footwear at all.

The school dropout rate is no less alarming. Students who now study at elite Myanmar institutions are the lucky few whose parents have been able to pay for their children’s education. An interesting question should be, “What kind of students from what kind of social backgrounds get to land coveted places at Myanmar universities?”

Public health is also in decline, or is outsourced to the non-governmental “non-profit” sector. In a recent trip to central Myanmar, I was faced with a beggar boy who approached me with the medical report of his father, whom he claimed was at a nearby hospital. He nearly dragged me to the hospital to prove he wasn’t lying. This kind of begging is new in this country. For the victims of land-grabs or the victims of the “tailing” of the jade mine deposits in Kachin State, the changes in Myanmar are utterly meaningless.

I am often asked what I think of the upcoming Myanmar election. Just like its poorly maintained railway tracks, the Myanmar government has not laid sufficient ballast for the democracy train to move along quickly and smoothly. For the country’s impoverished millions, including the people living in slums along the Yangon-Mandalay railroad or the people staying in refugee camps, it doesn’t matter who is going to be the next president. The poor, many of whom do not have addresses or national identity cards, will remain as disenfranchised as they were during the elections in the 1950s.

Perhaps there is less fighting in the country today. Yet one should note the temporary ceasefire accord was “achieved” because there had been wars to begin with. Should the Myanmar people thank the state for disentangling the mess that the

government caused in the first place? In Myanmar, the grassroots are very, very angry with the authorities.

Traditionally, the five foes for Myanmar are water (drought or floods), fire, wind (cyclones), thieves or anyone you don’t like, and the government or state. The five foes have perversely tormented Myanmar society for at least as long as historical records have been kept.

As long as the question of redistributive justice is not effectively and seriously addressed – and, given the direction Myanmar is heading, it is unlikely that its unequal wealth distribution will be corrected anytime soon – much of the Myanmar population will continue to regard any powers-that-be or the state as one of their traditional enemies.

Ko Ko Thett is the author of The Burden of Being Burmese (2015).