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Five teams of top, young journalists set out from Myanmar's commercial hub of Yangon to better understand how the country is changing under a reform-minded government. Travel along with these 20 reporters — 11 Burmese and 9 American — as they journey the ancient Burma Road, through the country's capitals past and present, down the Irrawaddy Delta, onto Inle Lake and across Yangon itself at a critical time in the country's history.
How Myanmar is working to wriggle itself free from the "empire next door."
natural wealth at rock-bottom prices to Beijing. A pair of controversial pipelines that will deliver gas and oil to China are nearing completion, and an estimated 90 percent of the power from the country’s hydroelectric dams is transferred to China as well. So the Burmese must depend on the inefficient gas generators, imported, of course, down the Burma Road from China.
In a wooden hut on a hillside about 35 miles from Mandalay, Tin Mar, a farmer, said she is angry she lives without electric power. Her hut sits six miles from the 790-megawatt power plant at the Yeywa Dam, but the costs of hooking up a small hamlet like hers, with just a handful of residents, is prohibitively high. The 54-year-old uses candles and a wood-burning stove, her hut’s battery-powered LED lights one of its few signs of modernity.
Many Burmese don’t have official title to the land on which they live and farm, making it easy for the government to seize tracts as it pleases. GlobalPost reported in October on the plight of an entire village forcibly relocated for the project. Land seizures for the pipelines also remain a resonant issue in the country. Tin Mar’s banana orchard was seized to build a small golf course for the dam’s Chinese operators who live in a walled compound and work behind a checkpoint.
The golf course provides a handful of jobs for locals, but not for Tin Mar. To make up for the lost income from bananas, the 54-year-old now raises livestock. As a small black dog yapped under her bed, two chickens wandered around her dirt floor.
Yeywa Dam’s construction was led by Chinese state firms. Most of the power will pass through Mandalay on its way up to China’s Yunnan Province. Imported Chinese workers completed most of the construction and continue to operate the dam. Local Burmese landed some menial work out the project, but many also lost their land.
The power lines from the dam run directly over Tin Mar’s roof.
Business, Not Friendship
In recent years, Burma’s generals began worrying they were getting as raw a deal from their Chinese partnership as villagers like Tin Mar.
Burma’s incipient democratic shift is as much about balancing China by inviting in new friends in the West as it is about anything else.
On the stretch of the Burma Road approaching the city of Muse (pronounced MOO-say) on the Chinese border, the gates have literally been thrown open. The ban on foreigners in the region was lifted in May, and the old checkpoint in the village of Yay Pu lay abandoned.
But the place remains as Chinese as it is Burmese, with little hint that Westerners are now free to enter. The city of 200,000 is hooked up to China’s superior electrical and telecommunications infrastructure, so Facebook and Twitter are both blocked. Chinese concerns dominate the local economy, and signs everywhere are bilingual. An American has never stepped foot in most businesses here.
Chinese businessmen in Muse make themselves scarce around town. More than one Burmese suggested that this is because many of them are involved in smuggling. The one Chinese merchant who would talk to a reporter, the 43-year-old proprietor of an electronics shop, refused to give a name.
He laughed at the notion that impending American competition would be cause for concern. The businessman had more pressing problems. Speaking through two translators, he explained in Mandarin that the price of the cell phones he sold was in free fall. As part of its economic liberalization, the Burmese government had loosened up import licenses, and cheap handsets from Thailand and Singapore have flooded Muse. The price of a basic phone has fallen from $30 a year ago to about half that.
“So what?” the businessman asked, if Americans one day move into Muse. American businesses don’t sell the low-cost, and low-quality, Chinese goods on offer in his little shop.
But the Financial Times reported in June that the brass in Beijing has been asking a very different question: “Who lost Burma?” The same ubiquitous Chinese presence that makes that question seem absurd in Muse also brings out here the Burmese sentiment that makes it apt.
Like most Burmese asked point-blank about the impact of