Monday, August 10, 2009

Diary: Burma - The Forgotten Country

My first exposure to Burma was when I went to live in Rangoon for a few weeks in early 2002. My purpose was to set up a computer training network there. Before I left Dhaka for Yangon, I tried to study about the country as much as I can. However, not too much information was forthcoming, except for the fact that there was a big conference about ICT development in Rangoon in January. Besides this, the ever helpful first secretary in the Burmese embassy in Dhaka connected me up with his brother-in-law and sister, who were in business and could possibly look at getting into IT training business. This, and a Lonely Planet Guide, was all I had for Burma.

Rangoon did not disappoint. I was expecting quite a backward country and preparing myself for quite an adventure. Instead, I landed up in a $200 a night Trader's, and realized that with the unofficial rate of 1200 kyat a dollar, I am quite well off with my par diem. I learnt, just before the ICT conference, that what the Burmese refer to as Internet is not the Internet as we know it, but a severely restricted Burma only version of it. But the ICT conference was full of businessmen from ASEAN, and there was a lot of talk, including visits to IT Parks etc. I did try to raise the question who will buy the software produced here, as Americans and Europeans boycott Burmese companies. Besides, I tried telling people about human capital development if IT has to be successful, but that discussion did not go too far.

We never did business in Burma, eventually. The Intellectual Property protection was dodgy, and we could not build a business model based on such an enormous variation between the official [7 kyat a dollar] and the unofficial [1200 kyat a dollar]. We did not know what we should charge. If we charged too less in dollar terms, we shall soon be caught for under-invoicing. If we charged too much, we would not have a business. Direct investment was out of question, given that we were sure that the country is going to implode one day. My grand planning about having a nationwide network of IT Training centres came to a standstill when we learnt that, outside Rangoon, Burmese cities do not get electricity for more than six hours a day. The partner we talked to tried to convince us that we should transfer the intellectual property to the Burmese company, and eventually gave up when we did not agree.

Apart from the sheer impossibility of doing business in Burma, I carried back another image of the country. I did discover this small bookshop down in an alley which sells books about Burma. Not just the officially approved ones, but also photocopies of Western books about Burma, which talks about the usually excluded things like democracy and human rights. However, when I tried buying some of those, the shop owner advised me not to, saying that they may open my bag at the airport and I may be in trouble if I am carrying these books. I understand he was doing this for self-preservation, but I was completely disarmed by his sincerity and genuine concern. And, this was not just an one off, but I was amazed by the basic decency and warmth of people, as if we have gone back to a time when gentleness could be seen on High Streets and marketplaces. I looked around to see a slow and decent, even if repressed, life, in stark contrast to the vulgarity of the streets of Bangkok and Manila. I thought of Burma as a country frozen in the 1960s.

There were odd moments, indeed, when my hosts looked at the hotel ceiling when I asked whether Suu Kyi was likely to be freed any time soon. I feared my passport was taken when a rather stern looking policeman took it away for photocopying inside the hotel. A number of students tried to communicate how desperately they would want to migrate, without saying so, while I was visiting Burma's highly successful NCC centres. And, lastly, when an Indian businessman from Singapore advised me to route all businesses through him, as, he reasoned, an Indian company has very little chance of success in Burma.

He was right. The Indian government always had a highly ambivalent attitude to Burma. To Indian policy thinkers, Burma was a lost country. Lost to the Chinese, that is. This was India's triple humiliation in the 1960s - losing the war with China, giving up the military advantage in the 1965 war with Pakistan after the Chinese threatened to intervene, and the loss of Burma, a close neighbour with shared history and democratic mindset, to military dictatorship propped up by the then Chinese hegemons. Burma was lost - and then forgotten. As Indians developed their own Monroe doctrine, they excluded Burma altogether. Never mind that the Burmese bases were freely used by the Chinese navy and air force - Indians would not hear anything about Burma at all.

And, so it went. The Burmese military leaders kept going on with one of the world's most repressive, unjust, cruel dictatorship, and Indians, along with other Western nations, conveniently forgot the country after putting some sanctions in place. America made noises and pushed the sanctions, but never stopped its allies, the Asian nations, to trade and cooperate with Burma. And, thus, Burma, Southeast Asia's biggest nation, an one time part of British India, home of an essentially decent and hardworking people, were irretrievably lost.

There was indeed some due circus when the Burmese oil made news. The Burmese, of course, always had the oil. However, they became somewhat willing to sell that to the outside world [ex China] recently. The Indian government duly lined up, forgetting the commitment to human rights and democracy etc, and started greasing the palms of Burmese plutocrats. The mistake was compounded - the Burmese people were completely abandoned - by most of the world.

Burma remains, in my mind, a problem that the world needs to solve. It's culture, history, sanctity, people are all under an enormous risk. It is likely to become one big sanctuary of world's criminals. It is already one of the most important sources of narcotics in the world, and it is likely to worsen. No country has suffered more than Burma for the international politics. No country has ever been ignored, so shamefully, as Burma. It is one of the world's most corrupt, reclusive country, which is a key point of call for narcotics traders, arms traders, nuclear traders of the world. If any of the world's leaders think they can sleep without sorting out Burma first, God bless them, but we shall continue to live in fear.

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