Luxury cars and artisanal cheese: Burma opens up, but true democracy still elusive

UP CLOSE |An occasional series offering a fresh perspective on the people and places shaping today’s world.


Aye Aye, 12, sits in the middle of a road selling shrimp at a local market to help her family outside Rangoon, also known as Yangon. (Paula Bronstein/For The Washington Post)

On a recent rain-soaked night, the ancient gold Shwedagon Pagoda, believed to contain relics of the Buddha, glowed through the mist in Rangoon.

Not far away, a more modern scene was unfolding at one of the city’s newest shopping malls, where middle-class families sipped lattes and dined on hamburgers and French fries. Just a few years ago, such cuisine was affordable only for the elite or Western travelers.

Once isolated from the world, Burma, also known as Myanmar, has seen rapid change since 2010, when its military government began a process of democratic reform that prompted Western governments to ease economic sanctions.


Burmese look at the new Ocean Shwe Ghone Daing shopping mall as they head home in a crowded city bus. (Paula Bronstein/For The Washington Post)

New businesses have sprung up, eager to attract consumers in a market of more than 55 million people that was virtually untapped during more than 50 years of brutal military rule.

In the country’s commercial capital of Rangoon, also known as Yangon, rents are skyrocketing. Luxury car dealerships like Jaguar, Land Rover and Mercedes have opened. Coca-Cola returned after 60 years. Hilton Worldwide hopes to open its first hotel later this year. And customers are flocking to a popular deli that makes its own artisanal cheese and sausage.

But graffiti scrawled on a billboard for a fancy condo project hints at Burma’s darker side: “Stop War” and “Bad Government.”


A 2014 red Stingray is seen at the new Chevorlet showroom as a Burmese car salesman waits for business. (Paula Bronstein/For The Washington Post)

Outside this bustling city, millions of Burmese still live in poverty, many working as rice farmers. The country has been riven by clashes with ethnic militias and tensions between Buddhists and minority Muslims.

The nominally civilian government has cracked down on the press, and activists are wondering whether authorities will allow truly democratic national elections, slated for next year.

Many investors are now adopting a wait-and-see approach because of the political uncertainty and the difficulties of doing business in a country that has a dearth of electric power and qualified workers, said Sean Turnell, an economics professor from Macquarie University in Sydney.

Meanwhile, ordinary Burmese have a wait-and-see mindset of their own, afraid that the changes won’t last or won’t usher in broader progress.


Burmese students pack a small, sweaty classroom at the Tet May Nunn private school learning English in the Hlaing Thaya area outside Rangoon. (Paula Bronstein/For The Washington Post)

“This building is very grand and smart, and is a little bit more expensive than the outside market,” said Khin Cho, 62, a retired school teacher shopping recently in the Ocean Supercenter at the new mall.

The store had a feel of a Walmart, with tidy bins of fresh fruit alongside aisles of cheap imported T-shirts and toys. She had filled her cart with onions, garlic, gourmet spices and a banana cake.

“Supermarket stores are booming, but there is no change in politics,” she said. “There is no democracy — yet. I hope! I hope! But I don’t know.”

Khine Thurein contributed to this report.

Up Close: This is part of an occasional series offering a fresh perspective, in words and photographs, on the people and places shaping today’s world.

Annie Gowen is The Post’s India bureau chief and has reported for the Post throughout South Asia and the Middle East.
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