Myanmar in danger of being overwhelmed by donor's generosity

Hari Kumar says the sudden influx of foreign funds and assistance to Myanmar, following decades of junta rule, threatens to overwhelm the nation and actually damage society

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 March, 2013, 3:30am

As Myanmar marks two years of its historic journey towards normalcy under President Thein Sein, the country is facing an array of challenges that accompany a transition like this.

The country's pariah status faded in the glow of the applause received as it embarked on reforms after decades of junta rule.

There soon followed a series of visits by global leaders, headlined by Barack Obama, the first US president to visit the country.

Myanmar's government has continued to show its resolve to push forward with reforms and the global community has been pumping in aid, both financial and technological, to get the country back on its feet.

Those at the heart of these generous offers could well have an eye on the country's vast resources, especially natural gas and cheap labour, but the aid has been flowing in steadily, nevertheless.

Almost every major trade and travel ban that was imposed on the country has been lifted and the country is now teeming with non-governmental organisations and businessmen of all shades trying to gain a foothold.

But this sudden influx of people and funds is laying bare the gross inadequacies in the country. Having missed out on the development that other Asian economies have enjoyed, and with the junta almost strangling the education sector after the student's revolt in 1988, the country now faces a severe shortage of skilled manpower.

A recent report commissioned by US economic consultants Nathan Associates highlighted, among other things, a desperate need for English-language teaching to improve communications between Myanmar and the outside world.

But, even more importantly, it warned that aid agencies, which are rushing in to help, may end up giving "more than Myanmar's capacity to absorb" and actually damage society.

As with aid, the difficulty that Myanmar faces in coping with the influx of tourists is another example of the need for basic facilities to make this sector more sustainable.

Hotel rooms have become so scarce that even places that would be regarded as suitable only for backpackers elsewhere are now going for US$80 or US$90 a night.

The enthusiasm and friendliness that has disappeared from places like Thailand or the Philippines - where tourism has become a major money-spinner - is still evident in Myanmar. How long that will last, in the face of the flowing tourist dollars, is a question that even local people are asking themselves.

With most of the attractions in the country centred around its Buddhist pagodas, it is also difficult to see how Myanmar can sustain this level of inflow year after year, especially in a region surrounded by major tourism promoters.

Myanmar needs to act quickly to make best use of the goodwill it is now attracting, and draw up a smart plan for its future.

However, the lack of a political system and a struggling infrastructure puts the country's journey towards normalcy on a bumpy road.

Hari Kumar is a Post journalist