Yangon dominates Myanmar. Whilst Naypyidaw, 320km to the north, has been the capital for the past 11 years, this vibrant port city with its traffic-clogged streets, fading colonial splendour and the serene beauty of the Shwedagon Pagoda continues to enthral the nation.
As Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) mark their first year in power, it’s becoming clear that the dynamic business hub will hold the key to any future success.
With a population of 7.36 million (the Yangon region extends beyond the city proper) and almost a quarter of the nation’s GDP, political and economic reforms have to work in the city if they are to take root across the nation of 52 million.
As chief minister in the city, Phyo Min Thein is the NLD’s “man in Yangon”.
Much like Suu Kyi, the nation’s de facto leader, Phyo Min Thein was a political prisoner, having served 15 years behind bars.
He’s fast getting a reputation as an astute political player. A former physics student and activist at the University of Yangon, Phyo Min Thein was jailed in 1991, after the 1988 uprising against the country’s military junta.
He is remarkably sanguine about his time in prison.
“I was in my twenties when I was arrested by the military intelligence…They kept increasing my sentence,” he said.
“The experience made me a more mature person. Two things kept me going: the first was… my admiration for Aung San Suu Kyi; the second was the Buddhist religion. Practising Buddhism helped us a lot in these difficult times.”
Phyo Min Thein only joined the NLD in 2012. It was a shrewd move as he was picked to contest the dramatic by-elections of that year.
He ascended rapidly in the NLD, reportedly acting as a key strategist during the crucial 2015 elections that followed.
He recalls the period warmly. “When I was in parliament, Aung San Suu Kyi taught us a lot. She taught us that politicians must be willing to learn. That we should be optimistic, patient and systematic… I see her as a mother,” he said.
Patience is what he needs in Yangon. His first year in office has been tough.
One of his signature initiatives, the Yangon Bus Service (YBS) launched earlier this year, has been broadly criticised.
What started as a bold attempt to streamline public transport in the city has left commuters frustrated by increased fares, long delays and irregular services.
A Facebook video marking Phyo Min Thein’s first year in office, which claimed the YBS as an achievement, was removed after being panned.
“I don’t see [the YBS] as a major problem,” he said.
“We’re taking things step by step. With any reform, there are bound to be challenges, whether political or from vested interests.”
He and the NLD are battling against the effects of decades of systematic neglect, corruption and abuse of power. And many voters understand this and remain supportive.
Indeed, the local Muslim community, whilst wary of the extremist rhetoric emanating from Buddhist hardliners and possible fallout from violence in Rakhine state, feel that forces in the military are deliberately stirring up resentment.
On May 9 nationalist monks led a mob into the predominantly Muslim Mingalar Taung Nyunt township, seeking “illegal Rohingyas”.
The situation quickly escalated and the police fired warning shots.
“The incident was caused by instigators,” the chief minister said. “We will take legal action [against them]. The law enforcement agencies have already started.”
On May 12 police issued several arrest warrants over the attacks.
Phyo Min Thein’s explanation of the turmoil in Rakhine is very much in alignment with Suu Kyi’s. But he speaks with greater empathy, in contrast with Suu Kyi’s stand-offish demeanour.
He prefaced his argument by holding up Myanmar’s imperilled diversity. “There is freedom of religion in Myanmar,” he said. “There is a Bengali mosque, a church and a Hindu temple near the Sule Pagoda (in downtown Yangon).
“[The conflict in] Rakhine state is not about religion. While the Rohingya are not among Myanmar’s 135 recognised ethnic groups, there is the Kamein people who are predominantly Muslim. This proves that the problem in Rakhine is not about religion, but ethnicity.
“We are trying to build a country where all religions are equal. This is part of democracy, human rights and maturity.”
Phyo Min Thein claims big ambitions for Yangon, which has an unemployment rate of 4.1 per cent and a poverty rate of 40 per cent.
“Our vision for Yangon is for it to maintain its heritage, to become a green city and an economic powerhouse, where investors would want to come and stay,” he said.
“One of the challenges investors face is high real estate prices, which we are trying our best to control.”
Despite criticisms from business that the NLD lacks practical experience, the chief minister has drawn praise for his low-key, problem-solving approach.
He said: “Foreign investment will bring in job opportunities and technology transfers. If we can create lots of new job opportunities in Yangon, we could confront the homelessness problem.”
He certainly has his work cut out. With more than half a million homeless, Yangon remains restive and volatile.
At the same time, those opposed to Suu Kyi and the NLD are deeply entrenched in the city’s fabric, especially among the business elite. There will be parliamentary elections in 2020.
But if over the next few years Phyo Min Thein can navigate the vested interests, resolve the city’s public transport woes, pull in investors, create jobs and curb the tendency to lawlessness, both he and the NLD will be big winners.