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Myanmar no Arab Spring, but there are shoots

By Kevin Donnelly - posted Thursday, 10 November 2011

While no Arab Spring, recent news and events suggest that Myanmar's military dominated government might be easing restrictions and becoming less oppressive and totalitarian. The government has just given permission for long time critic Aung San Suu Kyi's and her opposition party to contest the next round of elections.

Additional moves that suggest that the military regime is keen to appease international condemnation and to bring an end to crippling embargoes include the decision to stop a Chinese funded dam project in the country's Kachin state and to ease internet restrictions.

As noted by a number of journalists last week, on observing the way a group of farmers protesting against land seizures were treated by Rangon police there is a sense that change is afoot - the farmers were dispersed instead of being imprisoned.


While nowhere near as open and positive as perestroika and demokratizatsiya introduced by President Gorbachev during the late 1980s, in an attempt to reform the soviet government and political apparatus, there is cause for optimism.

Spending time in Yangon and Mandalay over the last 2 weeks provides copious evidence that change is urgently needed if living conditions are to improve and the Myanmar people are to have any chance of enjoying the lifestyle and prosperity we so often take for granted.

It shouldn't surprise that there are some in Myanmar arguing that international embargoes and restrictions on trade and investment have caused greater harm to the people compared to the ruling elite.

The streets of the two major cities, with the exception of the roads to the airports, are rutted and full of potholes and the cars, reminiscent of Havana, are dilapidated and obsolete. When in Mandalay the taxi driver I employed for the day proudly lifted the bonnet of his 60-year-old car donated by the Japanese government at the end of the Second World War.

The apartments and buildings in Yangon, except for the occasional one like the Strand Hotel that has survived from the time of British rule, are begrimed and discoloured. The streetscape reminded me of India some 40 years ago with its broken monsoon drains, beggars and piles of rotting rubbish.

Such is the uncertainty about electricity generation that banks, hotels and restaurants often have generators sitting at their front doors or in their basements and tourists are warned to carry torches to use during the inevitable blackouts.


Taking the two hour train trip around the Yangon on the Yangon Circle Line best illustrates the decrepit and impoverished nature of the country's infrastructure. The train barely exceeds 10 mph, such is the condition of the track, and the carriages lack windows or doors and consist only of hard wooden benches and a rusting metal shell.

As I discovered on my recent trip, most tourists game enough to buy a ticket for the Circle Line fail to complete the full trip as the train slowly meanders from station to station with the occasional stop for labourers replacing old and rotting sleepers.

Mandalay, while made famous by Rudyard Kipling's poem and, more recently, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in Road to Mandalay also suffers from lack of investment and poor infrastructure. Lakes are clogged with refuse, buildings suffer from lack of care transport is rudimentary and hovels lay on the banks of the Irrawaddy.

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Kevin Donnelly first travelled to India, Pakistan and Afghanistan during the heady hippy days of the late 60s and early 70s, since that time he has been a regular visitor to Indo China and the Asia/Pacific region.

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About the Author

Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and he recently co-chaired the review of the Australian national curriculum. He can be contacted at He is author of Australia’s Education Revolution: How Kevin Rudd Won and Lost the Education Wars available to purchase at

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