Theres no stock market. No internet. No e-mail. And despite a wealth of natural resources, from rice to gold to hydrocarbons, its one of the poorest countries in the world. Still, I think there's a great a way to invest in the future of Myanmar: Go there.
Nestled in Southeast Asia along the Bay of Bengal, Myanmar is undoubtedly the most isolated and insular nation we have visited. Crossing the border from India was like stepping back in time: Roads that had been filled with cars in India were suddenly packed only with bicycles and ox-carts. Local craftsman we met in villages measured time by watching water drip into a coconut shell. Outside of the major cities, one is hard pressed to find regular electricity. It's a lush and beautiful land: mountains in the west, north and east border a fertile river valley. Rudyard Kiplings famed "Road to Mandalay" is actually not a road but a river-the Irrawaddy-and it is still the countrys primary commercial route leading down the center of the country to the Bay of Bengal.
But what springs to mind when most people think of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is the oppressive military junta that rules the nation with an iron fist. Myanmar often tops the list of places travelers are not supposed to go. I certainly didn't think we would get in. Only after several letters and trips to local embassies in other countries did someone see fit to allow us passage. I'm still not sure why. The older guards at the border crossing told us that they hadn't seen foreigners pass through that particular check point since World War II. Our visas were stamped "land travel not permitted" since they just do not allow people driving in yet.
The rigid rule of the junta is legendary. Gatherings of larger than five people are forbidden by law. One cross word about the government will land you in prison or worse. Inviting a foreigner into your home is considered a crime. Many universities have been shut down. Many experts believe the best way to fight such a regime is to boycott it. Some western governments have set economic sanctions against Myanmar; foreign businesses are told not to open plants there.
I think this is all wrong. I've always preached a practice of direct engagement when it comes to foreign governments that oppress their people. The people we met and talked to in Myanmar were interested in hearing about our lives and our world. They hoped more people would come. People who rebel are those whose horizons have been broadened and experienced something beyond their difficult existence. Sanctions do little more than reinforce their difficulties.
The saddest part is that Myanmar once showed tremendous promise. When the country gained its freedom from the British in 1948, its leaders ambitiously experimented with democracy. Unfortunately, ethnic, religious and political differences established by the Brits during their occupancy tore the country apart. A military government took control in 1962 and has kept foreign influence at bay and the county and its people under tight reins.
More recently, student uprisings inspired the military to allow a parliamentary election in 1990 that voted in a democratic party, led by National Democratic Party leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The military, recognizing its mistake, rejected the results. Suu Kyi, who later won the Nobel peace prize for her efforts, was forced under house arrest until 1995. She's now under house arrest again for organizing against the regime.
For decades, the military guided the country by a doctrine known as the road to Burmese socialism. It might as well have been called the road to economic ruin. Myanmar was once a shining star in the regionthe richest country in Asia in 1962 and the worlds leading exporter of rice It's health care system was unparalleled. Literacy in Myanmar was the highest in Southeast Asia.
Today, Myanmar is one of the ten poorest countries in the world. The government reports a literacy rate more than 80 percent, but skeptics believe that number is closer to 30 percent. Last year, the World Health Organization ranked Myanmars health care system second to last among 191 nations.
It's a shame, too, because its truly a fascinating culture. 85 percent of its 50 million locals are Buddhists; it's certainly one of the most religious cultures we've seen on the trip. In fact, many say it's the purest form of Buddhism youll find in the world. Buddhist temples andpagodas can be found just about everywhere. In Bagan, a city in central Myanmar, we drove through a plain covered with hundreds of pagodas.
Another temple housed 500,000 different statues of Buddha, some as large as a man, some two inches high. Nearly all of these sights were free and empty of tourists, something that astonished us after passing through the overpriced and overcrowded tourist traps of India. In Mandalay, we visited the largest book in the world729 carved tablets, each one roughly four feet high. Everything you ever need to know about Buddhism is written there. Skilled artists carve marble statues on the street; we met a man who sold tiger skins and offered to make us anything we wanteda jacket, a purse, luggage out of one of the skins or any leather we wanted.
Teak and bamboo trees are plentiful; many locals live in houses completely made of the valuable wood. We saw teak houses that I imagine would cost into the millions in the U.S.
Local Burmese were incredibly kind and gentle, and a disciplined and educated population. All boys and most girls spend time studying Buddhism. They come to embrace it not only as a religion, but, as a way of life. It breeds a calm in their demeanor that belies the rigid dictatorial environment in which they live. Men and women both wear longyis local "skirts" that stretch down over the leg. The only difference is that men tie them differently than women. Many people wear thanakaa light paste that is supposed to protect their skin from the sun and keep them young. It comes from the bark of a tree; we saw pieces of it for sale just about everywhere we went.
There have been signs that the government is starting to change. In Bagan, the government built a new village complete with schools, water supplies, electricity and quality roads. Many jobs were created in the promise and now the area has become a sizeable tourist attraction. One thing you can say about this dictatorship is that what they do productively works well: I sent a post card to my parents from Mandalay and it got there in a week. A post card I sent from Pakistan over two months ago still hasn't arrived.
Recently, the military leaders have begun talking to Aung San Soo Kyi again. They say they want to shift to a civilian government. There's talk of privatization. One of the leading generals recently admitted that it was time the country started embracing the Internet.
Such promises, though, have been made before and were often never followed through. Many experts believe that such talk is an attempt to coddle favor with Western governments, hoping they will loosen some of the economic sanctions. Many companies, like Japanese manufacturer Toyota and HSBC Bank, have abandoned their facilities in Myanmar because they could not work within its restrictive and corrupt system. And with inflation rising and the currency continuing to lose value, the economy may be the military juntas one Achilles heel. The real impetus to change may be its economic collapse. In THE REPUBLIC, Plato said that governments evolve from dictatorship to oligarchy to democracy. Myanmar has been stuck in the first phase by a relentless force of arms. A collapse will ultimately allow a natural evolution to occur, one that has been hindered by the military dictatorship for years. It's not a place where I would want to invest right now, but when it dissolves to its natural borders, Myanmar would certainly be a place to attract international investors.
Towards the end of our trip, we talked to one woman who worked in bamboo processing plant. She didn't want to complain about her life; she just let us take her picture and asked Paige to send her some perfume. For her, it was a taste of life she didn't have right now, but on at least she could know existed somewhere. It was a glimpse of possibility. We sent the perfume to her a day later. If you ask me, that does as much to initiate change as any policy decision in Washington.