Burma starts work on its tattered image
Published: 12th Jun 2012 17:25:52
"We understand the need for PR," says Burma's industry minister, Soe Thein, smiling broadly, and inviting his BBC visitors to orange squash and cakes.
This is true. If any country is in want of an image makeover, it is Burma.
For 25 years the few pictures coming out of Burma, also known as Myanmar, have been of students and monks on the streets, followed by the army crushing the dissent.
Even in recent days, sectarian violence in Rakhine province has brought the familiar sight of army troops taking control, and spiralling violence.
All of which is troubling to a government, keen to show that it has turned a new page.
During the past few months, Burma's tarnished reputation has been rapidly making way for more positive messages.
Now, Burma seems to be all about investment opportunities, visits from foreign dignitaries and T-shirts with Aung San Suu Kyi's face on them.
"At the moment we are just like a beautiful girl," says the minister. "A lot of people come every day."
In Soe Thein's ministry, posters of the previous head of state, General Than Shwe, opening infrastructure projects, flanked by military personnel remain on show. The current government is still staffed by former officers. But the message is new.
"Before, we were appointed by the General," the minister says. "Now we are elected by the people."
He talks about creating a level playing field in the economy, shaking up vested interests and putting the people's needs first.
"We have to work for our people. They need this reform."
In the commercial capital, Rangoon, colonial era buildings are crumbling, the paint is peeling, and the pavements broken, but there are some visible signs of change.
Businessmen carry mobile phones. Glossy new cars sit bumper to bumper with second hand 1980s models.
Even the handful of business tycoons who have dominated Burma's private economy for the past quarter century are doing their bit to soften the country's image.
Zaw Zaw is one of those who profited most under the military regime. His Max Myanmar group combines hotels, banking, gem mining, timber, rubber and construction.
He remains on the US sanctions list, labelled a regime crony for his close ties to the government.
But in person he appears modest, dressed in plain shirt and longyi, the traditional Burmese sarong. He casts himself first and foremost as a philanthropist.
"My goal is not only money," he says.
"My goal is how I can contribute to society, how I can help the Myanmar people."
He spends his money on schools and hospitals.
Zaw Zaw remains on message when it comes to the question of reform.
"Foreign investment will create jobs and competition, which will be good for consumers," he says.
"Maybe one day we can say we are the best country in Asia.
"That is why I am really ready to have economic reform. In my heart."
Burma's image relaunch appears to be working. The United States has joined the rest of the western world in easing sanctions.
And foreign business executives are flocking in, crowding the hotels and smart restaurants, hiring estate agents, investment advisers and recruitment specialists.
Even small-scale traders selling pearls, jade, precious stones and jewellery from the stalls in Rangoon's Bogyoke Aung San market, are expecting business to pick up as more tourists flock in.
"It's good for me. I want to expand the business," says one young stallholder. She is selling sapphire necklaces and ruby rings with price tags in the tens of thousands of dollars.
Up until now, it has been rich Burmese and Chinese buying her wares. Now she plans to create designs oriented at more western tastes.
"It's much better than before," says the man behind a neighbouring jade stall. "In the next year or two a lot of tourists will come. Sanctions are going. It will be good."
For some people though things have changed very little.
By the dockside in the northern Burmese city, Mandalay, women and children have made temporary homes in makeshift wooden shelters along the banks of the Irrawaddy.
These villagers have drifted in from the countryside to look for work.
They are paid a few dollars for loading goods on and off the boats. But they only get a day's work three or four times a month and they often go hungry, says one mother, rubbing her stomach.
Further south, alongside the main north-south motorway between Rangoon and Mandalay, live Tin Myint, Aye Mu and Kyu Kyu. They grow rice and mangoes and guavas. They fish. They keep chickens and cattle. They survive.
What do they think about the changes the government is making?
"Has the government changed?" they ask. It has not registered here yet.
Opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi has warned against against "reckless optimism" over Burma's reforms.
"I do believe in the sincerity of the president," she said. "But I also recognise he's not the only person in government and as I keep repeating, there's the military to be reckoned with."
Burma's military and people close to them control large parts of Burma's economy from retail to raw materials. And there are fears that liberalising the economy could serve their interests without benefiting ordinary Burmese.
What remains a mystery is what prompted the military government to take the road to democracy and an open market.
Minister Soe Thein says they looked at the economy and realised change was needed.
"At that moment you have to criticise yourself," he says.
"Relatively, Myanmar people are poorer than (people in) Cambodia and Laos. It's not good for us, for our country.
"In resources, land, population, we are not the lowest in ASEAN. So, infrastructure, institutions, policy and management, that is why we are poor."
The former government economic adviser, Khin Maung Nyo, goes one step further.
"Our leaders became older. They want to leave a good legacy, before they die," he says.
"They are feeling guilty. They know they are responsible."
At 02:56:02 in ScotlandTwo major curling competitions are under way in Dumfries just a couple of months after Scottish competitors scooped medals at the Winter Olympics.
At 02:54:55 in ScotlandParts of a fast reactor control room at Dounreay in Caithness look set to be dismantled and rebuilt at the Science Museum in London.
At 02:47:22 in ScotlandA new service of flights between Edinburgh and Stavanger has begun operation, it has been announced.
At 02:45:05 in ScotlandMajor restrictions on traffic and parking are to be introduced in Glasgow during the summer Commonwealth Games.
At 02:45:05 in WorldThe number of people who have contracted the Ebola virus in Guinea, according to the World Health Organization, has risen to 208 - and 136 of them have died. About half of these cases have been confirmed in a laboratory - earlier cases were not tested.
At 02:42:42 in ScotlandScottish councils have too little power and are too distant from the communities they serve, according to a report.
At 02:40:04 in WorldOne of the hallmarks of the Afghan presidential election has been the prominent role of young voters and activists.
At 02:35:58 in ScotlandSkills shortages are threatening the pace of recovery of Scotland's construction industry, according to a survey.
At 02:35:01 in BusinessShares in Qualcomm, one of the world's biggest chipmakers, fell 5% in after hours trading as it issued a weaker than expected growth outlook.
At 02:34:47 in ScotlandAn independent Scotland would have to fund pension costs of an additional £450 per working-age adult each year, the UK government has claimed.
Harvard CitationBBC News, 2012. Burma starts work on its tattered image [Online] (Updated 12th Jun 2012)
Available at: http://www.ukwirednews.com/news/1434169/Burma-starts-work-on-its-tattered-image [Accessed 24th Apr 2014]
News In Other Categories
US actress Jodie Foster has married her girlfriend, Alexandra Hedison, the actress' representative confirms.
With the doors to its brand new £1million training centre officially open, one of the UK's leading apprentice training providers, Bristol based S&B Automotive Academy, is showcasing its world-class facilities by launching a series of foreign student exchanges for the first time in its 41-year history. To get a flavour of what life is like as an apprentice in the UK, the Academy hosted 16 apprentice engineers and bus drivers from the G9 Automotive College in Hamburg, Germany, as part of a Europe-wide vocational training initiative called the ‘Leonardo Programme’ with support from the European Social Fund. In a reciprocal arrangement, S&B will be sending nine apprentices to Germany during February 2012 so that they can get an appreciation of life in the automotive industry on the Continent. A further three German exchange groups are being planned for next year. Designed to assist the development of vocational skills and training across Europe, including work placements for trainees, the Leonardo Programme has a budget of €1.75bn, which is helping to encourage UK organisations to work with their counterparts abroad. In what is expected to be another challenging year for employers in the UK automotive sector, S&B’s Chief Executive, Jon Winter, claims that the exchange initiative will bring many benefits to the Academy and its apprentices: “In a world of global automotive brands, it’s important for our learners to understand the international context of the industry they have chosen to make their career. This new exchange programme will enable apprentices and Academy staff alike to achieve a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities within the automotive arena in Europe. With the Academy’s influence also extending to the USA and Asia, there’s every possibility that this initiative could move further afield in the future.” Continued Winter: “The need for skilled technicians across the world is on the increase and we actively encourage our apprentices to look at broader horizons during their training. Many of them have already learned the phrase ‘Vorsprung durch Gelehrtheit’, quite simply, ‘Advancement through learning.” In the 2010/11 academic year, S&B doubled the number of successful Apprenticeships over the previous year with some 350 apprentices graduating from the Academy. At the same time, achievement levels reached an all-time high with an overall success rate of 85%. For those learners on the Advanced Apprenticeship three-year programme, success rates were even higher, at over 98%. PHOTO CAPTION: As part of their exchange visit, S&B Automotive Academy arranged for the German apprentices to visit Hampshire bus operator, Bluestar, at its Barton Park depot. The students are pictured with S&B’s Andy West (3rd right) and Steve Prewett, Bluestar’s Area Engineering Manager (2nd right). Ends http://www.sandbaa.com
Shares in Qualcomm, one of the world's biggest chipmakers, fell 5% in after hours trading as it issued a weaker than expected growth outlook.
Griff Rhys Jones has withdrawn from becoming Cardiff University's new chancellor just two weeks after an embarrassing debacle which saw his appointment halted at the last minute.
Drinking more than three large glasses of wine can push people over a "tipping point", meaning they consume about 6,300 extra calories in the following 24 hours, a report has said.
An independent Scotland would have to fund pension costs of an additional £450 per working-age adult each year, the UK government has claimed.