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Myanmar: more than meets the headlines

Read our travel note from Myanmar to discover what lies beyond the negative news articles
March 2019

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Views and opinions have been arrived at by BMO Global Asset Management and should not be considered to be a recommendation or solicitation to buy or sell any companies that may be mentioned.

The information, opinions, estimates or forecasts contained in this document were obtained from sources reasonably believed to be reliable and are subject to change at any time.

Your correspondent is penning this note from Myanmar (formerly Burma) near the end of a three-week canter around the country. This is the second visit – the previous one being almost four years ago – and it is interesting to note the changes, or lack of them, that are reshaping this recently democratised country (2011).

Myanmar keeps hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons – notably the human rights abuses along the border with Bangladesh in the North West of the country. This is an extremely complex issue that the powerful foreign press twists in all directions; we know enough to know that it is not a subject on which we are qualified to comment.

Risk Disclaimer

Views and opinions have been arrived at by BMO Global Asset Management and should not be considered to be a recommendation or solicitation to buy or sell any companies that may be mentioned.

The information, opinions, estimates or forecasts contained in this document were obtained from sources reasonably believed to be reliable and are subject to change at any time.

Myanmar keeps hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons

Use our handy glossary to look up any technical jargon you are unfamiliar with.

Many expected the election of Aung San Suu Kyi’s party in 2015 to be the beginning of the end of the ethnic clashes but sadly that has not been the case. The military retain a 25% bloc in Parliament and, reading between the lines, it seems that is the main obstacle to substantial progress on a number of fronts. There is a push to change the constitution – to remove the 25% bloc – but it requires a parliamentary majority of 75% plus one. That makes it sound an impossible task, but optimistic noises are being made about moderation amongst some of the Generals, which may permit the change. Aung San Suu Kyi (or “The Lady” as most locals refer to her) remains extremely popular. The next election is in 2020.

The economy is growing rapidly – amongst the fastest-growing in South East Asia – but it is coming from the lowest base. Military rule from 1962 left Myanmar the poorest country in the region, with obsolete infrastructure. It is still common, for example, to see fields ploughed by a bullock team, and roads are often resurfaced by hand due to the absence of machinery. But that gifts Myanmar with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for significant productivity growth. China is an example of a country that has leapt decades of technological development in quick time, and given sufficient capital investment with government encouragement, Myanmar has the potential to do something similar.

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Myanmar has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for significant productivity growth.

The road network remains in terrible condition, but marginally less so than four years ago. Most road transport is by motorbike, which leads to some ‘exciting’ scenarios. Motorbike helmets now seem to be more common but it is still not unusual to see a motorbike loaded with an impossible number of passengers or astonishing loads of ‘stuff’. Many trucks, particularly in the rural areas, are powered by an extraordinarily basic, exposed motor that requires a crank to start, emits great clouds of fumes, is incredibly noisy and appears unable to propel the vehicle at more than a slow, trotting pace. These trucks are often festooned with passengers, including roof-riders; health and safety – what’s that? One notable improvement is that traffic lights now seem to have some meaning, although the same cannot be said of pedestrian crossings. The railways are ancient and have not been improved in decades. It is recommended that foreign visitors don’t drink the water, the power grid is unreliable and mains sewerage remains a distant hope for much of the country.

Now all of this may sound like an advertisement for all the reasons not to visit Myanmar – but don’t be misled. It is a delightful place. The citizens are happy and extremely welcoming, and the popular tourist sites are truly remarkable – Bagan and Inle Lake being two examples. The Irrawaddy still carries vast amounts of produce and is one of the world’s great rivers.

The wider world is now visible to the residents. Despite the extreme poverty, mobile phones and satellite dishes are everywhere. The internet speed in most places seems to be pretty good but its availability and reliability needs improvement. English language appears on signage throughout the country and some splendid hotels have opened and more are planned. The level of service would shame many western establishments.

Adequate education is always the key to unlocking a country’s potential

Importantly, since the election of the new government, schooling has been made compulsory. Adequate education is always the key to unlocking a country’s potential. The workforce has embraced their relatively recent freedom and flexibility with alacrity. They are hard workers and natural traders and given half a chance will help Myanmar climb out of the poverty trap. It is unfortunate that the regular headlines relating to the ethnic issues have deterred many tourists as the impression given is that the country is unsafe. This is far from the case. Although some very small areas are not recommended for tourists, the bulk of the country is perfectly safe for western travellers.

It is very easy to have a thoroughly enjoyable and fascinating time in Myanmar. It has a rich history that rewards discovery. Don’t be deterred by the “scare” headlines.

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