|Posted on August 17, 2013 at 9:10 AM|
For our first blog, Professor Lynn Loo from the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at Princeton University, and the co-founder of WIN, describes a fascinating look into a country that few have visited:
"Myanmar is a nation reborn. During the first week of June, the two year-old civilian government welcomed the international community to the World Economic Forum on East Asia in Nay Pyi Taw. As a participant of the East Asia Forum and the Young Global Leaders (YGL) annual summit in Yangon, I made my inaugural journey to Myanmar and was witness to some of these changes spreading through Myanmar. These are my impressions from my short but memorable visit.
At the YGL annual summit in Yangon, which started on June 1st, 2013, we learned from each other and developed initiatives with hopes to better the world. The biggest impression for me was our immersion in various local communities through separate impact journeys. My impact journey began at the Yangon Heritage Trust (YHT) office. Housed in a British Colonial era building past its heyday, the Trust aims to work closely with urban planners to preserve and protect historical areas and buildings in Yangon. The founder of the Trust, Thant Myint-U, spoke solemnly about the deterioration of Yangon since the military coup in 1962 and proceeded to speak eloquently about the need to preserve what is left of Yangon’s urban heritage. Stoked by this historical perspective, our group enthusiastically voted to proceed with the planned walking tour despite heavy rains. During our walking tour, I asked our local student guide, Saw, how he feels about Myanmar’s transition. After decades of isolation, he is excited about the potential rewards of capitalism that he and his fellow citizens might one day reap. With the average adult receiving less than four years of education, however, Saw is aware of the steep learning curve that lies ahead. He acknowledged that, even under the best of scenarios, it is his children – but not him – who will benefit from this transformation. I felt a twinge of heartache as I thought back to Thant Myint-U, who seemed eminently ready to benefit from Myanmar’s rise in contrast to Saw, who was only hopeful when thinking of his unborn children.
From Myanmar’s colonial past in Yangon, we arrived at Nay Pyi Taw. The new inland capital contrasted starkly to Yangon, with glamor and scale rivaling any city in the rest of the world. The presidential palace – where we met President U Thein Sein -- is nearly three times the size of the White House. Empty but sprawling nine-lane highways carried us to and from the Myanmar International Convention Center. Despite these visible symbols of progress, the sporadic blackouts at the convention center and at our respective hotels reminded us of the many basic challenges that still afflict Myanmar. With 75% of households living without electricity and more than 95% of its citizens calorie-deficient, Nay Pyi Taw, with its trappings of modernity, is, at best, an enigma and, at worst, an oxymoron.
The President shared his top three priorities: addressing the concerns of his policies’ skeptics, stabilizing the ethnic unrest in the outer regions of Myanmar, and protecting his citizens from the effects of global warming. As a professor of engineering focused on energy and the environment, I was ecstatic to hear that climate change was one of the President’s priorities as he builds up Myanmar. Having seen parts of Yangon, however, I wondered why revamping the education system or building up Myanmar’s human capacity is not higher on his agenda. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, on the other hand, was cautiously hopeful at a private session with us at the East Asia Forum. She praised the majority party in parliament for their willingness to work with her and her party for the good of the country. She maintained that ethnic struggles and tensions between the civilian and the military can be managed by excising fear through better understanding and empathy with each other. It is with this optimism that she announced her intention to run for the presidency of Myanmar in 2015.
My visit to Myanmar was an eye-opening and electrifying experience. I am humbled by how resilient the citizens are. For more than five decades, the people of Myanmar have gotten by with so little and have withstood oppression from the military government. While the elimination of international sanctions and the growth of free markets will bring Myanmar into the 21st century economically, I believe that the uncertainty in the rise of democracy and the fast evolving regional political climate have doubtless dampened this progress and thrown the maturation of civil society in Myanmar into doubt."
- Professor Lynn Loo (Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at Princeton University)