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July 25, 2012

Signs of a Myanmar Spring?

photoThe country’s railroad system desperately needs upgrading

Its civilization stretches back 13,000 years. Mighty empires have flourished since then but so has constant war.

The land is awash with sapphires, pearls, jade and particularly rubies—90% of the world’s supply comes from here—with forests of teak and other valuable woods and with abundant supplies of oil and natural gas. But it is also the world’s second largest supplier of opium poppy cultivation.

Myanmar today, as throughout its long history, remains a land of major contrast and contradiction.

Official figures estimate that 90% of its 55 million population is literate, an extremely high figure for a developing country. But the World Health Organization (WHO) said it also has one of the world’s poorest healthcare systems.

Because of slow economic development and international isolation, much of the country’s environment and ecosystems remain pristine and untouched. Still, its valuable mangrove forests in heavily populated coastal regions are under such pressure they could disappear entirely within a few years.

And despite its vast natural potential Myanmar is one of the world’s poorest countries plagued by years of internal unrest.

Gradual Change

There are signs that may be slowly changing. Fragile agreements have been reached between central authorities and some of the rebellious internal ethnic minority groups. A new government is opening the country to the outside world after several decades of virtual isolation.

President U Thein Sein visited Japan in April for discussions with Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and the two sides agreed to cancel most of Myanmar’s longstanding debts. That in turn paved the way for increased assistance to Myanmar, particularly access to yen loans under Tokyo’s Official Development Assistance (ODA).

The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), the country’s major development organization has been active in Myanmar since 1981. But during that time, reflecting global unease with the direction of the then military government, it limited its assistance to basic humanitarian help in such fields as education, health and rural development.

When Cyclone Nargis smashed into Myanmar in 2008, for instance, killing at least 78,000 people (another 56,000 are still missing) and affecting more than two million others, JICA immediately dispatched emergency supplies and a medical team to help the victims.

The agency helped to rehabilitate the port of Yangon where dozens of vessels had been sunk and to restore rural life and agricultural production.

At the time, JICA had been involved in another project to rehabilitate devastated mangrove forests in the southern Ayeyarwady Delta which, ironically, in the past had helped protect local communities from natural disasters. That project was destroyed but has been re-launched and extended through 2013.

Long-Term Help

photoAboard Myanmar’s ancient rail system

The agency is involved in other long-term humanitarian assistance with Japanese experts, technical assistance and financial support helping to combat infectious and deadly diseases such as HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis; providing better rehabilitation services for people suffering from complicated medical problems such as cerebral palsy, strokes and spinal cord injuries, and assisting Myanmar’s estimated 140,000 deaf people to lead more productive lives.

In the country’s central dry zone—close to one of the world’s most magnificent ruins at Bagan where there is a collection of some 2,800 monuments dating from the 10th century—JICA has been helping to sink hundreds of new wells and rehabilitate others to provide safe water supplies for local communities and to help reforest a denuded landscape.

In the northern Shan State where villagers had grown opium poppy seed for decades as their major crop, JICA’s assistance, which began in 2005, is continuing to help those communities switch to alternate crops such as maize, sugar cane and vegetables, to maintain their rural livelihoods.

A five-year project is helping to strengthen the country’s vital rice production system and in primary schools a radical, more student friendly, system of teaching is being introduced.

Big Changes

Going forward, there is likely to be major expansions in several other key areas.

Several hundred Myanmar students and trainees will undergo study in Japan each year to strengthen the country’s pool of skilled manpower in various fields.

A key component of JICA activities in other parts of the world is to help regions and communities emerging from conflict situations.

In Myanmar, hundreds of thousands of civilians have been internally displaced and as many as 200,000 fled as refugees to neighboring countries during decades of internal conflict pitting central government forces against some of the country’s 135 ethnic minorities who comprise 30% of the country’s population.

But with tentative signs of peace emerging, JICA earlier this year sent several delegations to the southwest Kayin State which borders on Thailand to explore a proposed five-year program to promote the rehabilitation of basic infrastructure in the area and then educational, health and shelter requirements.

There are never enough resources to cover all the needs of developing countries, but experts increasingly believe that basic infrastructure such as roads, bridges, ports, water systems and power provide the springboard for advancement in other areas such as the economy, health and education.

Myanmar’s infrastructure is decades old and crumbling. JICA officials and experts are currently involved in a range of discussions, feasibility studies and initial agreements to bolster this sector.

Several involve the development of comprehensive blueprints covering such areas as the national transportation system, the railroads and the expansion of Yangon city.

As many as 30 Japanese experts will help devise a comprehensive master plan for Yangon, the country’s commercial capital with a population of more than five million which is expected to double within the next 25 years.

The agency has already helped other rapidly expanding urban centers such as Hanoi, Manila, Bangkok and Kabul with similar projects and in Yangon the plan will cover every facet of city life—road, river, rail and air traffic needs, new power sources, water supplies, sewage, drainage, solid waste management and the training of experts to operate and maintain new infrastructure.

JICA is providing two new river ferries to link the city center and nearby suburbs across the Yangon River. It will participate in the development of the nearby seaport of Thilawa and a proposed economic and industrial zone.

Japanese experts will advise on how to improve the electricity distribution system in a city notorious for power blackouts in the dry season and another expert is already at work on a water supply project.

Another proposed multi-million dollar project will upgrade the maintenance and safety of railroad infrastructure, most of it dating from the pre-World War 11 British colonial era.

“The country needs a total overhaul, a total facelift of all its infrastructure,” one senior official said recently. That will involve massive expertise, billions of dollars and decades of work.


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