Boom time in Myanmar. The once isolated country is changing with breathtaking speed, thanks to President Thein Sein’s agenda of political and economic reform. Hundreds of political prisoners have been released and the National League for Democracy (NLD), the largest opposition party, is now represented in Parliament along with its leader, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who had previously spent years under house arrest. As a result of these developments, not only tourists but also politicians and investors are arriving in droves in the land of the golden pagoda. Oliver Bientzle, for the past three years deputy head of mission in Myanmar, reports on his work in a fascinating country on the move.
On my way in I step over little tea-shop chairs and a yawning street dog – no sign of any other watchdogs or minders. The gaily-coloured sign at the entrance bears an emblem that not long ago would have resulted in severe punishment for those displaying it. The door is wide open, inside people are bustling about, answering telephones or busily working at their laptops. Plucking up my courage, I ask my interlocutor if he feels anger towards those who made him suffer so much. He gives an answer I’ve heard many times before and it never ceases to amaze me. “Not at all,” he replies with a laugh. “What’s important now is to look ahead and get things moving together in the right direction.” The man I’m talking to is a former political prisoner. He was tortured in detention on the orders of the military junta and separated from his family for many years. Now he’s free and politically active. Along with his previously black-listed organization, he’s now advising the current civilian government and acting as an intermediary on its behalf.
Changes on the ground
Welcome to the new Myanmar! Not everything, but certainly a great deal has changed over the past three years. The changes are not just about the “big” issues like democracy, press freedom, peace and national reconciliation talks, they are also visible in the streets of Rangoon. All of a sudden you see people everywhere using mobile phones and the Internet, new buildings are going up all over the city, the streets are chock a block with new cars.
Driving back to the office I make only slow progress. Stuck in traffic, I’ve time to make some calls – and my close contacts with Germany’s political foundations stand me in good stead. The person I’ve called readily agrees to organize at short notice a working visit to Germany for the human rights activist I’ve just met. This was something he was very keen to do, he told me, as he felt his work would benefit from international experience.
It’s a very exciting business, being a diplomat in Rangoon right now. As deputy head of a fairly small mission, I’m involved in just about every aspect of our work here and can witness the historic transition from military dictatorship to democracy at first hand. Obviously there are still huge problems and challenges. But I’m deeply impressed by people’s desire to build their country anew.
Supporting the transition
In the afternoon I turn my attention to something quite different. German companies are keen to do business in Myanmar and support its reconstruction agenda. Given the country’s decades long isolation, however, many companies find they have to start from scratch. The Embassy is the only German body here with the know how they need – and so is much in demand. A great many companies – both relatively small and really big ones – turn to us for advice. The German entrepreneur who’s come to see me wants to know what sectors might be of interest and what local business partners he should approach. He leaves my office with a sense of optimism. The opportunities are enormous – and to be frank, so are the challenges encountered every day in this particular market.
It’s time for yet another change of subject. Later on in the afternoon I meet up with a woman journalist in a café. In the past we would have retreated to some corner in the back and talked in whispers. Now we sit down at a table in the middle of the crowded café,there are no more taboo subjects it’s better not to discuss in public. “The first draft of the new media bill is rubbish,” she says after greeting me in a voice that carries into every corner of the café. “There’s a lot of work to be done to get it right.”
What’s new here is that the ministry responsible for the bill not only listens to such criticism but is also ready to discuss it. That emerged very clearly from a major media conference recently held in Rangoon. At the Embassy’s suggestion, the Federal Foreign Office had arranged for a distinguished German legal expert to take part. The ideas and input he contributed were greatly appreciated by the conference participants. The “new” Myanmar is very keen to acquire new knowledge and to receive support. We’re helping them wherever we can.