Pawngame: Myanmar the unpaved road to democracy!

Chess; Pawns are the most numerous piece on the chessboard and also the pieces with the least value, nonetheless they have the ability to become the strongest piece on the board if they manage to reach the last line of the opponent.

When I just arrived in Thailand I didn’t had any plans to visit Myanmar. All out of a sudden I felt like going there so we; Teun Oonk & Marvin Golser started arranging it. On the 18th of March with the visa’s ready and no expectations we left from Don Muang Airport, Bangkok, Thailand to fly towards Mandalay, Myanmar. Even though trips like this have become more normal since the 60’s, due to the fact that the aviation business is growing and certainly has become cheaper since then. Visiting Myanmar is quite an exceptional thing to do. Myanmar has only opened up its international borders for business since 2012, little less than a year later the country also opened up “officially” for tourists.

Visiting Myanmar in 2012 was equivalent towards possessing a time machine and going back to just after the Second World War. I guess that out of the seven billion people on earth some of them would love to go there and pay a truckload of money for it, but still. When you went to Myanmar around that time the costs for a hotel room were at least 186 us dollars a night. For that amount of money it was not certain if your air-conditioning was working (trust me you need that with 40C), of course no internet connection and probably at night there wasn’t any electricity at all 1.

Since 2012 a lot has changed if I can believe this story our hotel was cheap only 280 us dollars for four nights and three persons. There was electricity! But not only electricity, the air-conditioning was working fine, we had Wi-Fi and a very spacious room. Even when we arrived up our hotel there we’re this two boys that immediately tried to assist us with our luggage, there were four receptionist and every floor had its own housekeeping department. We might have ended up in the best hotel in the country for the lowest price, but I don’t think that was the case. The visit to the country was without a doubt definitely worth it and if you will be ever in the ability to travel towards Myanmar, then I would like to advice; go for it! However from my commercial talents of selling Myanmar to the public, back to the serious part of this article;

Myanmar is not only fun and games, the country is coming out of 50 years rule by the Military Junta. This Junta officially left on the 31st of January 2011. During this 50 years of reign by the Junta the country seems to have been put into an ice age. The country has been facing a lot of different challenges since the transition, just to mention some of them; there was at that time almost no availability of electricity, no internet connection (In my eyes important for the development of economies) and it was uncertain where the money for the natural resources from Myanmar were ending up. This are just some of the challenges of the country, however two weeks ago the country was even part of Obama’s concerns stating; “the Muslim oppression in Myanmar should come to an end.”


Further news on Myanmar, besides Obama’s speech on the problems in Myanmar consist of;
– The dead of Win Tin, one of the prominent fighters for democracy (sorry the link is Dutch) 2;
– The fatality of the deforestation in Myanmar 3;
– Even more coverage of the Muslim problem in Myanmar 4;
– And finally the first hosting by Myanmar on the 24th ASEAN meetings;


Transition to Democracy,
However the biggest challenge Myanmar is currently facing, is the transition towards becoming a democracy. Just to get my definitions clear; a democracy, is a form of government in which all citizens participate equally. Myanmar is a country that comes from the Junta a military led government and tries to transit into a democracy. This transition of Junta towards a democracy was highly unexpected but it happened. A country that will transit from this kind of government into a new form of government will of course have a hard time. The citizens have to deal with an amount of freedom which is unknown to them. They can talk or even complain about their government, become a part of the same government and represent their citizens. However it is not that easy as I state it here, people don’t know how to use their freedom and to what extend they may use it. Of course people at first are scared and mostly very moderate in what they say, if not they are talking still in terms of the propaganda that they have learned from the Junta. But it is a start though, since the transition has been made Myanmar has made numerous political reforms; The suspension of the Myitsone Dam, Amnesty for more than 200 political prisoners, institution of new labour laws that allow labour unions and strikes, relaxation of press censorship and many more. Just some minor details that Myanmar is on a good way to settle slowly but steadily more democracy in the country.

On the other side of the reforms that somehow symbolise the democracy in Myanmar there are also other things happening of course, still no country is perfect in my believe. Some of the things that threaten the democracy in Myanmar are corruption and censorship of the media. The very recent population registration that will end in 2016 and will be a positive value towards the elections of 2015. This event has not only been discovered as a positive one but has also led to somewhat controversial practices of the government. It is a good thing for the population of Myanmar to be officially registered by the government and get a personal number to identify yourself, which is of course part of a democracy 5. The controversial part is that the government is excluding particular groups from the count and does not recognise them as citizens of the state. See also this documentary by Al-Jazeera for more controversial sides of the Population counting; “Myanmar population count comes with controversy“.

Myanmar economics
One of the other challenges of the government on the road towards democracy for Myanmar is the economics of the country. Myanmar has a high economic potential for the future even though it hasn’t been noted by numerous notable investing firms like Goldman Sachs. This is of course easy to understand due to the complexity of the country surrounded by two big countries India in the West and China in the North-East, furthermore it will remain highly uncertain how long the country will keep its borders open and for how long the country will remain political stable.

The high economic potential of Myanmar has multiple aspects; the country has a lot of resources most important among them are cement, gems, jade, natural gas, petroleum and wood. Which can be seen as the most important export products to vitalise the country’s economy. The second high potential of the economy is the labour force of Myanmar, at this point still a lot of agricultural work is done by old school machines that need to be replaced and will replace normal labour. This working shortage might be filled with new industry potential, Myanmar is one of the countries that deals with the lowest GDP per capita and estimated is that 26 percent of the country’s population lives below poverty or less than $1.25 dollar a day. This fairly cheap labour might replace work that is now being done in China to a more central located place where transportation is easier accessible 6.




The last somewhat challenge or more over interesting part is the relocation of the Capital city by the government of Myanmar. This relocation of the capital from Rangoon to Naypyidaw happened in 2005 (also see picture above) the building of the city started in 2002 (the city is not worldwide recognised by all countries). The relocation is interesting due to the fact that in the recent history more countries have relocated their capitals more too inland and away from sea. Just some examples of this sorts of relocation are; Brasilia, Brazil (1961), Dodoma, Tanzania (1970) and Astana, Kazakhstan (1997). Capitals along the sea are easy to attack as also Lincoln Paine uses to describe in his book “The Sea and Civilisations”. This might of course be one of the reasons why Myanmar moved its capital more too inland one of the other interesting ideologies is the fact that crowds of people have a harder time to protest against their government, which seems to be a more plausible idea due to the fact that Myanmar doesn’t really have clear enemies 8.

Newly build parliament, Naypyidaw

Newly build parliament, Naypyidaw


Pawn game
So how about the title the pawn game? As I said before a pawn can become the most valuable piece on the board when it is promoted on the last line. Myanmar’s road to democracy has still a long way to go and even though the country will never become the most valuable piece of the board (at least not the upcoming 100 years in my opinion). The country has some very serious potential of becoming a powerful player in the Asian region.

Even though Myanmar still has a long way to go towards democracy and we can seriously call it an unpaved path that consists of trial and error. The country is nonetheless heading the right way and has serious potential for becoming an important country in the region’s economic development. There is still a long way to go towards improving democracy in the country and the government has to realize this by opening up the Dialogue with all its citizens. It will be interesting to witness the future development of the country. In my next blog I will write about the development of Weapons by the Asian countries.

  8. Lincoln Paine – The Sea & Civilization, 2013, Knopf Doubleday, New York, P.81 – 102
  1. Nice topic and good information. I very much like the chess metaphor that all your articles have.
    As an improvement point I would definitely have a second look on the English grammar, give it a peer-review before publishing for example.

    Looking forward to the next ones.

    • Thanks Filip,

      I am glad that you like the chess metaphor, I am aware of my English grammar and working on improving on this part. My endgame is approaching slowly so keep in touch!

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