Myanmar Shows Signs of Real Change
In the wake of regime reform in Myanmar, change is taking place in the capital city of Yangon. The signs of middle-class life are becoming more evident throughout the area:
Though only an hour away by plane from Bangkok, Yangon in many ways feels more like a journey back in time. Epic economic mismanagement has left its infrastructure in shambles. Rickety, 20-year-old Toyota sedans serve as private taxis, their doors sometimes held together with wires. Vines and trees sprout from decrepit bungalows. Stately edifices that once housed colonial administrative offices look forlorn with missing windowpanes and moldy plaster. Western brands are largely absent, the result of consumer boycotts and Western sanctions.
Change, however, is slowly creeping into Yangon. Earlier this year, the government auctioned off dozens of heritage buildings. Some are likely to be replaced by modern high-rises. But here and there, I spied grand structures wrapped in bamboo scaffolding in preparation for restoration work. The City Hall — an Orientalist fantasy with pagoda-like towers and ornate colonnades — was recently painted a dubious shade of lilac.
The trappings of middle-class life are also popping up. Near our hotel was a mall filled with the latest fashions from South Korea. Billboards touting a concert by local hip-hop star Ye Lay — hair gelled and dressed in a black bulletproof vest — plastered the city, while others touted cosmetics, cooking oil and Giordano polo shirts. During the day, fashionable professionals dine on pizzas and sandwiches at Sharkey’s, an airy café and deli with surprisingly good house-made cheese and ice cream. At night, the teenage children of Myanmar’s nouveau riche gather at Ginki Kids, where the sound system blasts rock ballads.
One day, we joined a prominent businessman and his family for brunch at the Trader’s Hotel, where prosperous families gather en masse on weekends. Our companions told us that the country was starting to loosen up. Last year’s elections might have been called a sham by Western critics, but the civilian government has taken some steps toward reform.