For the first time in decades, Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is opening up its economy after years of military rule. Today, democracy is beginning to set foot in Myanmar and make itself a permanent feature of the political landscape with the historic successful by-election for a seat in Parliament. The question that remains is whether or not the rapid economic growth will be sustainable and not culminate in unwanted cultural shifts.
Myanmar is a country rich in natural resources like natural gas, metals, and oil, and has been fairly untouched by the globalized economy. But, this is starting to change. With improvements in social and political conditions in Myanmar, Western economic sanctions have now been partially lifted, and many corporations around the world are scrambling to invest, with this country receiving over $1.6 billion in foreign investments from 2004 to 2010. National elections in Myanmar are scheduled for 2015, and this will lead to even more foreign investment as the West further eases economic sanctions.
The appearance of mass business in Myanmar will undoubtedly have substantial consequences on the economy as well as the social structures of this previously militaristically-ruled country. According to a report by McKinsey and Co., manufacturing has the potential to overtake the traditional agriculture, energy, and mining industries by 2030, according to recent growth trends. A step toward the realization of this prediction is Coca Cola and Unilever’s plans to invest $1 billion in Myanmar over the next ten years.
In addition to those investments, virtually all industries in Myanmar, from textiles to automobiles, will be jumpstarted by foreign business involvement. These global corporate investments in Myanmar will provide a boom in the economy and provide the much-needed employment, as nearly one-fourth of the country currently lives in poverty. This is great news, but the appearance of mass investment may also lead to unintended societal shifts.
For the nearly 50 years it was under military rule, Myanmar has been a traditionally agricultural society, isolated from the globalization that was occurring right outside of its borders. Now that Myanmar’s borders have opened to foreign investment, as the manufacturing sector increases in size, urban growth will result in a great exodus of people migrating from rural areas to the industrial centers and cities.
For the first time, the youth of Myanmar will be leaving home alone, something that has been unseen in this country’s history and culture. Similar changes in social structures are not unprecedented. In recent years, Sri Lanka’s rapid economic development has led to demographic trends in which mass amounts of rural women have migrated from villages to cities to work in textile industries.
Such rapid cultural shifts in traditional countries can lead to unintended negative consequences. To ease the transition, Microsoft, for example, in Sri Lanka has provided migrant workers with Skype training so that they can communicate with their families, and Mas, an apparel company, has built garment factories in rural areas, even at higher costs, so that women factory workers can stay with their families and not have to migrate.
Regardless, what works to ease cultural shifts in countries like Sri Lanka may not work in Myanmar. Although the improvement of industry and infrastructure is welcome news in Myanmar, foreign investors may have other obstacles to face and may have to mitigate any negative effects of unprecedented economic growth. The hope is that this country can be integrated smoothly into the globalized economy without any deep cultural consequences, while also leading to sustainable economic growth.
– Rahul Shah