Myanmar opens up economy, but true democracy is still elusive


YANGON, Myanmar— On a recent rain-soaked night, the ancient gold Shwedagon Pagoda, believed to contain relics of the Buddha, glowed through the mist in Yangon.

Not far away, a more modern scene was unfolding at one of the city’s newest shopping malls, where middle-class families sipped lattes and dined on hamburgers and French fries. Just a few years ago, such cuisine was affordable only for the elite or Western travelers.

Once isolated from the world, Myanmar, also known as Burma, has seen rapid change since 2010, when its military government began a process of democratic reform that prompted Western governments to ease economic sanctions.

New businesses have sprung up, eager to attract consumers in a market of more than 55 million people that was virtually untapped during more than 50 years of brutal military rule.

In the country’s commercial capital of Yangon, also known as Rangoon, rents are skyrocketing. Dealerships selling such luxury car brands as Jaguar, Land Rover and Mercedes have opened. Coca-Cola returned after 60 years. Hilton Worldwide hopes to open its first hotel later this year. And customers are flocking to a popular deli that makes its own artisanal cheese and sausage.

But graffiti scrawled on a billboard for a fancy condo project hints at Myanmar’s darker side: “Stop War” and “Bad Government.”

Outside this bustling city, millions of Burmese still live in poverty, many working as rice farmers. The country has been riven by clashes with ethnic militias and tensions between Buddhists and minority Muslims.

The nominally civilian government has cracked down on the press, and activists are wondering whether authorities will allow truly democratic national elections, slated for next year.

Many investors are now adopting a wait-and-see approach because of the political uncertainty and the difficulties of doing business in a country that has a dearth of electric power and qualified workers, said Sean Turnell, an economics professor from Macquarie University in Sydney.

Meanwhile, ordinary Burmese have a wait-and-see mind-set of their own, afraid that the changes won’t last or won’t usher in broader progress.

“This building is very grand and smart, and is a little bit more expensive than the outside market,” said Khin Cho, 62, a retired school teacher shopping recently in the Ocean Supercenter at the new mall.

The store had a feel of a Wal-Mart, with tidy bins of fresh fruit alongside aisles of cheap imported T-shirts and toys. She had filled her cart with onions, garlic, gourmet spices and a banana cake.

“Supermarket stores are booming, but there is no change in politics,” she said. “There is no democracy — yet. I hope! I hope! But I don’t know.”

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Washington Post correspondent Khine Thurein contributed to this report.