Friday, May 9, 2014

Reflections on Globalization

A Postcard from Myanmar

By Darcy Hitchcock

Note: This was originally published in 2003 by AXIS Performance Advisors. Since then, Myanmar has opened up with Aung San Suu Kyi now part of the legislature. But what I feared is already happening: large western chain hotels opening up on Inle Lake, foreigners cashing in on the tourist boom.

I just returned from a vacation in Myanmar (Burma) in 2003, one of the most closed societies left on planet earth. It has been isolated because of its repressive regime, which has prevented Aung San Suu Kyi from taking power even though she was elected in 1990 where she got 82% of the vote. At the time of this writing, Aung San Suu Kyi is once again under house arrest. The US government has placed sanctions on the country, preventing US companies from doing business there. In this article, I don't want to address accusations of human right violations. Instead I want to consider what might happen if their leadership changed and the country were then opened up to globalization. Their current government is resisting and speaking out against some of the impacts of capitalism, and I have to say, however impure their motivation may be, I think they have a point.

The country is not at all like what you'd expect of a "repressive regime." I've seen more military with guns at Chichen-Itza airport in Mexico or downtown Paris. The guide books say to keep your passport with you at all times but we encountered no checkpoints and no uzi-toting police on street corners. When we arrived in the country, an immigration officer even made small talk with us to pass the time, suggesting great places to visit, while we were waiting for them to find our paperwork. And we were told that it was safe to walk anywhere in Yangon (formerly Rangoon), the capitol, at any time of day or night. How many US cities can you say that about? The only sign of control is that at every airport, we had to go through immigration again, as if we'd left the country. People are reluctant to speak out about their government in public, fearing reprisals, so this is not a free country. But on a day to day basis, it doesn't seem to make a lot of difference to the majority of people, except that sanctions against their country make doing business with those outside the country difficult, depressing their economic growth. So Myanmar is a great place to see how a local economy works, one largely unaffected by globalization.

I'd like to take you to Inle Lake in the interior of the country. The shallow lake is about 5 miles wide and 13 miles long, nestled between two mountain ranges such that the sun comes up in the mist over one and settles down behind scarlet clouds over the other. There are over 100 villages on and around the lake, representing several different peoples, and they share this region with over 150 bird species, including a kingfisher wearing an iridescent vest of emerald sequins. The verdant hills are covered with teak trees and flitting butterflies, and the highland villages there grow tea, mandarin oranges and apples. Much of the land near the lake is cultivated, growing potatoes, rice, beans and peanuts. Natural reed mats are used by some villages to make huge floating gardens where they grow tomatoes and corn right on the lake's surface, paddling up and down the rows in their narrow boats. Some villagers build stilt houses over the water and catch fish in bamboo nets. Buddhism permeates the culture and monasteries dot the countryside. It is one of the most serene and beautiful places that humans inhabit on earth.

Traditional fishing boat and net
Each village seems to have its own expertise or industry. In addition to the agricultural commodities I've mentioned, one village makes booze from the rice; another makes paper from the leaves of a local plant; another does metal working. Brokers in boats with putt-putt-putt single stroke diesel engines distribute the bounty around the lake. The floating market moves from village to village during the week. Adjacent villages cooperate to build schools made from concrete blocks produced with local materials and cured for two years in the sun. At least one village has a satellite university. People are gainfully self-employed but the pace is relaxed. On the east side of the lake, there are two tourist hotels, one owned by the Pa'O tribe, the other by a former physicist who is now an elected official of Aung San Suu Kyi's democratic party.

Amma, our guide who was half Shan and half Pa'O, took us to a Pa'O village that she had never visited. The hike was similar to ones in the Columbia Gorge, a couple hours of straight up through trees and occasional overlooks. We passed villagers who were coming down to the market and to the annual Buddhist celebration. Much of the way, we hiked alongside a woman who carried a bamboo basket by a strap across her forehead.

Once in the village beyond the top of the ridge, an older woman invited us into her house. Even though we were all complete strangers, she showed us how they dry leaves, which then get rolled into cigarettes (they are not free of vices, you see). Then she led us upstairs to their main rooms, where she offered us tea and we shared our lunch together. Like in much of Asia, the rooms were devoid of furniture so she brought out grass mats to sit on. Soon others from the neighborhood showed up to join us. At the end of this unplanned visit, she told my husband and me, through our interpreter, that she hoped we would come back and spend the night in her home. She said they didn't have much but whatever they had was ours.

We received this same welcome and hospitality in other villages as well. At the end of the lake, part way down river, was another village adjacent to old Buddhist stupas or shrines, where they made rice alcohol. As soon as we showed up, they proudly showed us how they made the liquor, offered us tastes of two kinds ("Oh God, please don't let me go blind") along with crispy, salty fried rice cakes. They expected nothing in return.

I asked Amma what challenges or problems the villagers faced. After a long look, making me wonder if I'd asked an inappropriate question, she said, "These people are poor but they have what they need." They have clean water, enough food, and access to western medicine including birth control at a health clinic. "Things change slowly in the villages," she added.

Buddhist Celebration
There is one village that has abandoned their ancestral farming practices, instead deciding to make souvenirs for the few tourists who visit this area, since they could earn more money doing it. They string beads and make jewelry out of silver. Our experience in this village was completely different. Our boat was accosted by others selling their wares. Women thrust items toward us. "Want to buy souvenir? You rich man," they would tell me. I was struck by the contrast. I can't say what it is like for them, but it seemed a much less dignified way to live, and more dependent upon decisions of outsiders (like George Bush and the UN). I began to wonder what life would be like for these villagers if the country finally did open up to westernization, globalization, Capitalism with a big "c".

Buddhist ceremony
You can probably imagine it as well as I. The prime sites would be purchased by Hilton and Marriott. Best Western and Motel 6's would follow, along with Arby's, Starbucks, and the Golden Arches. People would leave their villages to come clean toilets, serve meals and flip burgers. The fishermen, already the poorest of the tribes, would quickly discover it was more profitable to take tourists on "romantic sunset cruises", thus depriving the area of its main source of protein. Since some of the villages are several hours walk apart, a slum would certainly appear near the tourist areas, similar to the ones outside Yangon. Women with young children would be left alone in the villages to tend the fields. How long would it take until some of them sold off their land to developers who would then build vacation homes? Some of the farmland would be diverted to grow food the tourists prefer, so more and more people would have to find jobs so that they could pay for essentials, importing food from outside their area.

The villagers would have more money but most of the profits would be siphoned off to multi-national corporations. Infrastructure, like large sewage treatment facilities would have to be built, along with a marina to accommodate the larger, tourist-toting boats and probably also deafening jet skis for rent. Having to cover the 24-7 schedule of the hospitality industry, many would have to miss the most important Buddhist ceremonies and the monasteries instead would be filled with camera-clicking foreigners. The disparity in income would become even more pronounced, tearing apart their culture.
The villagers might then be able to get flush toilets, satellite TV and Tickle-Me-Elmos. But would their lives really be better? More meaningful? More satisfying? More healthy? I doubt it.

One of the villages is already getting a taste for this transformation. When they had to stop growing poppies (for cocaine) in the mountains, the men of one village went gone to work in the ruby mines, hundreds of miles away. The women and children were left to fend for themselves. When they do come home, in addition to money, the miners bring malaria and TB. Welcome home, honey.

We can condemn the repressiveness of Myanmar's government, but we should also acknowledge the devil's advocate role they are playing in our world's mindless pursuit of globalization. To join this parade would irrevocably destroy the beauty of what they have. Somehow, we must find a better balance. I sincerely hope that the Burmese get the democracy they crave. But when they do, I hope they continue to question the prevailing wisdom around globalization, capitalism, and free trade. They have an opportunity to teach us Westerners something about the benefits of predominately local economies: more control over your own fate, a closer and more engaged community, a more sane pace of life. While this may seem like screaming a wish into the wind, listen to what Herman Daly, former World Bank economist has to say in his recent book, Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development:
"I know this is an unthinkable thought right now, but take it as a prediction---ten years from now the buzz words and hot concepts will be 'renationalization of capital' and the 'community rooting of capital for the development of national and local economies,' not the current shibboleths of export-led growth stimulated by whatever adjustments are necessary to increase global competitiveness. 'Global competitiveness' (frequently a thought-substituting slogan) usually reflects not so much a real increase in resource productivity as a standards-lowering competition to reduce wages, externalize environmental and social costs, and expert natural capital at low prices while calling it income."
I hope he's right. Myanmar may not be a model economy, but they provide a living laboratory for examining what we've lost. Perhaps there is a way to reinstate the values that are important to us without compromising appropriate development - to create an economic system that works for us, not against us. We have been pursuing economic growth and creation of jobs as if they are ends in themselves. They're not. We need to start asking, what is an economy for? We need to start focusing instead on quality of life. Then perhaps we can have a more sane and sustainable world.

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