Email This Story :
Hundreds of global leaders, industry chiefs and foreign media are descending on Burma’s once-reclusive capital as the former pariah showcases its political and economic reforms in a bid to entice investment.
Some 900 delegates from more than 50 countries will pour into Naypyidaw for the World Economic Forum on East Asia, amid huge interest in Burma as it opens to the world after decades of isolation under military rule.
Workers have been busily sprucing up the paintwork of the purpose-built city’s wide avenues, as armed security forces stand guard outside its imposing conference centre ahead of the three-day event, which starts on Wednesday.
“We are like cats on hot bricks,” Set Aung, deputy minister for national planning and economic development, told AFP when asked about the preparations.
Hundreds of hotel rooms – some in establishments owned by cronies of the former junta – are ready to welcome the influx of visitors to the sprawling capital, built in remote central Burma by the paranoid former generals.
“This is our show. This is our performance to the world,” said Tourism Minister Htay Aung.
It is a change of pace for hotel staff more accustomed to smaller business and diplomatic delegations as well as the occasional influx of Chinese visitors for the government’s jade emporiums.
“This is the most foreigners we have seen here. It will be good if these visitors come again in the future,” said hotel bellboy Kwaw Tun Oo.
President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government has astounded the international community since coming to power two years ago with wide-ranging changes that have thrust Burma back onto the global stage.
Hundreds of political prisoners have been freed, democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi has been welcomed into a new parliament and tentative ceasefires have been reached in the country’s multiple ethnic civil wars.
Thein Sein and Suu Kyi are both scheduled to address the forum on Thursday.
Efforts have also been made to begin repairing the moribund economy – the currency was floated last year, there are moves to give the central bank more independence and a new foreign investment law has been passed.
The lifting of most western economic sanctions on the resource-rich country has attracted swarms of international businesses.
They include Coca-Cola, which is returning to Burma after an absence of more than six decades with a new factory opening on Tuesday.
Sushant Palakurthi Rao, Asia head of the WEF, said the forum in Burma was “by far the largest” meeting of the group.
“I think these numbers are a clear expression of the tremendous interest from all walks of life,” he said.
Burmese economic expert Sean Turnell, a professor at Australia’s Macquarie University, likened the conference to a “debutante’s ball”.
“Of course, expectations are too high. Indeed, I think elevated expectations are one of the dangers facing the country,” he added.
Burma faces major hurdles, including an opaque legal framework as well as a lack of basic infrastructure and government and private sector expertise.
Several outbreaks of deadly religious violence have also cast a shadow over the reform process.
A handout notice from the forum gives delegates some taste of the challenges facing the country, noting that there will be no cash machines for international customers, credit cards are not accepted and the 3G network “is not available” for users of BlackBerry and other mobile phones.
Burma, which will take the chairmanship of the Association for Southeast Asian Nations next year, currently contributes only 0.2 percent of Asia’s gross domestic product, according to a recent study by McKinsey Global Institute.
While the country has the potential to quadruple the size of its economy to US$200 billion by 2030 if it presses on with reforms, there is also a “major risk of disappointment”, it warned.
The regime surprised the world in 2005 by suddenly shifting the seat of government from Rangoon to the new site.
While the motive was unclear, diplomats speculated it could be based on the advice of astrologers, fear of an invasion or a desire by then-junta chief Than Shwe to emulate pre-colonial kings who repeatedly moved the capital.
The theme for this week’s forum is “sharing prosperity”, but you do not have to travel far to find people who have yet to taste the fruits of reform.
“I don’t know about it,” 32-year-old farmer Hlaing Htay said of the meeting, as he grazed his buffalo just a few minutes’ drive from the conference centre.
“Our livelihoods haven’t changed much,” he added.