Annual tourist visits are climbing 25% annually to an estimated 400,000 for 2012. Daily flights arrive packed from around the region, with longer-haul routes beginning from as far afield as Istanbul and Doha.
Still, Myanmar is a traveler's dream come true. In Bagan, you can walk or take a sunrise jog around countless pagodas that feel like they haven't been touched in 800 years -- some actually haven't. There is also the sacred and enchanting Golden Rock; the pristine beaches of Ngwe Saung, which rival the best of Thailand and the Philippines; the temperate climate of Inle Lake; the Himalayan foothills near Putao in far northern Kachin state where one can trek; the rich dynastic history of Mandalay; and the languorous Irrawaddy River cruises that harken to George Orwell's "Burmese Days."
Yangon has a pleasant charm and gentle energy, with vast gardens and riverside walks, the grandeur of centuries-old monuments such as the Shwedegon Pagoda, a fast-growing cultural scene of art galleries and music performances, and a melting pot population of all Myanmar's tribes as well as industrious overseas Indians and Chinese, who make up 5% of the nation's population.
Mandalay in particular is where one feels the depth of China's demographic penetration into Myanmar, owing not only to recent decades of commercial expansion from gems trading to real estate but also centuries of seasonal migrations across the rugged natural border with Yunnan province. Some have begun to call the Shan region "Yunnan South."
The combination of the Saffron Revolution, civil strife, sanctions, its economic lag behind the rest of ASEAN, and the status of becoming a captive resource supplier to China all played crucial roles in Myanmar's opening. China has traditionally been a kingmaker in isolated and sanctioned countries and well-placed to capitalize on the infrastructural and extractive needs of emerging economies as well.
For China, Myanmar represents a crucial artery to evade the "Malacca trap" represented by its dependence on shipping transit through the Straits of Malacca. In 2011 China was still far and away the largest foreign investor in Myanmar, bringing in $5 billion (of a total of $9 billion) across their 2,000-kilometer (1250-mile)-long border. The massive ongoing investments include 63 hydropower projects, a 2,400-kilometer (1500-mile) Sittwe-to-Kunming oil pipeline from the Bay of Bengal and a proposed gas pipeline to China's Yunnan beginning at Myanmar's Ramree Island -- not to mention an entire military outfitted with Chinese tanks, helicopters, boats and planes.
Myanmar's opening, however, is strongly motivated by an anti-Chinese sentiment that is part of a much wider global blowback against its commercial and strategic encroachment. Even well-kept generals are fundamentally Burmese nationalists and awoke to the predicament of total economic and strategic dependence on China. The government has taken major steps to correct this excessive tilt, suspending a major hydroelectric dam project at Myitsone and re-evaluating Wanbao Mining company's giant copper mine concession near Monywa.
Myanmar is now deftly playing the same multi-alignment game mastered by countries such as Kazakhstan in trying to escape the Soviet-Russian sphere of influence: courting all sides and gaining whatever one can from multiple great powers and neighbors while giving up as little autonomy as possible.
India sees Myanmar as the crucial gateway for its "Look East" policy and is offering substantial investments in oil and gas as well as port construction and information technology; Europe has become a larger investor, especially Great Britain; Russia is being courted as a new arms supplier; Japan is viewing Myanmar as its new Thailand for automobile production; and of course, U.S. President Barack Obama visited in December, paving the way not only for greater U.S. investment but even for Myanmar to potentially participate in the Cobra Gold military exercises held annually with America's regional allies.
Obama was not only the first U.S. president to visit Myanmar but also the first to call it by that name, conceding ground in a long-running dispute. The administration hopes that North Korea, Asia's still frozen outcast, will learn the lessons from Myanmar's steady but determined opening.
But countries that are playing multi-alignment don't have to thaw domestically -- witness Saudi Arabia and Kazakhstan. Myanmar is simultaneously undergoing political liberalization and international rehabilitation -- a tricky and laudable feat for sure but not one North Korea is likely to emulate entirely. What the two do have in common, however, is the growing realization that having China as a neighbor is both a blessing and a curse.
During my visit to the "Genius Language School," where university students go for professional English tutoring, I asked the assembled round table whether they were happy that Obama came to visit and whether they considered America a friend. All giggled and chanted: "Yes."
Then I asked, "Are you afraid of China?" And the answer came in immediate, resounding unison: "Yes!"
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