Thursday, December 6, 2012

Burma: Land of Opportunity or Living Hell?

Thursday, 06 December 2012 17:47 COLIN HINSHELWOOD / MIZZIMA    

(COMMENTARY) - Burma has recently been lauded among foreign diplomats and investors as a land of opportunity, abundant in natural resources, and with a huge economic potential. However, three independent surveys in the past week have rated the country rather poorly—as one of the most dangerous and most corrupt countries in the world, and with commercial hub Rangoon listed as one of the most unlivable cities on the planet.

If the data is to be believed, all is not ship-shape in the nascent Southeast Asian democracy despite a series of economic and political reforms under the Thein Sein government.

Rangoon is rated as one of the most 'unlivable' cities in the world. (PHOTO: Colin Hinshelwood/ Mizzima)

International watchdog Transparency International announced this week that it continues to rate Burma as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. In its annual ranking of 176 countries, Burma emerged ahead of only Somalia, North Korea, Afghanistan and Sudan.

“To improve its score in 2013, Myanmar will need to continue with genuine reforms and we will need to see consistent political will from the top,” said Samantha Grant, Transparency International’s Programme Coordinator for Southeast Asia.

Efforts the Burmese government could employ to become more transparent and accountable, the report said, include drafting an anti-corruption law, a presidential call on state officials to repay embezzled funds, and the Ministry of Home Affairs asking citizens to report instances of bribery and corruption.

Then on Tuesday, New York-based Mercer, the world’s leading human resource consultants, released its 2012 “Quality of Living Survey,” placing Vienna and Zurich as the two most “livable” cities on the planet in terms of criteria including safety, education, hygiene, health care, culture, environment, recreation, political-economic stability, and public transportation.

Burma’s former capital Rangoon came in at No. 195 out of 221 cities—and the worst in Southeast Asia. Terror-stricken Baghdad was rated the worst place in the world to live.

“A noticeable gap can be seen among Asia-Pacific cities where several cities have improved in the region partly because they have been investing massively in infrastructure and public services,” said Phil Stanley, Asia-Pacific global mobility leader for Mercer.

“Competition among municipalities has been continuously increasing in order to attract multinationals, foreigners, expatriates and tourists,” he said. “Yet a considerable number of Asian cities rank in the bottom quartile, mainly due to high political volatility, poor infrastructure and obsolete public services.”

And finally—just in case any would-be tourist was still contemplating a journey to this apparent hell-hole—the UN announced that, following a decade of unprecedented natural disasters, Burma was the “most at risk” country in the Asia-Pacific region.

“Myanmar ranks first as the ‘most at risk’ country in Asia [and] the Pacific according to the UN Risk Model,” said UNOCHA partner ReliefWeb. “The country is vulnerable to a wide range of hazards, including floods, cyclones, earthquakes, landslides and tsunamis. The likelihood for medium to large-scale natural disasters to occur every couple of years is high, according to historical data.”

But not everyone feels that the country is a disaster zone. Elizabeth Tydeman, a NGO coordinator who recently moved to Rangoon with her husband and a five-month-old baby, has mixed feelings.

“The traffic is horrendous, but the pollution isn't noticeable. Safety wise it still appears relatively good. Of course, you could fall through a hole in the pavement into the sewage system at any moment,” she said. “I am not that affected by corruption, but am just starting to understand it. For example, if you go to the bank and want to know if a transfer you are expecting has arrived, they will look briefly at the handwritten transfer list and then say that it hasn't. If you pay, they will look properly.”

But then again, she said, “The tea shops, the people watching and the colonial architecture make up for all the downsides.”

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