Myanmar - It's Complicated

On the 4th of February 2018 I along with other colleagues in the speciality coffee industry will be visiting Myanmar and it's fledgling coffee producing areas. I will ultimately self publish a book on my visit, but in the mean time here is some background on a country which many have heard of but which few could even locate on a map.

Myanmar or Burma as the country was once called is a place that conjures up mixed emotions if you are British. It’s an ancient and complicated country. It has land borders with Thailand, China, India, Laos and Bangladesh and to the south a coast line of over 2,000 km that meets the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal.

It is nearly 3 times bigger than the UK at over 656,000 square km but has a population that is approximately 20% smaller at 52 million. However it is the difference in the scale of the two economies that is really dramatic. Myanmar has a GDP of U$ 75 billion whereas the UK economy is U$ 2.6 trillion, around 35 times bigger.

Under British rule (1885-1948) it became the wealthiest country in south east Asia after the Philippines. It was a huge exporter of rice, rich in oil and produced 75% of the world’s teak. The benefits to the Burmese people though were very mixed and by 1948 Burma had become an independent nation.

The birth of an independent Burma traumatic. The man seen as instrumental in achieving independence Aung San was assassinated with 6 of his colleagues. The new Government brought in a policy of central planning and by the 1950’s rice and mineral exports had collapsed. In the 1960’s a plan to nationalise all industries proved to be catastrophic and turned Burma into one of the most impoverished countries in the world.

Today, the country lacks adequate infrastructure. Railways are old and rudimentary, with few repairs since their construction in the late nineteenth century. Highways are normally unpaved, except in the major cities. Energy shortages are common throughout the country including in Yangon. More than 45 million of the country's population is without electricity, with 70 per cent of people living in rural areas.

Burma is also the world's second largest producer of opium, accounting for 8% of the entire world production and is a major source of illegal drugs, including amphetamines, however on a positive note the garment industry is a major job creator in the Yangon area, with around 200,000 workers employed in total in mid-2015.

Myanmar is incredibly resource rich in Oil, Gas and Gemstones yet 25% of its population lives in poverty. They are part of a long list of countries around the globe who seemingly find it impossible to break from the legacy of the past.

Myanmar’s relationship with the rest of the world has been difficult in recent times. Today the plight of the Rohingya people is making headlines. Not so long ago the US wanted to ban gem stone imports. It seems past battles continue to be fought today with little sign of relief for the impoverished minority.

My industry coffee was and to some extent still has legacy issues however there has been real progress over the past decade. Better prices are now being paid for great traceable coffee which in turn has been of benefit to 1,000’s of producers. It’s not perfect, but change is possible. It’s not however something a country can do in isolation it requires the support of all in the chain. My visit to Myanmar will I’m sure be inspirational and informative in equal measure.

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