In Brunei on Thursday, Myanmar took its place as the 2014 ASEAN chair, a role it was forced to relinquish in 2006 as its military rulers came under pressure from the U.S. and the European Union for not doing enough to advance democracy. As head of the Southeast Asian bloc, Myanmar will host the 2014 ASEAN summit -- an annual event that draws thousands of delegates and journalists, who attend upwards of 1,000 meetings.
But can Myanmar, with its notoriously poor infrastructure, handle the foot traffic?
Thierry Falise/LightRocket via Getty Images
Myanmar's economy has always run on cash -- thick bricks of it, used by residents to pay for everything from household sundries to homes and cars. That's slowly changing as global banks and financial services giants trickle into the country -- but even in Yangon, Myanmar's commercial capital, ATMs remain scarce and few businesses accept foreign credit cards. For those who bank with local Myanmar institutions, plastic is still a distant dream.
All of which makes the launch Tuesday of the country's first-ever bank card a minor but significant victory. Offered jointly by Myanmar's Cooperative Bank (CB Bank) and MasterCard, the reloadable prepaid card is intended only for accountholders traveling abroad. For now, that's a small group: Just one in five Myanmar residents vacationed outside the country during the past year. Meanwhile, less than 10 percent of all residents have a bank account, in large part due to public distrust of the banking system.
Thursday marked the 25th anniversary of the 8.8.88 uprising in Myanmar, when widespread protests against the government were violently suppressed by the military, leading to roughly 3,000 deaths (the photo above, from Aug. 19, 1988, shows an anti-government protester getting treated for gunshot wounds).
This year, for the first time, the 8.8.88 anniversary was openly commemorated in Myanmar with a large gathering in Yangon. (In 2011, President Thein Sein launched an ongoing effort to implement cautious reforms and open the country to the outside world.) On Thursday, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi addressed a crowd in the capital that included former student activists. "Whatever we do we must not take grudges against each other," she declared. "We will have to heal the wounds the country suffered by showing love and compassion."
STR/AFP/Getty Images, Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images
He's a self-proclaimed "white American national" who has no family connections to Myanmar and has never visited the country. He's not an expert on its politics either, he tells me -- which becomes clear later in our conversation when he draws a blank on the name of Aung San Suu Kyi, likely the most famous Burmese person alive today, whom he calls a "prime minister candidate" (she's actually planning on staging a run for the presidency).
But something about the 969 movement -- the controversial pro-Buddhist campaign that many hold responsible for the violence that has racked Myanmar in recent months -- has captured the imagination of this man. Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, working his day job in the "technology sector," he has taken it upon himself in his spare time to set up both a website -- 969Movement.org -- and a Twitter account devoted to defending the movement in the face of what he says is widespread misinformation.
In a Skype interview with Foreign Policy on Wednesday, he declined to give his name, saying "I still have some safety concerns about being involved in all this."
"Where I see myself ... is promoting the values and the intention of the 969 movement to the English-speaking world," he says. "To a more globalized audience."
EPA/NYEIN CHAN NAING
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