If Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, then I shudder to think at the arsenal of rhetorical devices it would take to sum up Myanmar. A country that ranks 145th on the human development index, 49th out of 54 countries in Asia, yet has better, cheaper cellular network coverage than I have in Canada and a mall across the street from my house with Armani Exchange and Nike stores (it happens to be the nicest mall in the country). A place where there is a tremendous amount of enthusiasm for democracy and freedom, and yet a long way to go in areas like ethnic minority rights and freedom of the press. Where a slice of pizza at the mall is three times the price of a four-course meal at the teashop on the roadside, and vastly inferior in taste.
For whatever reason, the first time I read Myanmar, democracy building, and internship in the same sentence, I knew there was nothing else I wanted to do for my MGA internship. International IDEA, the organization I work for, is an intergovernmental organization that supports sustainable democracy through comparative knowledge, and assisting in democratic reforms in a non-prescriptive and non-intrusive way. The first time I read that, even though I understood all of the words, I wasn’t exactly sure what my internship would look like. I’ve spent the last four months discovering the answer to that question, and it has been an experience that I wouldn’t trade for any other.
International IDEA has three programs in Myanmar: electoral support, parliamentary assistance, and constitution building, where most of my work has been focused. The tagline for the constitution building program is that it “supports partners in Myanmar to strengthen their expertise on constitution building with a view to establishing a home-grown, well-informed, and inclusive constitutional culture.” I’d also be remiss if I were not to mention that the project is funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Norway and Luxembourg. Always mention the donors. In practice, we run seminars and training sessions on comparative constitutional design for a variety of political actors who are part of the peace process.
Since I started on this program, I have gotten the chance to speak with MPs, CSOs and political party representatives, and all of them have left with me exactly the same impression: the hunger for democracy and lasting peace in Myanmar is strong – the only things needed are the tools and the know-how. Getting the opportunity to sit in on roundtables with members of the Constitutional Tribunal of Myanmar as they discuss how they need to adapt to a new federal state, or facilitating workshops with political party staff as they discuss strategies for improved land management and natural resource governance has been a really eye-opening experience; it is getting about as close as you can to the inside view of a state working through the practicalities of its own democratic transition.
My time here has also made me look more reflectively at how I view our system of governance in Canada. Since the 2nd 21st Century Panglong Conference in May of 2017, the peace process has shifted to a much more open discussion about the potential for a federal state in Myanmar. Canada gets discussed quite a lot in Myanmar as a potential role model in terms of its federal structure and the relative strength of our geographically dispersed union. It has been quite ironic to be in Myanmar at this moment, when at times, it feels like the spectre of a great democratic decline is hanging just above much of the Western world. There are many flaws and inequalities in our democracy, and we have much work to do to redress them. But it’s worth remembering that we can still be proud of the fact that, by and large, we all agree to the unalienable principle that a government ought to be accountable to its people, which is still occasionally a tenuous concept in this part of the world.
Yangon, the former political and still commercial capital of Myanmar, and my home base, is a maddeningly fascinating place. On the same city block it’s easy to see a crumbling colonial-era building next to a hip new cafe, surrounded by ground level huts and food stalls constructed from tarps, bamboo, and sheet metal. I arrived in the middle of the rainy season, which means I have come to be intimately familiar with the feeling of walking home in two feet of water after an afternoon shower floods the sewer. This wouldn’t be such a problem if it weren’t for the fact that about every 20 feet or so there’s a trash-bin sized hole in the pavement, and if the street lights are often out due to the regular power cuts. And I absolutely love it here.
It’s a city where new apartment blocks and shopping centres are literally springing up out of rice paddy fields, and where the pace of development seems to move in great spurts and then long standstills, as if it were governed by the same rules that guide the traffic. The food is criminally underrated, and the variety among the Bamar and ethnic cuisines offers ample culinary delight, mixing the best of Chinese, Indian, Thai, and Malaysian foods and returning something uniquely Myanmar. If you’re ever in town, Rakhine prawn curry, tea leaf salad, and Shan noodle chicken are a few of my favourites. There’s always something going on in Yangon, and an abundance of great places to grab a (ubiquitous) Myanmar beer or nibble on some BBQ.
I’ve also been very fortunate to travel throughout the country. From sunning on the white sand beaches of the Bay of Bengal, to biking through the incredible temple fields of Bagan, to exploring the natural beauty and traditional life of the Shan People at Inle Lake, Myanmar has a humble beauty that’s been amazing to explore. Myanmar people are also incredibly honest, friendly, and hospitable, and I’ve been greeted with nothing but kindness throughout my time here. For a place that was so isolated from the rest of world for so long, it’s worth noting that the people seem to have little to no hesitation in welcoming outsiders to their country with open arms.
As my time with International IDEA Myanmar draws to a close, I’m left with a few lasting thoughts. Democracy is still a fragile thing in many parts of the world, and we shouldn’t take that for granted. Working in-country and seeing the impact of your programming first-hand is a vital experience for anyone considering a career in international development. My MGA has already afforded me opportunities I never would have dreamed about when I started back in September. While I’m very sad to be leaving Myanmar, the two things I’ve learned above all in my time here is that this a country and a people with a great future ahead of them, and that I will definitely be back here again before long.