SINGAPORE – Former Thai General Lertrat Ratanavanich remembers his regular meetings with Myanmar junta leader Than Shwe, who ran the country for 19 years. Like the time the dictator asked for some penguins.
Than Shwe is very fond of animals, so I was requested by His Excellency to bring penguins, said Lertrat, now a director of PTT Exploration & Production, Thailands biggest oil explorer. We also sent two giraffes.
Putting penguins in climate-controlled pens while 64 million people suffer regular power blackouts shows the task facing Myanmars year-old government in undoing half a century of military rule that kept Southeast Asias second-biggest country out of the regions economic boom.
The country had its most inclusive elections in two decades April 1. Lawmakers are revamping the financial system. And President Thein Sein, who took over from Than Shwe in March 2011, signed a preliminary cease-fire with the countrys largest armed rebel force in a move to end the worlds longest civil war.
As a result, the United States agreed to lift some sanctions on investment, remove certain travel bans and name an ambassador to the country for the first time since 1990. The European Union and Canada suspended non-military sanctions, and Australia eased travel restrictions for some Myanmar officials.
That may help boost economic growth to 7.7 percent a year in 2016-2020, from 4.8 percent last year, should the generals remain in control and continue with limited reforms, the Economist Intelligence Unit said in April.
Its the same people but with a different mindset, and they are still in power and people start to like them, said Luc de Waegh, who has been doing business in Myanmar since he helped set up British American Tobaccos operations there in 1993.
The generals were smart enough to realize that the old way of running the country was not the way of the future; that if they wanted to stay in power, they have to change.
About 75 percent of the population lacks access to electricity, the Asian Development Bank reported last month. Only one in 30 people has a mobile phone, and less than 1 percent of the population has an Internet connection, Nomura Holdings reported in March.
The previous military government had a penchant for extravagant, wasteful projects, Credit Suisse said last month, noting that construction of Naypyidaw, the new capital unveiled in 2005, may have cost 10 percent of gross domestic product. Under a democratic government, taxpayers would probably prevent such wastage.
In the past year, the Myanmar government released more than 20,000 prisoners, eased censorship and allowed public protests, subject to permission. Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent 15 of the past 23 years under house arrest, entered parliament last week after her opposition party swept 43 of 44 seats it contested in the April by-elections.
Still, a transfer to full democracy remains a long way away. Thein Sein, 67, retains the backing of about 75 percent of the 664 members in the two houses of parliament, either through his Union Solidarity and Development Party or from the military, which holds 25 percent of both houses under the constitution.
Meanwhile, the government is encouraging a flood of investment from China, South Korea, Japan and neighbors in Southeast Asia.
It has moved toward scrapping a multiple exchange-rate system by implementing a managed float of its currency and is revising laws to attract foreign capital.
This isnt the first time Myanmars leadership has taken steps toward restoring a democracy. The junta released Suu Kyi from house arrest in May 2002.