“We’ve gone from an 8% mobile penetration rate to 90% in six years,” said Ko, a foreign investor who has advised US and international investors who travelled to Myanmar. Ko moved to Yangon from Hong Kong six years ago and sees the rise of smartphones as a way of measuring how far the southeast Asian country has come in his short time living there.
“People’s lives have completely changed. We started off using mobile phones with the highest smartphone penetration in Asia — out of 100 headsets, 80 are all smartphones.”
When I talked to Ko in 2015, you could feel a sense of optimism on Yangon’s poorly lit streets; Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party, the National League for Democracy, had taken back the majority in parliament and effectively ended the military's decades-long dominance in government.
Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who spent years under house arrest for her pro-democracy activism, was in Washington in September 2016, meeting with President Barack Obama. His administration would announce three months later, in December, that the US would suspend some of its sanctions on Myanmar, in recognition of the country’s recent political reforms.
The Obama administration pointed to the formation of a democratically elected government, the release of many political prisoners and improved fundamental freedoms such as the freedom of peaceful assembly as some of the reasons the sanctions were lifted. It was also part of a broader effort to reengage with countries long neglected by the West.
The Clinton administration in 1997 had banned new American investment in Myanmar, citing human-rights abuses at the hands of its military government, including its decision to put Suu Kyi under house-arrest.
Six years later, in 2003, the US added new sanctions after a US State Department report accused members of the Burmese (as Myanmar was known then) government of rape, torture and murder. The 2003 sanctions included a ban on all imports from Myanmar and instructions that American banks should not do business there.
While Suu Kyi received some praise for democratic reforms during her 2016 US trip, critics both inside and outside Myanmar, quickly pointed to her failure to condemn news the military had perpetrated acts of ethnic cleansing against the minority ethnic Rohingya in her speech to the United Nations.
The Rohingya are still denied citizenship by Myanmar and are currently one of the largest stateless populations in the world. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya — by some estimates, as many as 800,000 — have fled Myanmar and are living as refugees in Bangladesh.
Seeing Suu Kyi represent the people of Myanmar on the international stage inspired a lot of hope in young people like Thomas Kyaw Yan, a student in Yangon and an aspiring musician.
“I feel like the youth having opportunities in every directions now that she’s in power,” Yan said. “The country couldn't be more proud. She's an icon to all women in Myanmar.”
Yan told Business Insider that Suu Kyi’s democratic reforms like the freedom of expression have had on a tremendous impact on the music community there. And that the mending of US relations certainly been a good thing for his music career in the Myanmar.
“Twice as many people here go to shows nowadays than before. Young people are starting to listen to what they prefer whether that be rock, pop, hip hop or metal.” Yan said. “I think that US lifting certain trade sanctions will surely positively affect the country in the coming future.”
World leaders were not as optimistic about Suu Kyi last week, when she appeared to dismiss the plight of two jailed Reuters journalists sentenced on September 3 to seven years in prison for violating the Official Secrets Act inside Myanmar.
Those two journalists, Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, were reporting on the alleged killings of 10 villagers in a Rohingya Muslim community. They were arrested in December. At the World Economic Forum on Thursday, Suu Kyi said of the journalists:
“The case has been held in open court. If anybody feels there has been a miscarriage of justice, I would like them to point it out," Suu Kyi said.
"I wonder whether very many people have actually read the summary of the judgment, which had nothing to do with freedom of expression at all, it had to do with the Official Secrets Act. But I don’t think anybody has actually bothered to read it."
She added: “They were not jailed because they were journalists.”
Those remarks did not go unnoticed. US Vice President Mike Pence and the US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, were among those who condemned her remarks.
“First, in denial about the abuse the military placed on the Rohingya, now justifying the imprisonment of the two Reuters reporters who reported on the ethnic cleansing. Unbelievable,” Haley said.
Sydney Morning Herald editor Michael Ruffles said it was "shocking to watch the former human rights icon speak so coldly, and deflect so callously, about issues which have earned international condemnation."
Minar Pimple, the senior global director of global operations at Amnesty International said Suu Kyi's comments were "disgraceful," and an attempt to "defend the indefensible."
"To say that this case had 'nothing to do with freedom of expression' and that Wa Lone, and Kyaw Soe Oo 'were not jailed for being journalists' is a deluded misrepresentation of the facts," he said.
“There is still some optimism for the long run, but it is no longer euphoric and I think that a sense of realism has come in,” Ko said. “Of course the Reuters sentence and the Rohingya situation has hurt business. I think western investors have viewed the country’s recent political missteps as a sign that the country may still be too risky and would rather not be associated with it yet.”
For its part, Myanmar has also expressed doubts about some would-be investment partners, like China. As recently as August, Myanmar government officials sought to downsize a Chinese-funded port project over fears it would land the country in one of China's infamous debt traps.
Myanmar’s unique constitution has also made it hard for Suu Kyi to push her progressive social agenda, forcing her to battle with the competing interests of the country’s military leadership. Suu Kyi’s political party represents Myanmar's first democratically elected group in 25 years, but the constitution automatically gives members of the military one-fourth of the votes in parliament.
In Myanmar, the commander-in-chief of the military does not answer to the head of state and has power over the country’s police, and key cabinet positions in the government.
What happened to the Reuters reporters may have been driven by the country's military, but what happens next depends on Suu Kyi. She has two options: she can stay quiet to appease the nation’s military leadership, or she can step in and urge the president to pardon the reporters.
Suu Kyi has the same decision to make regarding the future of her country's economy.
She could jump-start Myanmar’s economy by implementing business-friendly reforms to encourage investment in infrastructure and deregulate the country’s financial system in hopes of spurring foreign investment, or she can similarly stay quiet and maintain the status quo that has benefited the old guard by maintaining the country’s old policies of heavy regulations that were established during its socialist rule.
Bill Richardson, who previously served as governor of New Mexico before Suu Kyi appointed him to serve on her 10-person advisory board, said history indicates that the odds of Suu Kyi demanding a pardon for the Reuters journalists are “very slim.”
Multiple news outlets in January reported Richardson as saying he resigned from Suu Kyi’s advisory board when he realised that she was “lacking moral leadership.”
Ko and other businesspeople in Yangon remain optimistic for an economic renaissance in the country. They believe good returns are possible if the government chooses to refocus on economic reforms and invest in its infrastructure, just as it did with the telecommunications sector, he said.
Suu Kyi needs to learn from the first half of her term by showing the international community that Myanmar is committed to the freedom of the press and democracy. Experts and observers say she also needs to give suffering Rohingya Muslims the attention they deserve.
If she can do this, she might be able to capture the momentum she had when she first came to power, Ko said. He believes Myanmar's economic strength can only grow if Suu Kyi makes the right decisions.
“The government has to demonstrate to foreign investors what my company and clients have seen over the years," Ko said.
"The entrepreneurs here in Myanmar are among the most resilient and that these companies and their investors are willing to reinvest their returns into other sectors in the country."
"Burmese entrepreneurs can build businesses that are as large as and as good as any in the region,” he said.
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