In the single street of Yangon’s crowded Bothun San neighbourhood, attention is focused on the daily afternoon lottery. Hugely popular among the near-destitute labourers and their families, and played between neighbours on the flattened earth, it offers the prospect of a square meal rather than immediate life-changing wealth.
Stakes are small but wins are big, enough to feed a family for a day or so.
“If I win then we get fish or even chicken,” said Myat Soe, a 50-year-old labourer who lives with seven relatives in a makeshift bamboo house without power or sanitation. “If I win 100 times maybe I’ll get rich.”
Myat Soe is not the only one thinking about making large amounts of money in Myanmar, the new name of Burma. Hundreds of the world’s biggest companies are making plans to move into the country if political progress towards democracy continues. They hope to make millions as the repressive regime seeks to reintegrate in the international community.
The European Union (EU), the United States and Canada are considering how and when they will ease sanctions imposed over the past 20 years on the brutal military authorities that ruled — and some say still rule — the country. Any change will send a signal to potential investors that Myanmar is no longer considered a pariah state.
A week ago, travel restrictions on senior Burmese officials were lifted by the EU. A full review of the sanctions is scheduled for April.
One businessman staying at a five-star hotel in Yangon spoke this month of a “gold rush” in Asia’s second-poorest country. “It is when, not if, for most of us. I think there’s a bit of a Klondike feel,” said the businessman, who did not want to be named.
Prompting the change has been a series of reforms implemented by the nominally civilian government that took power last year. President Thein Sein has met key opposition leaders including the democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi, eased censorship, legalised trade unions and released hundreds of political prisoners.
European politicians ranging from the British foreign secretary to the Norwegian foreign minister have visited Myanmar in recent months to “encourage” the changes. Hillary Clinton came late last year, the first US secretary of state to travel to Myanmar for more than 50 years.
All the visitors have made clear that further reforms will be rewarded. Since the sanctions were imposed after the bloody repression of protests in the late 1980s and a cancelled election in 1990, Yangon has been isolated economically.
In recent years, Chinese companies, many state-backed, have established a large presence, investing in infrastructure and natural gas to timber and precious gems. One reason for the authorities’ attempt to “democratise” may be a fear of over-dependence on Beijing. Another may be a simple desire to catch up with countries such as Thailand or Singapore. There is no shortage of interest from global and regional businesses.
Myanmar has more than 60 million inhabitants and a key coastal location between India, China and the “tiger” economies of south-east Asia, making it an attractive market. It also has vast mineral, metal and other resources.
The longest queue at Yangon airport these days is not for check-in, taxis or cappuccinos costing $4 each but for mobile phone connections. As things stand, no overseas network can be used here. Hotels are full as business delegations arrive.
Shipra Tripathi, vice-president of Indian pump-makers Kirloskar, travelled from Delhi to Myanmar with a trade delegation.
“I wanted to see the opportunities that are opening up. I was pleasantly surprised by the pro-activeness of the government. We have already got teams in the country and are looking at a pilot project,” Tripathi said.