YANGON — Burma is ready to boom. The Asia Development Bank estimates that per capita income in the southeast Asian country could increase sixfold by 2030. And another report predicts that the Burmese are poised for a level of economic growth far ahead of the global pace.
The evidence of this newfound prosperity in Burma, officially known as Myanmar, is on full display at this Yangon shopping mall, where it's easy to find products from Thailand or Hong Kong. Just two years ago, none of this would have been possible because foreign products were banned under the military junta.
University graduate Hnin Su Hlain, 21, is here at the mall to watch a Western movie. She's come from southern Burma and is impressed with all the foreign products on offer.
"I've been here before, but now everything is changing," she says. "There are lots of shopping malls in Yangon now. People's living standards are changing, and there are more employment opportunities. We have agents who are finding jobs for us. And our wage is increasing too."
It's when the semi-reformist government took power in 2011 that things began to change. Many Burmese people who formerly lived in exile are returning home, and foreign investors are pouring money into local industries.
Migrant labor experts say that 10% of Burma's labor force currently works abroad, many of them then sending earnings back home. The passport office is full of people waiting to process documents. In fact, English and Chinese are now being taught in schools to help students find overseas employment.
Zin Zaw Htet Tun, 34, took advantage of the new demand to open a language school in Yangon, where he now has many students learning English, Korean, Japanese and Chinese. Dressed in a smart Western suit, he admits that he likes modern technology and is willing to pay for it.
"Trends are changing, you know," he says. "When I was young, we just used dial-up telephones. After that, we used Nokias. Now, we can use very expensive smart phones because things are changing, so we feel a bit proud."
People checking their phones in Yangon — Photo: Banyol Kong Janoi
Phyo Nanda, 21, works as a Chinese-language instructor at the language school, where she notices a growing trend for high-end technology.
"Everyone has a smartphone now," she says. "They can check the Internet. We don't have to spend money at the Internet cafe to surf the Internet anymore. There's also some changes in fashion too. Sometimes I feel underdressed when I see all the young girls dressed in the latest Western fashions.”
For eight years now, 31-year-old Khin Sitt Pyu has been working in Dubai. She didn't finish her university degree and is now working as a cashier earning $900 a month, some of which she regularly sends home. She's back in Yangon for a while, and will fly back to Dubai again when her break is over.
Crabs and fried fish are being served at her table, which is expensive food for ordinary Burmese.
"The basic salary overseas is 10 times higher," she says. "This made me want to work abroad. At first my relatives didn't allow me to go because I'm a woman. But my parents and my siblings agreed and supported my decision. Now I have a regular income and everything is fine with me."
The World Bank has praised Burma for its latest annual economic growth rate of 6.5%, which is related to political and economic reforms. And you can see it clearly on the streets of Yangon, with its worsening traffic jams. But for 39-year-old taxi driver Ye Lin Latt, business is good.
"A friend told me that I should try to drive a taxi," he says. "My friend seemed to live a good life, so I started renting a taxi to drive passengers."
Maung Aung, the government's economic advisor, believes Burma's economy will grow even stronger.
"Now, our economy depends not only on Asian markets, but also European markets. We expect to enter the U.S. market soon. So now we are trading globally."