March 27 was Armed Forces Day in Burma, the 67th anniversary of the founding of the modern Burmese military. Given that Burma was ruled for nearly half a century by a military regime and even today is helmed by a hybrid civilian-army government, this should be a momentous occasion. After all, with some 400,000 troops, the country officially known as Myanmar is one of the most militarized nations in the world. But in the commercial capital of Rangoon on Tuesday, there was little evidence of the men in green. Instead, the city was abuzz in anticipation of another event of great magnitude: the Myanmar Oil, Gas and Power Summit, which gets going on Wednesday and has lured representatives from 20-plus nations eager to secure access to Burma’s largely untapped natural resources.
Rangoon, a crumbling assortment of colonial edifices and golden spires, is in the midst of a frantic self-improvement campaign. In April 1 by-elections, veteran opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy colleagues are running to fill fewer than 50 vacant parliamentary seats. If these polls proceed without a hitch — just one of a remarkable series of reforms that have unfolded in recent months in Burma — Western governments are likely to start lifting the economic sanctions that have isolated the country for so long. Any effect will not be immediate: in the U.S., for instance, changes to financial embargoes will have to make their way through Congress. Nevertheless, many in this nation of 50 million–plus people are busily preparing for a postsanctions environment.
That means conferences, seminars and delegations galore in a country that just passed a new foreign-investment law. This month, the city has played host to a two-day media-development conference and a job fair, as well as welcoming trade officials from Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand. In February, Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel-winning economist, was in town to assess the country’s economic reforms. In the coming weeks, a South Korean trade delegation is scheduled to arrive, along with hundreds of business delegates from just one Chinese province, Guangxi. During the first two months of 2012, foreign-visitor arrivals increased 40% year-on-year.
To meet the demands of all these potential investors, Burmese are brushing up on a range of skills. English signboards scattered across Rangoon promise the fruits of “Multi-Language Academies,” “Diplomas in Business Enhancements” and even a preschool that will help toddlers “Get Knowledged.”
The two-day oil and gas conference about to take place in Rangoon speaks to both Burma’s geostrategic position (squeezed between China and India) and natural-resource wealth (natural gas, timber, gems and hydropower, to mention just a few treasures). Between 2010 and ’11, the country attracted around $20 billion in foreign investment, mostly in the energy sector and mostly from China. So far, most of that money has flowed into the pockets of government-linked enterprises or the regime’s business cronies. Now, with the possibility of Western nations being able to invest once sanctions are lifted, an even bigger rush is on. With seminars on everything from pipeline development to securing upstream-oil-and-gas-exploration ventures, the March 28-29 energy summit has attracted 250-plus delegates.
The big question is whether Burma can avoid the natural-resources curse that has bedeviled other impoverished countries with deep energy reserves. At one hotel breakfast in Rangoon, also known as Yangon, a linen-suited European talked expansively about the dangers of doing business in the delta. It turns out that he wasn’t talking about Burma’s Irrawaddy Delta. Instead, he was referring to the Niger Delta, where riches from oil exploitation has failed to trickle down to the local populace. “The last thing we need,” says local economist Khin Maung Nyo, “is for foreign companies to come in and operate without the kind of controls needed to make sure investment helps the Burmese.”
Meanwhile, up in Naypyidaw, the surreal new capital built by the former ruling junta, some 10,000 soldiers marched across a vast parade ground in celebration of Armed Forces Day. Army chief Min Aung Hlaing hailed the accomplishments of the Tatmadaw, as the Burmese military is known. Then he went on to defend the country’s mixed parliamentary system, which came into force last year with 75% of seats filled by civilians (or retired army personnel) and 25% reserved for active military members. “Protecting the constitution is one of the main responsibilities of the army,” Min Aung Hlaing said, “as we build our country into becoming a modern, prosperous and developed democracy.”
If Nobel laureate Suu Kyi gains a parliamentary seat in the upcoming by-elections, she has indicated that she will push to diminish the military’s shadow over politics. In fact, the democracy icon — who on Sunday suspended her campaign due to poor health — wants to amend the constitution to ensure a greater voice for civilian leaders. In a country frenetically remaking itself, that would be the biggest — and unlikeliest — change of all.
PHOTOS: To Be Young and Cool in Burma