Then suddenly Hsann Nyein announced lunchtime. Hospitality is critical to Burmese culture, and he’d planned for years to take me out for mohinga—fish curry noodles, a favorite. We sat in a breezy restaurant and talked about technology and agriculture. In the past, he said, farmers rarely had access to markets. Middlemen bought from farmers at cut rates, then sold in the market for profit. But that will change as cell phone prices drop, he said. As in Africa, farmers will begin to call the market directly. Technology will change lives. It will permeate the countryside.
Later that afternoon, Jerry and I visited a stately new bank with a cavernous lobby smelling of furniture glue. The place was empty of customers though spacious enough to host a football game. Dozens of workers sat idle at their desks. Changing money involved two employees and several stamps on a neatly typed receipt with hand-scratched notes on back detailing how many bills of which denominations we received. That day, the bank rate, just over 900 kyat per dollar, rivaled the black market. That wasn’t the case in years past, when changing money at the official rate of a few hundred kyat or less was “plain stupid” (to quote Lonely Planet).
That evening, sunset cast a mesmerizing glow across the Shwedagon, the country’s most holy pagoda. The place was packed, but for the first time in many visits there were no chatty monks with stories of persecution by authorities. There were no stone-faced men in white shirts and longyis, the alleged spies of former times, following closely, asking questions. Just thousands of visitors, foreign and Burmese, with smartphones, cameras, and even a tablet aimed at the gleaming sight.
The next morning I ordered more mohinga and thick, sweet tea at a corner shop. All around were the sinuous sounds of the local language and the deep-throated hacking of chronic coughs, symptomatic of a constant city haze. Patrons sat and chatted, a few with newspapers in hand, two with eyes on their phones. A newspaper cart did a lively trade next door. Despite the rise of mobile media, print remains a popular source of information. Reading is habit, both in teashops and private homes. Tenement residents dangle ropes from their balconies with little clips to which newspapers or plastic bags of street food can be attached. That’s delivery, Yangon style.
That night we met several of our former students for dinner in the city. Our embassy colleague entered the restaurant with a wide grin and firm grip. “It is very good to see you,” he said with sincere eyes—no longer the drawn, pale face we had seen leaving Mandalay.
I learned much that night over rice and curry. Journalists wanted in-house mentors who would come to teach, not take an exotic vacation (which is how some characterized a recent influx of foreign media trainers unfamiliar with local needs). They wanted training in conflict reporting as papers sent teams to cover the spreading violence. They wanted to know how to gain access to both sides during riots. Several said the authorities still hassled reporters covering conflicts outside of Yangon—but it was nothing like the censorship of years past. For the first time, journalists had spot news to chase and the chance to actually print it. Sudden, thrilling advancements tempered by the headache of figuring out how to actually do it all.
And I learned that editors keep faith in a readership base that still favors ink on paper. Everyone is building a website, most every publication has a Facebook page. But much of that online presence is aimed at overseas readers and pockets of new-media enthusiasts. In general, respect for newsprint endures. Editors are banking on that.
There was talk about the government and its future. Many said the old generals are simply “changing clothes.” The appearance of democratic reform looks good internationally. It’s profitable for the country and those generals in new suits. Military power, we were told, remains paramount, no matter the clothes.