Myanmar Opening Up

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The inevitable is beginning to happen. Myanmar/Burma is opening up. N reciprocation, the Western world is also beginning to warm up towards it. In a significant development, President of the United States, Barak Obama, has asked his secretary of state Hillary Clinton to make a visit to the country in December and this comes close on the heels of Burma being awarded to host the 2014 ASEAN football championship. The excitement is palpable even across the border. A visit to Moreh and Tamu will bear testimony to this new sense of optimism that a momentous wind of change is approaching. It is evident in the new springs in the steps of even ordinary folks in these backwater neighbouring townships. The new buzz in town is expectedly and dominantly about the new political upheaval that is beginning to enter Myanmar/Burma in a slow but sure way.

This sense of optimism is also there in the new shine the faces of the industrious women vendors from across the border with cheeks covered with chandan paste, selling aromatic brown rice sweetened a little and garnished with shredded coconut flesh, as much as it is there in the faces of those who come to her to sample this Burmese delicacy. The Burmese customs officials at Moreh Gate No. 2, leading to Namphalong Market and beyond to Tamu, have also shed the familiar look of suspicion at everybody who seeks to cross border under the day-permit arrangement agreed between Myanmar and India. Now they are in fact helpful and instead of the unceremonious “no” to permission to take cameras or mobile phones along to their side of the border, they have learned to advice visitors on how to get permission and from where etc. Despite the nearly four-month long blockade in Manipur, Moreh and Namphalong markets remain buoyant. Tamu a little beyond is a lot more laid back, but here too the sense of a once closed space beginning to open up is pronounced. A Tamu veteran football team agreed to play a friendly match with an Imphal veteran football club recently, a gesture unthinkable only a few months ago, for getting such a proposal through would have meant months of negotiating a perpetually suspicious military bureaucracy. Not anymore. It is almost as if a shackle has broken and vanished overnight.

Tamu was once upon a time a sleepy town. It waited for shoppers from Manipur in the mornings and then by early afternoon when the shoppers have returned, shut down. It is still this way to some extent but the new sense is, it is much more prepared to absorb the changes that rapid modernisation can bring about. It is a planned township, with straight streets turning and intersecting at right angle. It has plenty of space, and conspicuous is also the apparent lack of greed for land. Building do not spring up from the street borders but after leaving adequate space for drainages, pedestrian pavements etc. Most of the shops and residences have small but well manicured courtyards in front of them, indicating their owners consider the lifestyle they have been used to as very important, unlike on the Indian side where spaces not converted to shops and other constructions are considered a waste. Perhaps this the difference the Buddhist outlook has made. In the next decade or so, it is quite imaginable even this township would be transformed into one of those neat, orderly and prosperous South East Asian cities, leaving Moreh and perhaps even Imphal far behind in terms of quality of life availed to residents. Already, residents of Moreh visit Tamu in the evening hours to have a sense of the relaxed atmosphere that contrast in a profound way with the tension in their own hometown. The moot point is, should not Manipur also prepare. This preparation is not just about infrastructures but also about the general mindset of the government as well as the public. Indeed, this mindset would even begin to reflect in the way infrastructures are built and maintained. A comparison between Namphalong and Moreh bazaars which literally rub shoulders would give an idea of what we mean by this mindset. Namphalong is not just bigger, but much neater and disciplined. Moreh is beginning to wallow in filth as most bazaars in India do.

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