Reflective lakes, green mountains, golden pagodas, and friendly people. These are some of the lasting images from my first visit to Burma, also known as Myanmar, this past month. Clearly, Burma is a country on the move, making up for lost time when it was largely isolated from the rest of the world. While there to determine how USAID could best work with the national government and the local partners on health priorities, people wanted to know about our “window to the world” at every stop. Top requests—training and insights on how to improve the quality of information. Despite Burma’s long isolation from the West, Rangoon was very developed much to my surprise, clearly showing its connection to the southeast “Tiger countries,” particularly their next door neighbor—Thailand.
But I had a nagging feeling this did not reflect the true Burma, so the next time I visit, I’d really like to see what is beyond the city.
With that said, it proved to be an incredibly productive trip. I traveled with the Assistant Administrator for USAID’s Global Health Bureau, Dr. Ariel Pablos-Mendez, and we spent most of our time meeting with government officials, technical experts, local civil society organizations, and other donors to hear from them about their experiences and thoughts for continuing to move Burma forward. It quickly became clear to me that there is a great need in health, but Burma also has the potential to use donor assistance to build their country programs. Our visit to a local township hospital and private clinics pointed out the need to improve decentralization, especially decision-making and data quality.
A few highlights
A visit to the Shwedegon Pagoda after a long day of meetings ended being one of my favorite highlights of Rangoon. Imagine a village of temples, crowded with people celebrating the Buddhist Festival of Lights holiday, and the amount of excitement filling the streets. Truly an experience I will not soon forget.
We also spent a day in the new capital city, Naypyitaw, meeting with the Minister of Health and his staff. They were very gracious with their time and it was clear that USAID already enjoyed a good partnership. The capital is quite a contrast to Rangoon. The government built it just 7 years ago for a much larger population than what exists today, for example 12 lane roads without many cars. And the flight up and back from Rangoon gave us some idea of the lush landscape of the rural area.
Finally, my most impressionable moment came while looking out my hotel room window over a beautiful lake and political activist, Aung San Suu Kyi’s, house. It is hard to believe she was held there under house arrest for almost 15 years. The world must look quite different for her, as she works tirelessly to help shape democracy for her country. My hope is that our assistance will help Burma have both a vibrant democracy and a healthy society.