YANGON dominates Myanmar
Whilst Naypyidaw (some 320 kilometres to the north) has been the capital for the past eleven years, this vibrant port city with its traffic-clogged streets, fading colonial splendour and the serene beauty of the Shwedagon Pagoda continues to enthral the nation.
As Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (“ASSK”) and her National League for Democracy (NLD) mark their first year in power, it's becoming clear that the dynamic business hub will hold the key to her future success.
With a combined population of 7.36 million (the Yangon region extends beyond the city proper) and almost a quarter of the nation's GDP, political and economic reforms have to work in the city if they are to take root across this nation of 52 million.
U Phyo Min Thein is the NLD's “man in Yangon”.
Swept into power in 2016, he was hand-picked to be the Chief Minister of the Yangon Region. Much like the revered ASSK, "Kwee Phyo" ("Brother Phyo") was also a former political detainee, having served fifteen years behind bars.
When I met him late last week in his rather grim Ne Win-era office, the self-effacing U Phyo Min Thein revealed a steely determination as well as a surprising grasp of regional affairs. Despite having recently undergone heart surgery, he showed no signs of tiredness, darting around his office with alacrity.
Needless to say, he's fast-acquiring a reputation as an astute political player. A former physics student and activist at the University of Yangon, U Phyo Min Thein was jailed in 1991, after the 1988 uprising against the country’s military junta.
He is remarkably sanguine about his time in prison, telling me: "I was in my twenties when I was arrested by the military intelligence…They kept increasing my sentence…The experience made me a more mature person. Two things kept me going: the first was…my admiration for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. The second was the Buddhist religion...Practicing Buddhism helped us a lot in these difficult times.”
U Phyo Min Thein (who married Daw Khin Mi Mi Kywe in 2009) only joined the NLD in 2012.
It was shrewd move as he was picked to contest in the dramatic by-election of that year.
He ascended rapidly in the NLD, reportedly acting as a key strategist during the crucial 2015 elections that followed.
He recalls the period warmly: "When I was in parliament, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi taught us a lot. She taught us that politicians must be willing to learn. That we should be optimistic, patient and systematic…I see her as a mother.”
Certainly, patience is what he requires now in Yangon. His first year in office has been tough.
One of his signature initiatives, the Yangon Bus Service (YBS), launched earlier this year, has been broadly criticized.
What started as a bold attempt to streamline public transport in the capital has left commuters frustrated by increased fares, long delays and irregular services.
A Facebook video commemorating U Phyo Min Thein’s 1-year in office which claimed the YBS as an achievement was removed after being panned by netizens.
Whilst he was rather defensive when discussing the YBS, he took pains to explain what he was trying to achieve: “I don’t see it (the YBS) as a major problem…We’re taking things step-by-step…With any reform, there is bound to be challenges, whether political or from vested interests.”
It's important to remember that the NLD and he are battling against decades of systematic neglect, corruption and abuse of power. Voters understand this and remain supportive.
Indeed, the local Muslim community, whilst wary of the extremist rhetoric emanating from Buddhist hardliners and the possible fall-out from violence in the Rakhine province feel that forces in the military are deliberately stirring up resentment.
On 9 May – the night before my arrival – nationalist monks led a mob into the predominantly Muslim Mingalar Taung Nyunt Township, seeking "illegal Rohingyas".
The situation quickly escalated and the police were forced to fire warning shots.
When asked about the violence, the Chief Minister was firm: "The incident was caused by instigators. We will take legal action [against them]. The law enforcement agencies have already started.”
Indeed, on 12 May police issued several arrest warrants over the attacks.
Conversely, his explanation of the turmoil in Rakhine is very much in alignment with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi – and disappointingly so.
However, U Phyo Min Thein speaks with greater empathy. This stands in marked contrast to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s stand-offish demeanour.
He prefaces his arguments by holding up Myanmar's albeit, much-imperilled diversity: "There is freedom of religion in Myanmar. There is a Bengali mosque, church and Hindu temple near the Sule Pagoda (in downtown Yangon).”
“[The conflict in] Rakhine state is not about religion. While the Rohingya are not among Myanmar’s 135 recognized ethnic groups, there is the Kamein people who are predominantly Muslim. This proves that the problem in Rakhine is not about religion but ethnicity.”
Sensing my scepticism, he then went on to say: “We are trying to build a country where all religions are equal. This is part of democracy, human rights and maturity.”
Understandably, U Phyo Min Thein was much more eager to talk about his ambitions for Yangon, which has an unemployment rate of 4.1% and a poverty rate of 40%.
“Our vision for Yangon is for it to maintain its heritage, to become a green city and an economic powerhouse, where investors would want to come and stay.”
“…one of the challenges investors face is high real estate prices, which we are trying our best to control. To increase ease of investment, we are building new industrial and housing projects.”
Despite criticisms from business that NLD lacks technocrats and those with practical experience, the Chief Minister has drawn praise for his low-key, problem-solving approach.
“Foreign investment will bring in job opportunities and technology transfers…If we can create lots of new job opportunities in Yangon, we could confront the homelessness problem.”
“We welcome investors from all countries…including from our ASEAN neighbours. We cannot build the country alone.”
However, when I followed-up about China's “One Belt, One Road” initiative, he pointedly remarked: "Myanmar will take part in OBOR and we hope that it can help us improve our transportation system. But it must be mutually beneficial.”
When I asked U Phyo Min Thein whether he was being groomed to succeed Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, he brushed aside my question: “I do not think of myself as her successor…I want to help solve the country’s problems. I’ve been appointed to Yangon and I am working to solve its challenges.”
Still, the gap in their age (the Lady is 71, after all) makes it reasonable to assume that the Chief Minister will feature and prominently in the NLD’s future plans despite the fact that when you meet him in person, he gives you a sense that he would rather disappear into the furniture.
He certainly has his work cut out for him. With over half a million homeless, Yangon with its rubbish-strewn streets remains restive and volatile.
At the same time, those opposed to ASSK and the NLD are deeply entrenched in the city's fabric, especially amongst the business elite.
However, if over the next four years (parliamentary elections have to be held in 2020)U Phyo Min Thein can navigate the vested interests, resolve the city's public transport woes, pull in investors, generate jobs and curb the tendency to lawlessness, both he and the NLD will be big winners.
Much of the NLD's future success rests on the slim shoulders of a recovering heart patient in his late forties.
U Phyo Min Thein the understated Chief Minister, is now an essential part of Myanmar's political trajectory.