1962, Burma was the world’s largest rice exporter and Rangoon (now Yangon) was one of Asia’s busiest ports, with cargoes being loaded for destinations across the globe. However, as Ne Win’s xenophobic economic policies – that is his “Burmese Way to Socialism” – took root, this vital industry fell behind competition from Thailand and elsewhere. Of course, there were historical reasons behind the self-defeating initiatives. At the height of the colonial era, the rice industry – much like everything else – was dominated by non-Burmese with milling, storage, transportation and shipping almost entirely in the hands of British and/or Indian businessmen. Much of the best rice-growing land had been acquired by Chettiar money lenders from South India, fuelling anti-foreign sentiment among indigenous Burmese.
Myanmar attempts to catch up with the rest of Asean and with more than 61.2 per cent of the population still engaged in agriculture, which makes rice, its former signature export, critical to its future growth. The task is daunting as decades of neglect have left the sector woefully unprepared. Even having the lush Ayeyarwady region with its deltaic soils that constitutes well over 50 per cent of the country’s rice-growing capacity, has unsurprisingly failed to exploit its strategic position between China and India – two vast potential markets. Most rural roads, irrigation canals, rice mills, training centres and research facilities are in miserable state, so much so that Myanmar, in spite of producing larger quantities of the all-important staple has acquired a reputation for poor quality rice where much of its exports are shipped to West African consumers (as broken rice) and sold at a significant discount to world prices because of the poor quality.
In 2011, the World Rice Conference had declared Myanmar’s Paw San as the world’s tastiest rice, defeating Thailand’s jasmine – a two-time previous winner. Before being cooked, Paw San looks like the Arborio rice used in Risotto: short and stumpy. However, cooking transforms the grain, doubling and at times even tripling it in length, while also causing it to sprout wonderfully elegant basmati-like protrusions. Now in 2017, the challenge of rebuilding an entire agricultural sector is huge but not impossible. It’s been done before by the Vietnamese in the aftermath of 30 years of conflict. However, a reputation for poor quality is hard to shake off as the Vietnamese have struggled to achieve premium prices for their agricultural produce. But in Myanmar, Paw San may well play a key role as a kind of National Brand Ambassador – drawing regional and possibly even global attention to its unusual and distinctive attributes. Transparent property rights, rural credit, investments in infrastructure and modern agricultural practices are all Myanmar needs to get its historic supremacy back.