The grain of rejuvenation in Myanmar

It all started with a plate of fried rice.

It was a simple, perfectly balanced dish: a handful of plump prawns, some shallots and diced vegetables. All resting atop a mound of fragrant - and locally-grown - long-grained paw san rice, with each grain distinct and curling at the ends like a baroque version of basmati.

I was in the city of Pathein, some 195km to the west of Yangon and deep in the heart of the fertile and low-lying Ayeyarwady region. I wanted to see for myself how Myanmar's once world-beating rice industry was faring.

Back in the 1950s, long before General Ne Win seized power in 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 farmer U Ko Aye starts work every day at sunrise, takes a lunch break at 11am and leaves the fields only at sunset. The 59-year-old diversifies his crops: harvesting rice twice a year and growing mustard and watercress, which take only a month to grow, in the interim. PHOTOS: KARIM RASLAN

Now in 2017, as 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, rice - its former signature export - is critical to its future growth.

The task is daunting: The lush Ayeyarwady region with its deltaic soils constitutes well over 50 per cent of the country's rice-growing capacity. However, decades of neglect have left the sector woefully unprepared.

Most rural roads, irrigation canals, rice mills, training centres and research facilities are poorly maintained if not falling apart, so much so that Myanmar, while producing larger quantities of the all-important staple than in the colonial era, has acquired a reputation for poor quality rice.

Above: After General Ne Win seized power in 1962, the Burmese rice industry fell behind competition from Thailand and elsewhere. PHOTOS: KARIM RASLAN

The country has unsurprisingly failed to exploit its strategic position between China and India - two vast potential markets. Instead, 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.

This brings me to U Ko Aye, a successful farmer whom I visited shortly after my meal and who lives just over half an hour from the centre of Pathein. U Ko Aye's family (he is married with two daughters) has owned the 7ha he farms for more than 50 years.

Having just purchased a small water pump, the 59-year-old is able to diversify his crops, harvesting rice twice a year and - like his neighbours - growing mustard and watercress, which only take a month to grow, in the interim.

Above: Now, as Myanmar tries to catch up with the rest of Asean and with more than 61.2 per cent of the population engaged in agriculture, rice - a former signature export- is critical to its growth. PHOTOS: KARIM RASLAN

The work isn't easy: Farmers like U Ko Aye are always at the mercy of weather and water levels although the lowlands have better irrigation. He doesn't use chemicals. With a modest but well-built concrete house - replete with running water and electricity - U Ko Aye could well be a harbinger of what's to come in his country.

However, his confidence dips as he casts his eyes across to the nest of buildings in the distance. He explains: "The young people prefer air-conditioned factories even if the salaries are less than what they'd earn with farm work. We're also worried that they'll seize our land to build more factories."

He's also planted some paw san rice, explaining that while it requires greater care, it's also far more profitable - earning him at least 25 per cent more than ordinary rice strains. Indeed, the paw san rice was quite unlike anything I'd ever seen before (or eaten) and I was not alone in thinking this.

In 2011, the World Rice Conference declared that paw san was 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, the challenge of rebuilding an entire agricultural sector is huge but not impossible. It's been done before: Look at what the Vietnamese have achieved in the aftermath of 30 years of conflict.

The road map is fairly straightforward: Transparent property rights, rural credit, investments in infrastructure are all part of the policy mix. However, a reputation for poor quality is hard to shake off - despite their revival, 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.

Certainly, I've become a certified paw san fan - and I generally don't even notice what kind of rice I'm eating. Indeed, when I returned to Yangon the next day I spent many hours hunting for paw san in the Theingyi market, packing a few kilos to take home - not something I've ever done before.

So for those who bemoan the current state of Myanmar's agriculture - the key in this age of authenticity and artisanal producers is paw san, a gold standard around which an industry can be rebuilt and championed.

  • The writer is a South-east Asia commentator and founder and chief executive of the KRA Group, a public affairs consulting firm with an Asean-wide focus. This is the latest instalment in his Ceritalah column.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 16, 2017, with the headline 'The grain of rejuvenation in Myanmar'. Print Edition | Subscribe