Considering the Implications of Increased Urbanisation in Myanmar

“Imagine this: in 15 years time, ten million rural people in Myanmar have moved to urban areas. International Organization for Migration's migration expert Michiko Ito expands on this scenario in an informative and interesting blog post for the Livelihoods and Food Security Trust Fund.” © Jacquetta Hayes/LIFT Fund

By Michiko Ito
First published in

Since the beginning of political and economic reforms of 2011, Myanmar has received unprecedented attention, support and expectations from the world. Economic forecasts such as GDP quadrupling and 10 million new non-agricultural jobs by 2030 (e.g. IMF, 2013; McKinsey, 2013) indicate that Myanmar will be a different place in a matter of just 15 years.

This blog piece is my five cents' contribution to understand what this means to ordinary rural people from the mobility perspective. I am focusing on rural people as they are by far the largest chunk of population in Myanmar. Whether they like it or not, they will be a big part of this irreversible change, and I will explain why.

In their eight reasons to be optimistic about Myanmar’s economic growth, McKinsey referred to the fact that Myanmar remains an overwhelmingly agricultural and rural economy. According to the National Census, 36 million people, or 70% of the country’s 51 million people, live in rural areas, the overwhelming majority of whom are engaged in agriculture. McKinsey argues that if Myanmar is to increase the speed of its development, it needs to begin to support a shift, in which people move from rural to urban areas, and from agriculture to non-agricultural employment. This is what happened to my own country Japan, as well as to many other countries which are now called industrialised countries.

So, by understanding that a diversified economy that shifts away from agriculture is the way ahead for Myanmar’s development, and that most of the new non-agricultural jobs will be made available in the urban areas, we are talking about 10 million new people in urban areas and 10 million less people in the rural areas in the next 15 years. This means the possibility of a third of the rural population leaving their current locations.

There is more to the story.

First of all, out-migration does not affect all age groups of the rural population evenly. The main age group who will migrate is the working age population. The Census shows that the percentage of the working age population of 15-64 years in the rural area is 63.8% of all rural population, or 23 million people. So McKinsey’s projection infers to the departure of nearly 50% of the rural working age population from rural residences and employment as a result of this unprecedented economic development.

Second, the likelihood of a 50% loss in the rural working population will not occur evenly across Myanmar. Migration is a dynamic process in which the drivers of migration (such as income and employment gaps, educational opportunities, better living standards, etc.) and enablers of migration (such as social network, personal values, exposure, transportation, communication, etc.) interplay. Some communities will see many more people leaving than other communities because of the unique combinations of various drivers and enablers.

Third, the current strategic development plan of Myanmar focuses on economic corridors. These corridors connect Myanmar with neighbouring big economies of Thailand, China and India, through Yangon – Mawlamyine - Hpa-an-Myawaddy, Yangon - Mandalay-Lashio-Muse, Mandalay-Mitkyina, and Mandalay-Kalay. We know from available knowledge that widespread poverty in Myanmar is in Rakhine, Chin, Magwe and Ayeyarwady. None of these regions form part of any of these corridors. The economic gaps between the areas on and near the corridors and those which are not will be even greater in future, which will have a huge implications to the directions of human mobility.

The thought of such a level of human mobility in such short period of time gives me goose-bumps, especially when we think of people not only as an economic animal but also as a social animal.  We are children, brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, and we constitute a community. Together we laugh, cry, produce, reproduce, nurture, maintain, adapt and transform. In Chinese writing (which Japanese has also adapted), the character “people” is written with two strokes with one supporting the other. When one disappears, the other collapse. Absence of important members of the households and communities in significant numbers will not go without all sorts of consequences.

Migration – a process of moving from one place to the other for better life – is a part of the history of human and animals from the time immemorial. It relates to our survival instinct, and it is such a natural phenomenon that it is like water flowing from high place from low place. It is simply not practical for us grieve, reject and control such phenomenon.

Urbanisation is an inevitable process, and we cannot stop people from moving. The gaps between the urban areas and rural areas will be bigger and bigger. There is nothing fair and equitable when urban dwellers and rural new comers come to compete in a big city – rural, less educated and less exposed population will be in the lower social strata in the urban area. They will also have less, little or sometimes no political power, as is the current case in Myanmar and many countries in the world.

One way to go with the flow, yet to make some differences on equitable growth and inclusive development in the bigger scheme of things is not to go for the path of mega cities, but to create many secondary cities so that non-farm employment opportunities stay closer to rural areas. Obviously this is less cost effective, takes a longer time and requires more effort as non-farm economies need to have all the value chains in place and functioning.

However, strategically focusing on certain products, and bringing processing capacities closer to production areas, with branding and marketing could contribute to vitalising the economies of secondary cities.

There are many other things we can act upon in the smaller scheme of things to increase the far-reaching potential of migration, and at the same time provide due attention to deal with its negative consequences.  As a migration agency, IOM would like to keep engaging with people from all walks of life in Myanmar to discuss how migration could affect their lives and what they can do about it, so that they can ride the wave of migration rather than getting swept away by it.

First published in


Michiko Ito works with the International Organisation for Migration in Myanmar as Programme Manager of the Migration Governance Programme.  She manages a wide range of project portfolios such as migration and development, border management, family reunification and research.

Michiko has spent the last 15 years providing support to mobile Myanmar populations in Myanmar and in Thailand, including working on labour migration and refugee resettlement at IOM Thailand (2006 – 2013), and as a community development worker in ethnic ceasefire communities in Shan State (1999-2006).  

She is an applied anthropologist by training, and previously worked in Australia, Japan, Indonesia and the Philippines on land rights, community revitalization and social impact assessments.

In this blog,  she considers likely scenarios for rural to urban migration and what this will mean for both rural and urban populations.  We welcome your comments below.