Yangon, Mandalay vie for best-city status

The debate between Mandalay and Yangon, and which is city the better to live in, has been heating up on social media.

Shwedagon Pagoda may take the spotlight in advertising campaigns, but Mandalay has King Mindon’s Palace, the U Bein Bridge and the popular holiday destination Pyin Oo Lwin is just a few hours away. Then again Yangon’s population supports more shopping centers, despite having poorer roads and dirtier streets than its northern counterpart.

Tourism, shopping and sanitation aside, debates about cultural differences between the two cities date way back before the days of Facebook and Instant Messenger. Arguments about literary styles and language have been featured in magazines and newspapers in days gone by.

Each city possesses its own cultural heritage and landmarks, but the current discussions are focused more on city developments and day to day urban living problems. “My city is better than yours,” is a popular sentiment uttered in the debate.

“I’d like our discussions to be as constructive as possible. It’s not good if we treat each other badly when talking about our cities,” said Ko Khant Htet Aung from Insein Township in Yangon.

Though the voices in the debate are mainly young Facebook users, city-level administration staff also take part. Even the chief ministers and mayors have their say from time to time.

“I manage a mega-city project, which is not easy. It’s much easier to clean a house than cleaning an entire ward. It’s easy to criticize. Whether they like it or not, I will do my work without fail, regardless of what people say,” said U Maung Maung Soe, mayor of Yangon.

He responded to questions about the two cities via a video interview. It is better if we focus on developing all the regions and states, including Mandalay, Ayeyawaddy, Kachin and Kayin, he added.

When these areas develop people will have access to more services outside of the major cities; and more people may migrate to those towns from Yangon. If not, then the population of Yangon will increase, putting more pressure on infrastructure and services here, he continued.

According to the 2014 Census there are more than seven million people in the Yangon Region, and more than a million in Mandalay. The urban/rural population ratios are different too – almost 70 percent of Yangon residents live in urban areas, compared to 35pc in Mandalay.

With these data the debate sometimes focused on ideas of “material progress” rather than quality of life per se.

“In Mandalay people rise early to sweep and water the streets, keeping the place clean and tidy. With less traffic, Mandalay is more like a rural town if it is compared with Yangon,” Yangon Region Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein said.

“In Yangon when a shopping mall is opened city dwellers don’t feel overly excited. It’s become a normal thing over the past few years. However, in Mandalay when a new building opens residents of the city feel delighted,” he said in a somewhat patronizing way.

He boasted that the townships in Yangon were better connected with each other, forming a bigger circular-shaped city.

The Chief Minister was also proud of the recent BarCamp conference in held in Yangon, a user-generated event which saw the city advertise itself as something of a ‘smart city’.

The Mandalay Region Chief Minister Dr Zaw Myint Maung rebutted his words: “Mandalay is not like a rural town. Maybe it’s not as big as Yangon, but whether it is a city or a rural location is beside the point. These are just definitions. What is important is having a city with good living conditions.”

Some residents in the debate focused on recreation. “One of the good things about Yangon is that the shopping centers are becoming more international with their shops and brands,” said Ma Nwe Nay Chi Tun, who lives in Mingalar Taung Nyunt Township, Yangon. An initiative to clean up the Yangon’s back alleys and turn them into beautiful places where kids can play has been something she’s also enjoyed seeing recently.

“There is one thing I love about Mandalay,” said Ma Nwe Nay Chi Tun. “It’s the ample space around the moat. The feeling of riding the motorbike with the morning breeze in my hair is wonderful. Yangon has Kandawgyi Lake but I’m not sure it will ever offer the same feeling,” she said.

As for overall income and employment opportunities Yangon has the upper hand.

According to statistics recently published by UNICEF, 16pc of Yangon’s population is currently living below the poverty line whereas in Mandalay the figure sits at 27pc.

Other advantages to living in Yangon include easier access to education and employment opportunities. “Some people are attracted to Yangon because they can work for a large foreign company if they have the skills. You can also study for a Diploma or Masters Degree here,” said Ma Su Maydar, a UN staff member.

“Yangon’s flaws are the dense population and cluttered streets,” she continued. “Yangon also has problems with squatters, open sewers, blackouts, poor waste disposal, poor road rules and terrible traffic congestion. Sometimes I feel like it is a place in between problems, rather than a city,” she said.

She recalled her time in Mandalay two months ago, describing the city as being more disciplined. “Urban and suburban areas are cleaner there,” she said. “Lamp posts are being erected systematically and provide lighting in the nighttime. The city streets are well-maintained, and there are no traffic jams,” said Ma Su Maydar.

Yangonites and Mandalayan’s both love their cities, and often overemphasise their strengths and downplay the weaknesses.

Some contributors were quite emotional in their commentaries. “As I am from Mandalay, I love my city more. I can’t tell what the strong and weak points of Mandalay are but after living in Yangon for about four days, I just want to run back to Mandalay,” said Ko Awbar from Chan Aye Tharzan Township.

“One of the strong points of Mandalay is that people are warm and helpful, as they have larger homes. It’s rare to see that in Yangon,” said Ma Mya Yoon Mo from Chan Aye Tharzan Township of Mandalay.

She did concede, however, that her city was not so competitive in terms of higher education.

“Students in Yangon are hungry to learn”, but she said that “Mandalay’s students are quiet and more timid. We need more universities and colleges here.”

Yangon residents envy Mandalay’s cleaner roads, lack of traffic jams and the right to ride motorcycles. Mandalay residents also admitted that there were some places with Yangon-like drainage problems, and a few places without proper street lights.

It was these points which showed that the debate provided important room for self-reflection.

Whether its sanitation, transportation, education and jobs; or people’s behaviour, culture and manners; these debates happen the world over – between cities like Manchester and London, Beijing and Shanghai, Bangkok and Chiang Mai.

What’s important is that these conversations continue in a spirited way. They become more productive if they include more regional voices too, like residents from Pa-an and Lashio, Taungyi and Pathein. “I think the debate should be broadened to include other states and regions, so they don’t miss out on important funding when the budget is decided by the government,” Ma Mya Yoon Mo said.

When reading the comments in this particular debate, though, an old saying springs to mind: “Yangon is for bragging and Mandalay for speaking.” When it comes to who is better, addressing one’s own weaknesses maybe the best place to start – where actions speak louder than words.

Source: Myanmar Times

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