‘New’ Burma Has Winners and Losers
ASIA & THE PACIFIC, 16 April 2012
by Esmer Golluoglu in Rangoon – The Guardian
As business opportunities explode after the relaxing of domestic and international restrictions, many doubt whether Burma’s poor will benefit.
The sweetly acrid smell of incense filled the hotel lobby, where a group of Chinese businessmen had converged to do a deal. Passing a small piece of wood around their semicircle of red leather armchairs, they lit it, sniffed it, analysed the perfume of its smoke, and argued loudly about its value. A traditional Chinese remedy for various health complaints, agarwood – or, more specifically, its incense – is worth more today than its weight in gold, and Burma is being touted as a potential exporter.
Thanks to Aung San Suu Kyi’s landslide victory in Burma’s recent parliamentary elections, in which her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won 43 out of 45 available seats, such business deals are increasingly visible around the country.
From hotel lobbies to street corners, where hawkers sell engraved silverware, jewellery and teapots dating back to when the British ruled this country of 50 million people, everyone is eager to tap into what many have called the last frontier.
“Here in Burma, anything and everything can and will happen,” said Stephen Lee, a Chinese-born businessman who made his wealth in Australian property before moving to Rangoon in 2010 to start a chain of businesses. “This is the last untapped country, the last frontier, so everyone is jumping on the bandwagon, in every industry that you can dream of.”
Lee’s own investments range from property and overseas trading to travel agencies, English-language schools and business consulting – and next, possibly the sale of agarwood, he said.
Rangoon’s few business-oriented hotels – bastions of modernity in a city of crumbling buildings streaked with mould and the black stains of diesel fumes – have seen a continual turnover of international business people since President Thein Sein took office in 2011 and implemented unprecedented reforms, from the release of political prisoners to the relaxation of censorship and business ownership laws.
Now that the 1 April byelections have been widely assessed as a positive first step on Burma’s apparent road to democracy, economic opportunities are expected to grow, with the US relaxing sanctions, the EU expected to follow suit, and Burma chairing the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) in 2014.
Property prices, as well as hotel rates, have rocketed, and tourism – once considered an activity of only the most determined traveller – has doubled since 2010 and is expected to increase by 30% annually, according to official figures.
Catering for the new visitors, English-language business magazines have popped up, such as the soon-to-be-launched MZ+, directed at diplomats and corporate investors. The brainchild of editors at the Burmese news agency Mizzima, MZ+ will charge $19 (£12) a month for its weekly 40-page content, ranging from politics and lifestyle to investment and tourism. It will be far too pricey for the average local buyer, but “it’s not for locals” anyway, says its editor-in-chief, Sein Win. “This is for international businessmen who are looking to invest in things like mining, tourism and real estate, and need information catered to them in English.”
Burma is also having a cultural awakening. At a recent international evening of jazz at the colonial-era Strand hotel in Rangoon, locals in longyis toe-tapped along to classical Burmese renditions of John Coltrane’s Afro Blue and Miles Davis’s So What, played by twentysomething musicians in jeans from the Myanmar National Orchestra and other local ensembles.
The Myanmar Meets Europe evening was sponsored by the German embassy – German musicians had gone to Rangoon to hold a workshop with Burmese students, many of whom will play in Germany in May.
“The crowd tonight is good,” said the double bass player Kyaw Zin Htet, 20. “People here don’t really like jazz, but that’s changing. It’s hard [for us] to get used to the improvisation involved. It took me two years to like it myself.”
In art galleries downtown, change is also afoot. Up a dusty staircase at Pansodan art gallery, the influx of visitors to Burma has seen painting sales increase by 300% in four years, said the gallery’s founder, Aung Soe Min. This in turn has inspired local Burmese buyers to reinvest in an art form that was used less for culture and more for propaganda purposes under the military regime.
With Thein Sein’s recent relaxation of unionisation regulations, local artists have been able to create an independent artists’ alliance, and plan to form an art colony and museum of contemporary works in the coming months.
“For me, the opening up [of Burma] is really good for our culture and our community,” said Aung Soe Min. “But I’m also afraid how healthy our culture can remain, because as we become industrialised … we find ourselves facing two things: social and political freedom, and the forces of capitalism and materialism.”
Aung Soe Min pointed to the gallery’s crowded walls, where images of gilded monks hang next to expressionist themes of liberty and censorship, many of them featuring Aung San Suu Kyi.
“The tourist market is interested in beautiful paintings of markets and monks, and most galleries, four years ago, were aimed at this market,” he said. “But that’s craft, not art. With the alliance, we want to give a space for artists to explore their own creativity, to explore their true feelings.”
For the 25-year-old rapper Nay Zaw, who sprang to fame for his NLD campaign rap Wake Up Myanmar, Burma’s reintroduction to the world is a double-edged sword. “If you look at places where there is so much change already, like Mandalay, you see that all of these businesses opening up, all of this change, is from one group: the wealthy,” he said.
“The rest of Myanmar is still so poor. The money doesn’t spread.”
The full effect of such an economic awakening is unknown. Numbers here are wildly elastic (even the exact population is unclear). Critics warn that Burma stands to lose not only huge swaths of natural resources – from timber to gems and oil and gas – but also its culture and peace of mind as it opens up borders that had been heavily restricted for 50 years.
Like Nay Zaw, they say many changes will not benefit most of the population, 70% of whom live in the countryside and work in agriculture.
Davie Channon of the Rangoon-based British Council – which will this year spearhead the first teacher-training programme with the Burmese ministry of education since sanctions were first imposed in 1988 – sounded a note of caution over the motives behind this opening up.
“We need to ask, is this a genuine commitment to change, to democracy, to human rights?” he said. “Or is it an attempt to get the sanctions lifted so that more business, more investment will flow in, and certain people who are already in a position of advantage and privilege will gain even more?”
Those who stand to gain directly from Burma’s open borders say the wealth will trickle down as businesses hire local staff and more Burmese move from the countryside to work in industries in the cities.
In a nation known for being shy but sweet and gentle to visitors, however, there are fears that once the Burmese see just how much foreign investors are reaping from their country, they may not stay nice for too long. “Well,” Lee said, “I guess that’s the price you pay for progress.”
Election’s hip-hop hero
Unlike many other hip-hop artists, Nay Zaw TH-Z does not call himself a gangster. The word he chooses instead is rebel – for it is his voice, his lyrics and his beats that helped galvanise Burma to “wake up, wake up” and believe that “we are the vote, and we will win” the byelection that saw Aung San Suu Kyi’s party win 43 seats on 1 April.
With its rollicking beats and galvanising vocals, Nay Zaw’s campaign song, Wake Up Myanmar, could be heard nationwide in the days leading up to the vote. In Rangoon, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), blasted the song through loudspeakers on campaign trucks that barrelled through the colonial city, enticing people to come out on to the pavement and sing and dance along in the streets.
The song propelled the 25-year-old self-taught musician to national stardom nearly overnight and has been credited with helping get thousands of Burmese to the polling booths in the election, which many consider a milestone after nearly 50 years of military oppression.
Despite his newfound popularity, however, Nay Zaw has found that many of his long-time collaborators have cut their ties with him – fearing political repercussions.
“Most everyone is happy [Aung San Suu Kyi's party] won, but in the music world, people can’t believe I wrote a song about the NLD,” he says. “No one wants to get involved with politics because they run a risk, especially if they have the government’s support as a musician.”
Nay Zaw’s uncertain future is representative of the changing climate in Burma itself, where new freedoms may not be so free after all. Zayar Thaw, one of Burma’s best-known rappers, who spent three years as a political prisoner and has just been elected to parliament, says only time will tell what lies ahead: “Burma is changing, and it’s changing very fast. I am very surprised and a little bit nervous, to be honest.”
Esmer Golluoglu is a pseudonym for a journalist working in Rangoon.
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