Finding an apartment in Yangon without a Singapore budget

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Decaying gray block apartments in downtown Yangon. The interiors are usually better maintained than the exterior. 

In November, 2013, I set out to find a suitable apartment in Yangon. The below entry details some of the experiences I had locating housing in a developing country where serviced condos and office spaces are leased for higher rates than in Singapore. 

The typical apartment in downtown Yangon allows for little privacy. Windows openly face neighbors just across the narrow lanes below, emptying out each other’s lives for display without reserve or humiliation. Adjacent buildings stand so close that cheery mothers can trade dishes from across kitchens with each other. Shouts from domestic ramblings and infighting are not restricted either, nor the echoing noise of the streets below, the concrete walls offering no sound barrier. A symphony of calls for commerce, community and religious charity come drifting up through the heavy sultry air throughout the day. In the early morning, acetic women monks chant while collecting alms from those who wake up to their 5am calls. After sunrise starts a different precession. Street hawkers selling a variety of snacks and cakes stacked up in large steel plates upon their head sing out the name of their goods in repetitive melodies, perfectly balanced with a kind of acrobat’s legerdemain.

Close and noisy living conditions were not a novel experience to me when I moved into my Yangon apartment in November 2013. Having lived across the Eastern Asia and Pacific region for nine years, I had resided in or visited similar apartment quarters in Southeast Asia, China and South Korea. But in Yangon, I felt more intimately connected to the unadulterated reality of Asia.

Yangon’s property market at the time was admittedly a large cause for this deviation in living habit. While in other markets, it wasn’t a masterstroke of luck to come across tastefully decorated apartments for $700 or less a month, as my Manila apartment cost me (fully furnished and decorated), in downtown Yangon no amount of good fortune could get you a steal. There were high-end condos, fit for lawyers and international development organization officers with the budgets, and there were the more layman residences for those on the shoestring budget. Nothing existed in the middle range.

The few new apartments that were on the market had experienced a precipitous rise in price since the country re-opened for foreign investment in 2011, and thus foreign expatriate workers. Like the upscale hotels, many upscale apartments in Yangon perfumed with a distinct colonial atmosphere that mainly derived value from security and seclusion. These apartments were, however, in the northern part of the city by the two large lakes: Inle Lake and Kandawkyi Lake. The only other bracket of housing that remained besides this was the common cement block apartment, often accompanied with dimly lit staircases, poor ventilation and the inevitable evidence of betel nut spit – Southeast Asia’s answer to chewing tobacco.

The same situation was mirrored in the hotel industry, where the new wave of tourists pushed up prices up further and further. The difference here, however, was that Myanmar did not have more than a small handful of budget hotels to accommodate new arrivals. Part of the open-door policy that is as much a part of the local character as public policy means that domestic travelers usually come to friends or acquaintances homes and stay over as guests, a habit symptomatic of both hard economic times and the deplorable state of budget hostels.

My apartment on Yangon’s Merchant Road was abuzz with the sounds of grinding buses on the balmy day when I moved in. The choice of this address was the result of a tireless month-long search, when I set out along with a company assistant to find a space within the budget of $500 to $700. It wasn’t extraordinarily rare to come about a place in this range in the downtown area, but there was always a quirk that made the catch unsatisfactory or altogether unavailable for foreigners. A large two-story loft style apartment – a common style of home in Yangon that conveniently catered to large families – on the market for $500/month would have been a fit, if not for the fact that the multitude of India Jones-style cobwebs that crept across the walls gave the place a tomb-like atmosphere. Both floors were caked in thick layers of dust, furniture and all, and the electricity was shut off, which left me half expecting that there would be a dead mother preserved in the attic.

For a brief 48 hours, I thought that I had found an apartment just across the way from my office, located off of Bogyoke Road, named after General Aung San, the country’s famed independence leader, and across from Yangon’s Bahosi Hospital. The real estate agent, a slender Indian woman with bold cheek bones, that was to show me the apartment presented her name card, which proudly featured a hot-red Ferrari and two-story townhouse printed on flimsy paper. Like the market she was working hard to profit in, her card was tackily ornamented to up-sell assets of questionable value. With purpose in her step, she led me an Nillian, my company’s to-go translator and PA, himself fan ethnic Miso Christian from Chin State, down a gray ally lined with grayer block-cut buildings on both sides. The apartment I was shown was grand and well furnished; a TV set, although miniscule, was set up around some wooden chairs and couches, a style of preference among the Burmese, who value good posture. On the second floor, a large Buddhist shrine abruptly greets visitors. It was the size of smallest of the three bedrooms on that floor, a common utilization of space in many Burmese homes. The master bedroom was the most alluring part of the apartment, but it was also off limits, I was told. I could rent this apartment, that was for sure, but only on condition that the master bedroom stay locked up, as well as its connected bathroom, the only working one in the place. For $600 a month, I decided to pass. This turned out to be a fortunate decision, as the landlord wasn’t thrilled about leasing to a foreigner anyways.

I spent another week marching up and down concrete steps of apartment blocks in Yangon. Only after a this gauntlet of hideously painted turquoise walls, attic spaces fitting for hobbits and crypt-like storage cellars, did I finally find myself a suitable place to unpack. For change, there was an elevator. What’s more, there was a new faux wooden floor. It was a far cry from the many cement or sodden carpets I found elsewhere. There was even a water tank in the shower room to which I could connect a hot water heater instead of depending on a bucket that had to be filled up daily with icy bathing water.

Though as suitable as it appeared, the Merchant Road apartment wasn’t move-in ready. Thick layers of dirt were caked on the kitchen floor and the windows wouldn’t close. Two days of intense scrubbing would be needed to remove most of the dirt, and the side windows were eventually covered in plastic sheets to seal off the studio room from bugs, but some of the betel nut stains never came out, despite muscling plenty of soap against the custard apple-green walls. Across the alley below, I could see in my neighbor’s room, just as plainly as he could see into mine. Even from the distance, there were telltale marks of the betel nut stained on his balcony, perhaps from himself, perhaps from someone above. As far as anyone could be considered, having a comfortable spot to stow away yourself in downtown Yangon means you were on top, with no concern of the middle.

Myanmar’s traditional form of boxing — Lethwei

Foreigners spar in Thut Ti Lethwei Gym while Lone Chaw gives instruction

Foreigners spar in Thut Ti Myanmar Traditional Lethwei Club while former champ Lone Chaw gives instruction

I got into journalism because I get joy out of giving a voice to the voiceless. This past week, my latest feature for CNN did just that. In covering the Thut Ti Myanmar Traditional Lethwei Club in Yangon, I got to share personal perspectives of a centuries old martial arts from the stewards that love the sport the most. The coverage even inspired some efforts to standardize the brand of the sport, making a final migration from the “Let Whay” to “Lethwei” spelling.

Offering boxing session for a charitable 5,000 kyat per person, the gym is warm place, a place built of the improvised simplicity that is familiar to me across Myanmar.

You can read the full article through the link below.

http://edition.cnn.com/2014/09/17/travel/myanmar-lethwei-boxing/

Myanmar’s mobile revolution, down to the last village, is about to begin

Ooredoo SIM cards will soon be available for 1,500 kyat ($1.60), a fraction of the current black market rate ($160-$220).

Ooredoo SIM cards will soon be available for 1,500 kyat ($1.60), a fraction of the current available rate ($160-$220), with competition quickly meeting this price. 

There is a village of thatched wooden and bamboo huts just outside a capital in northern Myanmar where even the richest family has nothing more than a dirt floor and rickety TV set capable of receiving two government channels. One household has spent years of savings on a large red and black Sony stereo system, but other that these electronic luxuries wealth in the village is measured by heads of cattle and goat.

When I visited Zalone Village, located just outside Monywa, capital of Sagaing Division, in early January 2014, I became the first foreigner to walk into the community within recent memory. This village, a group of farmers and laborers, received me with a reserved state of surprise, a typical welcome in the Myanmar countryside where people are awed by by outsiders, but too shy to immediately approach them.

This isn’t always the case. Occasionally the presence of a foreign interloper conjures up too much emotion to be kept in. The first bamboo hut I came across housed a three-generation family of about six, including three children and their grandmother. Upon seeing me, the elderly woman stretched out an age-pruned finger and began to shriek in a raspy voice, “Foreigner, there is a foreigner here!” I was the first white person she had seen outside of a TV screen.

If a member of this tight-knit community has not been in school during the past several years, chances are they have never used a computer. Here, the lines of communication to the outside are among the most limited in the world; only four people of the 300 that permanently reside here have mobile phones, which require a prohibitorily expensive Myanmar SIM card, valued at around $220 in January 2014 — or over two months’ salary for the average Myanmar labourer. But most of the farmers here don’t make a monthly salary. The work-a-day lives of rural Myanmar people are instead sustained from a barter system; money is only received twice a year, when the seasonal harvests are reaped and sold off to estate owners in the nearby city.

As far as cities go, Monywa is not more than a a collection of drab concrete buildings and Buddhist monasteries that surround a 3-storey clock tower, fitted with the emblematic Burmese-styled roof of stair-casing, golden speared tips. For the villagers, the dusty path that leads to Monywa is the only route to the big city and all its other worldly comforts, a leap forward in time to where mobile phones are sold and restaurants cater to a trickle of outsiders that find themselves here, but, nonetheless, not much more. Four villagers have capitalised on the remoteness of their community, renting out landline phones like pay phones, a common small business in Myanmar. The rates given by different families are always a topic of gossip. Usually, incoming calls to a different household are also charged, leading to involuntary fees that can quickly devolve into heated debates.

If the flat vision of the planet that pre-dates Christopher Colombus was a reality, then Myanmar would be on the corner of the map. But this relegated nation, among the farthest corners of communicational contact, is about to be be connected to our digital world. Ooredoo, the winner of one of the country’s two telecom licenses, next to Telenor, will likely launch its mobile network within the coming week, insiders have said. By providing SIM cards at a fraction of the previous cost, just 1,500 kyat (about $1.50), Ooredoo, Qatar’s national telecom company, will be responsible for catalysing the first wave of a digital revolution, down to the last villager in Sagaing. Thought to have a mobile penetration rate of about 10%, Myanmar could quadruple its mobile penetration rate to over 40% within the next year alone, later reaching approximately 70% by 2016, government analysts have reported.

Domestic companies have been among the first to prepare for the incoming millions of people that will be able to have access to mobile technology for the first time. Mobile banking is set to leapfrog conventional banking, with Yangon-based CB Bank launching its mobile app for banking agents on July 25. In Kenya, the CEO U Kyaw Lynn posed a comparison, mobile banking through a similar phone app carries 1/3 of the country’s GDP. For the cash-based market of Myanmar, where nearly 100% of transactions are conducted in cash, this technology will spur a profound transformation in commerce.

At the end of July, 2014, the typical bank teller in Myanmar needs to be able to lift several kilos worth of 1,000 kyat notes, equivalent to about $1, up until 2010 the highest denomination before the Central Bank began printing 5,000 kyat notes in 2012. A bank teller should also be aware of the less luxurious traits of the job, namely handling rotten bills, stained with betel nut and other substances of unknown origin, and then processing thousands and thousands of pieces through one of many constantly whirring money counters invariably set up behind teller windows in Myanmar banks.

By July 2015, these type of job duties may well be defunct, and to the children of Zalone Village just another example of how far Myanmar has escaped the gravity of its pre-modern past.

Myanmar transit: A bumpy ride to rebuilding

An upper class cabin of a train in the Yangon Railway Station

An “ordinary class” cabin of a train in the Yangon Railway Station

I’ve been on some tough journeys before. The kinds of trips that make you thankful to whatever being you pray to that they’re finally over, and proud that you were courageous enough to take it in the first place.

On the road to Angkor Wat from Bangkok, my hired taxi came to an abrupt halt just an hour outside of Siem Reap. We had driven into a ditch. And the axel had bent like limp strand of spaghetti. It would be a two-hour wait in the enveloping darkness of the Cambodian flatlands before anyone would pick us up, dragging our injured vehicle to its final destination.

In China, the daily commute is a constant reminder of the sheer weight humanity places on this planet. But during the Chinese New Year, its of a near-sufocating scale. Lining up for a ticket in Guangzhou around this festival season many years ago, I was lucky to have gotten a seat so quickly. I was not so lucky to be stuck next to many men that seemed to stain the air around them with a foul body odour. Some seated. Many not. All this for nearly a day-long ride through central China.

Myanmar has its own perilous, yet equally awakening journeys. Of them, not one is perhaps more testing — or feared — as the train system. Without a single investment since the British left the country after World War II, the military then taking charge, the railroad have been locked in time next to other relics of the former colonial ruler.

Offset tracks make the ride a back-breaking experience; upper class seats are nothing more than wood planks with sweat-stained pleather; the only garbage receptacles in use are the toilet bowls that exit onto the tracks below, and, of course, the open breeze through the window.

When I took the 33-hour ride up from Yangon to Shan State, these conditions prevented me from sleeping a wink. I sweated more than I thought a human being could. Hold for the overnight stay at a station (on the train), the trip was an incessant course of sharp bumps that sent rivets up my spine. But I survived. And I was more relieved than any other previous time in my life when I was finally able to step off that train.

Today Myanmar is not without change, however. The first major transformation in the cities to become conspicuous is construction; scaffolding creeps up around corners across Yangon, more and more by the day. Luckily, heritage protection groups have been quick to confront plans to disturb the British architecture in Yangon, the Southeast Asian city with the most colonial buildings still standing. Some have already begun to benefit, superficially at least, receiving bright new coats of paint. The train system, with its battered looking central train station in downtown Yangon, has gotten attention from investors, but the process will be unlike that other industries.

Compared to other transit projects in the nation, the railway system has not been placed on the fast track. This means, most directly, that trip I ensured from Yangon to Taunggyi will remain in its current authenticity for some time to come, likely until past 2020.

I recently detailed this observation in an article for The Diplomat. 

Below are some photos that I took during this memorable journey.

A monk waiting in an ordinary class cabin

A monk waiting in an ordinary class cabin

Inside of an upper class cabin on the Myanmar train to Taunggyi

Inside of an upper class cabin on the Myanmar train to Taunggyi

A girl sells slices of melon to passengers on the train

A girl sells slices of melon to passengers on the train

An old woman, waits, watches on the train tracks

An old woman, waits, watches on the train tracks

A Muslim man on the Yangon train tracks

A Muslim man on the Yangon train tracks

Glimpse of Innocence (Myanmar photos)

Myanmar is an old country with an old way of doing things.

Only immaculate US dollars are accepted for exchange, a policy intended to combat counterfeiting (though likely ineffective). Movie stars are treated as royalty, for the words are synonymous (mintha means both ‘prince’ and ‘movie star’ in Burmese). Thousand-year-old temples are close enough to touch, and a growing wave of tourists actually do.

My first visit to Bagan and Mandaly confirmed this old world notion. With this, I realized, there is an almost virgin innocence of the people and places I saw, the kind bred out of prolonged isolation from the rest of humanity’s successes and problems. Often, it is this quality that travelers find most alluring.

Below are a few of my favorite images from this quick five-day tour, where guesthouses in both cities went for $25 during high season. The inflated prices that have been reported concern largely 4-star hotels, which can begin around $150/per night.

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A monk reads the sports section of a newspaper at the Mandalay bus stop

Traditional Myanmar puppets are displayed for sale in Bagan

Traditional Myanmar puppets are displayed for sale in Bagan

 

A girl glances aware demurely, Bagan

A girl glances away demurely, Bagan

Monks at Mandalay Palace

Monks at Mandalay Palace

Farmer at U Bein Bridge, Mandalay

Farmer at U Bein Bridge, Mandalay

U Bein Bridge, Mandalay

U Bein Bridge, Mandalay

Waiting at Mandalay bus stop

Waiting at Mandalay bus stop

A Buddhist flag waves atop Mandalay Hill

A Buddhist flag waves atop Mandalay Hill

Hand-drawn postcards for sale, Bagan

Hand-drawn postcards for sale, Bagan

11th Century Buddha image, Bagan

11th Century Buddha image, Bagan

View of farms from Mandalay Hill

View of farms from Mandalay Hill

A woman smokes, Bagan

An elderly woman smokes, Bagan

View from U Bein Bridge, Mandalay

View from U Bein Bridge, Mandalay

Pagodas in the last hour of sunlight, Bagan

Pagodas in the last hour of sunlight, Bagan

 

The PA from Pyay

Pyay-welcome_town_sign

Win Khine was already 15 minutes late and his draft of Myanmar beer had begun to quickly warm in the steamy Yangon evening air. He had skipped out of work that day, apparently because his love for whiskey had once again taken hold. Despite best efforts to impress his boss, who Win Khine liked to affectionately broadcast as “the best boss I ever had,” the drinking spells would ultimately erode his best intents. As a response, Win Khine’s boss employed an almost maniacal approach to dealing with his personal assistant, part of a double role that included personal driver. “Win Khine will get a beer when he comes,” John said. “He has already been drinking, so another won’t hurt.”

When Win Khine finally arrived he sat down next to John and, almost instinctively, unfurled a toothy grin, displaying two rows of teeth heavily stained by years of betel nut chewing. His slim frame slide to adjust on the feeble plastic chair, like a sailor trying to find balance amidst a rocky sea. Although an undeniably short man, Win Khine’s broad shoulders suggested he was anything other than weak, a product of his early life growing up on a farm in Pyay, where his mother and father still cultivate onions and bananas. Moving to Yangon wasn’t a decision his staunchly traditional parents agreed upon, either; they much preferred that their son stay close to home and mind his more filial responsibilities. Nor was the unexpected announcement of his wife’s pregnancy thought to be an event worth celebrating.

While Win Khine’s actions had demonstrated that he was not quick to be obsequious to conventional life of the village, he was more wont to do so when it came to John.

“What did you have to drink Win Khine?” John prodded. “High Class, again? You like that High Class whiskey.”

Win Khine paused. He somehow looked crestfallen even though the winkles below his eyes made it appear as is the top half of his face was smiling. “I did not drink, my boss,” he said in a choppy voice.

“Win Khine — I know you have been drinking. You are my PA and today was busy as hell. How am I supposed to run a company if one of my PA’s is going on a drinking binge?” John spurted out rhetorically.

“I’m sorry my boss,”  Win Khine said sheepishly.

“Never mind that. You have the best boss in the word, remember?  Now drink the beer,” John said. After taking some hardy gulps, Win Khine mustered the courage and, perhaps more crucially, energy to continue speaking. “You are the best boss I ever had. I kill you,” he said in butchered English. Though Win Khine would always mispronounce the word “care” by saying kill, John seemed to have given in to this endearing if hapless phrase, which Win Khine liked to characteristically overuse.

“I kill you, my boss,” Win Khine muttered on.

Win Khine’s drinking problem was well known throughout the office. He’d grown into the liberty of periodic disappearance acts over the past four years since joining the company, now with increasing frequency. About twice a month it could be expected that Win Khine would go into temporary radio silence, reappearing during working hours some 24 to 48 hours later. These disappearances only increased as his battle with the bottle continued. Even his respect for John would soon begin to wane, and his actions no longer reflect the “best boss” mantra he had so often practiced.

The sheepish replies to questioning of his uncontrolled habits was by no means the norm. One night, like so many before, Win Khine had joined John and the others — about six Myanmar in total — to a dinner that quickly culminated in several rounds of drinks. Win Khine’s inability to express himself in a linear manner brought the conversation into heated territory.

“You no understand Myanmar,” was the chorus on repeat that night, for Win Khine’s arguments invariably included succinct sentences that looped through long-winded speeches. It was a quality that made him more of a music box than one half of a dialogue. It was also the first cue to a forthcoming flee from confrontation, which he inherently abhorred, despite his routine of finding himself in them. John knew it was too hard to let him go, yet he could feel the time drawing nearer when Win Khine would run away with all his sulking sorrows and never return.

Myanmar 2 years on: Overseas banking and the telecom horizon

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Myanmar is in a constant state of change. Even some of the long-neglected colonial architecture has become a part of the alterations associated with the rising tide of reforms. (click to see what this building looked like 2 years ago)

When I first visited Myanmar in 2011, power cuts were frequent, ATMs were exasperatingly inaccessible for customers of non-domestic banks (forcing visitors to budget their entire trip ahead of time!) and SIM cards were, quite insanely, around the 500-dollar mark. At the time, Hillary Clinton was scheduled to arrive in the next two weeks, tasked on a touch and feel mission ahead of President Obama’s historic visit, and with that, heightened anticipation of Myanmar’s global reintegration.

Today the expectations of 2011 have emerged in their rawest force. The country’s parliament, it is now said, have every law open to revision. While Myanmar’s political, energy, banking and telecommunications problems are still not without frustrations, they have become attenuated by the rush of reforms, which are occurring at such a pace that attempting to gauge change in this frontier land is like aiming at a moving target.

Myanmar’s first pre-paid debit card

Still, after passing the first 10 days in Yangon, I feel compelled to at least begin taking some pop shots. Now that the capricious winds of chance have swept me back to Myanmar, and after making a final decision to make this my new home base, I cannot help but feel that these gusts have coincided with a stroke of serendipity. Within my first two weeks back to Myanmar, I have become one of the first 100 domestic banking customers to sign up for the country’s first overseas pre-paid debit card. The issuance of the MasterCard-linked CB Bank card is a monumental moment for Myanmar, allowing customers to access domestic banks for foreign purchases, a greatly overlooked ability that could only be imagined during the days of heavily saddled economic sanctions.

The Central Bank of Myanmar has allowed CB Bank to issue up to 5,000 cards, which will be made widely available starting in November. At the moment, customers will be given a limit of $3,000 to load the cards with, but can apply for additional cards if further personal information is provided. These cards will allow those residing  in Myanmar — who still cannot make foreign remittances from domestic banks or even Wester Union — to begin making non-business payments for overseas services, such as air tickets, hotels, restaurants, etc. CB Bank has said that they have deployed people in select countries around the world to test the cards, coming back with positive results.

The property price scare: Not a dead end for entrants 

Among the greatest deterrences to foreigners looking to set up camp on this edge-of-the-map area of Asia are skyrocketing property prices and the cost of SIM cards, both made outrageously unaffordable for locals as a result of inadequate supply. However, while prime property has indeed been soaring, partially due to the few units available and the repatriation of overseas money help by cronies, many apartments in Yangon can be found for reasonable prices. Unfurnished or partially furnished two-floor, two- to three-bedroom units in downtown Yangon are available for monthly rentals of between $400 to $700 per room to start.

But there is a caveat. Most of these properties have been shamefully neglected, have no installed air-con and come without an internet connection, which costs about $800 to set up. (At the moment, I am living in my office until I find a place — which will likely be a shared unit, as this is the most cost-effective solution.) Vacancies in shared units are in short supply in Yangon, but if time is on your side, spacious and livable rooms can be found starting at $400.

SIM cards: Getting connected

Many foreigners are also reluctant to join the Myanmar vanguard because of the country’s lack of telecommunications. Myanmar is in a pre-IT era, where a complete lack of infrastructure set SIM card market prices at over $3,000 some 10 years ago. English teachers working in the country today often still revert to pre-scheduled meet ups, a routine many did away with in the late 90’s when mobile phones become widely available to most developed nations. Likewise, businesses that hope to set up dependable lines of communication with their employees must pay the price to equip them, which, at $150 today, costs 150 percent of the average Yangon worker’s salary. (In my company, local salaries range from $80 to $300/month, with the mean being $100.)

Still, $150 for a SIM from Myanmar Post and Telecommunications (MPT), the country’s largest and only telecom provider, is the result of greater infrastructural stability. Just last year, SIM cards were going for around $220, and next year, when Qatar’s Ooredoo and Sweden’s Telenor, the two winners of the country’s first round of telecom licenses, begin their operations, SIM cards could become widely available for $2.

In reality, MPT SIM cards were already purchasable for just less than $2, but only by lottery. Ending in June, the Myanmar government used to set up public raffles for SIM cards. But it is reported that many of these winners would sell off their prize for around $100 on the ubiquitous grey market, which would then be retailed for between $120 and $150. (SIM cards can be found outside of Yangon for much cheaper prices, but this requires some local know-how and tireless scouting.)

As of recent, a consortium lead by Taiwan’s Chunghua Telecom has entered talks to get the next license to build what has been called the world’s last great greenfield telecom market. Moreover, the Myanmar government also announced in the past week that there will be more than the originally designated four licenses issued to develop telecoms.

There is a sense that what may come will be more surprising than expected. In the past year, the lifting of a ban on automobile imports has led to a two-fold increase of cars on the road of Yangon, chocking the city like never before. If Ooredoo, now working alongside its former bidding competitor Telenor, reaches its goalpost of 80-percent mobile penetration by 2016, local disposable income will be drained into new high-tech devices, likely to come from South Korea or Taiwan. A total leapfrog in broad-based access to global media and communications is not known in Myanmar today, but certainly visible somewhere along the horizon.

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