Southeast Asia’s “Swing Nations”: Obama makes second Myanmar visit amid test of his Asia policy (Newsweek)

Southeast Asia's "Swing Nations" -- published in Newsweek (Japan), November, 11, 2014. See below for English translation.

Southeast Asia’s “Swing Nations” — published in Newsweek (Japan), November, 11, 2014 (page 1&2 of 3). See below for English translation.

President Barack Obama tomorrow, November 12, will make his second visit to Myanmar to join the East Asia Summit in the nation’s capital, Nay Pyi Daw. Following the APEC meetings in Beijing, the ASEAN-led summit will allow Obama and China’s President Xi Jinping the chance to flex policy muscles in Southeast Asia, the core battleground for influence in Asia.

Obama’s “pivot east” foreign policy is one of the key achievements of his administration, and the meeting will provide for opportunities to gauge how successful it has been in its objectives of bettering regional economic ties, fostering stronger political allies, establishing military security and protecting human rights. The legacy of the “pivot east” strategy will also resound heavily with its creator, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, when it comes time to test her potential West Wing mettle. Its failure would have negative repercussions on her likely bid for presidency.

The latest feature I wrote for Newsweek Japan (translated below) outlines the political leanings of the ASEAN nations towards China and the US, and in which countries foreign policies are most likely to hold lasting influence. The results are clear — neither the US nor China have constructed a majority sphere of dominion over the 600,000-million-person bloc. But a tipping point could be achieved, and no more more readily than in Myanmar where opinions of how to place the country in the emerging world order is undecided.

Critics of the “pivot east” policy will be quick to point to the lackluster performance of Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, which has failed to court key economic players, such as Malaysia and Indonesia. Others will laser in on the ongoing humanitarian tragedy in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, where Rohinga muslims have become vilified, ostracised and beleaguered by conflict at the hands of hyper-nationalist Buddhist monks.

But there are still policy tools in Obama’s toolshed that can be used to ensure Myanmar’s democratic transition does not falter. In reaction to the Rohinga tragedy, Obama has placed sanctions on Aung Thaung, a hardliner lawmaker that is furthering instability by promoting ethnically segregating bills in parliament. Major US-based MNCs are already operating in Myanmar — Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, P&G, PwC — but there are still many waiting for sanctions to be widely removed, including those that affect banking, which remains a large challenge when conducting overseas payments.

A fact that has not been forgotten, Myanmar is responsible for 90% of the world’s ruby industry, and the US one of the key purchasers of luxury gemstones. Obama last year maintained the ban on the importation of Myanmar rubies and jade, and will likely keep this in place through his term as a final policy lever.

But sanctions on Burmese tycoons that are not implicated in humanitarian crises should be eased if Myanmar is to become a promulgator of US values. Why? As I outlined in Newsweek, the more Burmese business is embedded with counterparts from the West, the easier it will be for the former-isolationist nation to shrug off dependence on Chinese investment.

Below is the translated version of that feature.

By judging the protests in Hong Kong, it’d be safe to say that Beijing is more comfortable browbeating than compromising with pro-democracy activists. But that is just what happened in Yangon last month when China Communist Party officials made an historic first by meeting with Myanmar’s 88 Generation, a prominent civil rights group borne out of the pro-democracy 1988 protests. In chilling echo of history, thousands belonging to the student-led Yangon group would be killed just one year before violence broke out in Tianmen Square.

During the meeting, China was forced to hear grievances against its local – often controversial – investments, accused of skirting human rights by 88 Generation’s leader, Ko Ko Gyi. Previously, the CCP would only consider meeting with the Myanmar government, but since President Thien Sein’s very public challenge to a China-backed hydropower dam last year, a bold strategy seems to be emerging.

In Myanmar, this is being done in good timing: opinions are changing as fast as the country is developing. But an attempt to hear out key concerns from its neighbors should not be limited to only one corner of Southeast Asia, a region where historically strong influence is now being tested and much lies at stake.

New era of “desinicization”

In Southeast Asia, where Chinese influence has been dominant for centuries, Myanmar represents just one of the swing nations – a country where positive sentiment towards Beijing is “mixed.” Under the Obama administration, the US has made it a strategic imperative to gain diplomatic and military ground in China’s backyard. And like a swing state in US elections, wooing a swing nation could greatly tilt regional favor to their side.

Obama’s mission has come at a time of great structural change. Across the 10-nation ASEAN bloc, the US’s “pivot east” foreign policy now coincides with pockets of political reform and overall economic vitality. In this backdrop a rehashed era of “desinicization” has been born, rendering the West a new, often appealing political, economic and military ally to China.

In 2011 [check time period, please], the term “desinicization” was first coined to describe the decoupling away from China by global manufactures, which began diversifying their supply chains to build a hedge against rising labor costs and mounting environmental concerns on the eastern coast. This perspective is largely of Western origin, however, and does not account for the broader geostrategic significance of Southeast Asia, the place where many global manufactures began migrating to.

A region of over 600 million people, Southeast Asia includes some of the world’s most vibrant economies, enviable demographic bases and has become largely politically stable launching a strong developmental course. Above all, Southeast Asia’s attractive economic conditions have opened up new partnerships beyond traditional allies. Much to its dismay, today China finds itself competing for legroom in its own backyard as Western powers begin vying for greater influence.

In ASEAN, a bloc riven with disparate perspectives, this choice to begin a greater departure away from China towards Western allies represents a new kind of “desinicization.” China will have to act in fast and bold new ways to counter it.

Forming greater clarity in 2011, Obama’s “pivot” is now showing initial dividends. A recent opinion poll conducted by Pew Research Center’s Global Attitude Project reveals stark East-West polarization in Southeast Asia. According to the survey, 74% of Malaysians clearly favor China, while just 16% of Vietnamese and 38% of Filipinos hold a similar view, reflecting the wedge that Southeast China Sea disputes have driven into relations. (Worth mentioning, only 7% of Japanese have a favorable view of China, the lowest in the poll.) Conversely, 92% of Filipinos favor of the US, the highest ranking in the poll, more than within the US, followed by 72% of Vietnamese.

That the Philippines and Vietnam hold the most negative views of China is no coincidence; history has not been positive for Sino-Vietnamese relations, and both ASEAN nations are on the defensive in the South China Sea. After renewing a defense treaty in April, the Philippines is now firmly under Uncle Sam’s aegeus, utilizing the superpower like a military hedge against China’s unpredictably bellicose maritime behavior. In the first allied show of force this year, on September 29, US and Philippine military forces commenced annual war games, an event used to demonstrate combat readiness should an emergency arise.

In May, China effectively fired the first shot in the South China Sea territorial war. Unlike the Philippines, Vietnam does not have a defense agreement with a Western power. These disputed waters thus made for a logical first place to begin construction of an oilrig. Then distaste of China in Vietnam quickly took an unprecedented turn when protesters indiscriminately began burning factories. Many of the factories targeted were Taiwanese, outrage apparently taking over from caution. Hardline rhetoric shows every sign of being a norm between Vietnam and China for the foreseeable future.

Southeast Asia's "Swing Nations" -- published in Newsweek (Japan), November, 11, 2014 (page 3 of 3)

Southeast Asia’s “Swing Nations” — published in Newsweek (Japan), November, 11, 2014 (page 3 of 3)

Riding the grey middle area are Thailand and Indonesia, where opinion is neither clearly for China or the US. The economic might of Indonesia and geostrategic strengths of Thailand make them compelling swing nations: the near and middle-term future will be shaped by the complex dichotomies of their West-East relations. Thailand is the US’s “longest ally in Southeast Asia,” but is partially controlled by a business interests that benefits from dealings with Beijing. Indonesia is strongly supported by the US in their anti-terrorist actions and territorial claims, but a free trade agreement with China allows for unparalleled access to the world’s great consumer market.

In Myanmar, which wasn’t included in the Pew Research Centre poll, the position isn’t so clearly cut. China is no longer the sole investor and today competes with other global powers in a gold rush styled setting. More than Thailand or Indonesia, it is in this re-emerging nation of sizeable geostrategic value where opinions can most easily be swayed away from China and towards the West.

Yet, much has to be done to improve the “image problem” China has come to foster here. Meeting with civil rights groups like Generation 88 could mark the beginning of a “new chapter,” Ko Ko Gyi explains. But this presents a daunting challenge for China, whose reputation for unscrupulous business hasn’t gotten by ignored.

“China has a huge image problem [in Myanmar]” is how Thant Myint-U, a Burmese historian, has commented. In the most direct challenge to Chinese authority since he took power, Myanmar President Thien Sein last year put a freeze on the multi-billion dollar China-sponsored Myitsone Dam in Kachin State, a project that was denounced by human rights groups such as 88 Generation for neglecting indigenous peoples’ concerns. This year didn’t pass without another affront. In the awarding of much-coveted offshore oil and gas blocks in March, the bidding China National Petroleum Corporation was conspicuously absent on a list that featured mostly Western energy companies.

But blood may run thicker than dollars here. Southeast Asia’s swing nations — Myanmar, Thailand and Indonesia — draw deep ancestral lineages back to China. Sino influence in Southeast Asia is, after all, centuries old. When the British Empire and Dutch East India Company extended their grasps to the western rim of the region in the 18th century, ethnic Chinese traders had already long since settled. In this expansionist age, indigenous peoples and migrants from India and elsewhere across the region would be hemmed into the strictures of colonialist legalities. But the Chinese would be left outside of this equation, allowing them to quickly leverage business ties with the mainland, developing wealth by working outside the common law.

The resulting socioeconomic order is evident today. Many of the ruling and business elite of Southeast Asia can trace their ancestry back to a Chinese province: they continue to speak minority dialects that have since fallen into obscurity after Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

Yet, China, at its most alluring, speaks a language of pragmatism. In order to woo Asian allies, cultural interconnectivity will not be as persuasive as the story of China’s rise to the global stage. This is echoed in the swing nations, where being of ethnic Chinese origin isn’t always a boon. In Indonesia, fresh President-elect Joko Widodo was recently the target of a distasteful smear campaign accusing him of being Christian Chinese, an unfounded rumor that implies he lacks qualities of an upright Javanese Muslim. Being part of the ethnic Chinese Shinawatra clan in Thailand may still be popular for the red shirts, but not in Bangkok, where the ruling military junta has appointed an ardent Thai nationalist as successor, Prime Minister Prayuth Chanocha, an all-at-once army general and statesman.

These inherent public relations hurdles may continue to sour views of China, but the benefits accrued from economic influence is set only to soar. Many economists now agree China will overtake the US in early 2020s, becoming the world’s largest economy. With this phenomenal growth curve in play, so will come China’s increasingly insatiable thirst for energy. Securing access to oil and gas is thus uncompromisable for China, who became the world’s largest energy consumer this year and will shortly overtake the U.S. as the largest importer of oil on the planet, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration

But being on the receiving end of this energy hunt is rarely seen as a fair trade. In June, a natural gas pipeline linking the Bay of Bengal with China’s Yunnan Province through Myanmar began flowing, much to the futile dismay of locals. Myanmar oil workers, who have been digging up oil off the coastline for generations, accuse the government of untransparently selling off their livelihoods through a network of cronies to the Chinese.

This is not an uncommon fortune. For nowhere else is the maw of China’s industrious needs felt more than among its southern neighbors. China is the largest investor in both Laos and Cambodia, countries that are inordinately dependent on Chinese investment, leaving them politically tamed at regional summits: they act as vassal states, trained to come quickly and obsequiously to the Sino-side during any multilateral summit. For Laos in particular, the only landlocked country in ASEAN, China’s commitment to develop one dozen hydropower dams, including the giant $3.8 billion Xayaburi Dam, seals an inescapable pact between the two.

In a region that is said to have an immediate infrastructure shortfall totaling $60 billion, according to the Asian Development Bank, Southeast Asian nations cannot easily pass up developmental funds. “Thailand supports China’s proposed ASEAN Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB),” another infrastructure-centered project with $50 billion in capital, an anonymous Thai government representative said. “Thailand knows of China’s economic might and importance, hence the current free visa [policy] for Chinese tourists.

Southeast Asian nations large and small are dependent on large cash flows from China, but only if the status quo remains. Efforts to increase transparency, as evidenced by Myanmar’s willingness to join a global energy transparency initiative, will bring more diverse range of investors. With so many partners to choose from, China will have to hold many more meetings with civil society groups, an ugly task for Beijing given the situation in Hong Kong. Clearly a more approachable China is needed in Southeast Asia if a firmer wave of “desiniczation” is to be avoided.

Though foreign telecoms have launched, Myanmar’s telegram system remains active

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An Indian man stands in front of a rusted sign outside of the booking office at Yangon’s Government Telegraph Office, where telegrams can still be sent domestically for $0.30USD/message.

On a street stacked block by block with colonial British buildings, the Government Telegraph Office doesn’t instinctively stick out. Like so many of its neighbors, the façade is grimy and crumbling. There always seems to be a soft trickle of water flowing from exposed blue plumbing pipes, which water lively patches of ferns and moss that crack through the pediment. At the bottom of its foundation, walls that were whitewashed long ago can be seen cracking and peeling like a bright white egg losing its shell.

But the looming telecom tower perched upon its northeastern corner nonetheless makes this British relic distinguishable. Today over a century old, the building is now administered by Myanmar’s national telecom company, MPT, but two counters at the booking office accessible by the public from Mahabandoola Street still offer customers a service not available by its new foreign competitors, Ooredoo and Telenor.

Front of the Government Telegraph Office from the corner of Pansodan and Manhabandoola Street

Front of the Government Telegraph Office from the corner of Pansodan and Manhabandoola Street

Crossing the blaring traffic of Pansodan Road one blistering day, I noticed a young pair of women going into the main office and up to a counter with a sign reading “Telegram.” After approaching the counter, the older of the two women fussed with her dark blue tamein as she gathered her documents. She handed over a card to the man behind the counter, a type of e-payment card not dissimilar from one you’d find linked to modern electronic public transit systems. She was sending an e-telegram by debiting 300 kyat (0.30USD) from the card. And the message would be ready to reach her relatives in upland Myanmar the next day.

Telegrams are still popular in Myanmar, where the service is provided for domestic messages only. The mode of communication is seen as affordable and dependable, especially for those looking to send messages to poor and remote parts of the country. With a chuckle and a nod, the counter clerk confirmed to me that the telegram is not as popular as it once was, but that about 50 people still come every day to send e-telegrams, necessitating the payroll for the three men that concurrently service the telegram and collect call counters. The office also has counters for sending emails, using the internet and faxing. A row of telephone booths stands across from the fax counters, all of them empty but for a shelf where a rotary phone was once placed. They appears as if they belong in a museum.

Indeed, the wide open booking office feels like an echo of its former self. Though often empty save for a couple of customers, it isn’t hard to imagine the throngs of people that once gave this room a very different life. Today the only sounds that can be heard, however, are the rattling of ceiling fans and the clinking of an antique cash register made by US-based National Cash Register (NSR) Company, a machine that is as old as the building itself. If I believed in ghosts, this would be a place they would haunt.

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The Government Telegraph’s main office, where telegrams, faxes, email and other forms of communications can still be sent.

It’s true. Myanmar is rapidly modernizing, but in downtown Yangon the throngs don’t move that far. Just four short street blocks to the east of the Government Telegraph Building, men, women and teenagers nosily line up to get new SIM card, recently made available by Norway’s Telenor. On Telenor’s launch day, Yangon’s streets were abuzz with an intangible air of excitement. I overheard two men, hunched down on short plastic chairs, the typical teashop squat, discussing Telenor rates while snuggly fitting in their new chips. Everywhere you could see the small blue packets proudly displayed on restaurant tables with new SIMs enclosed. Later that night at Mahabandoola Park, I abruptly walked up to three policemen only to notice that they were too busy hovering over a mobile phone screen to see that I almost walked into them. The glow of a Huawei display lit up their faces, making them appear entranced as one of them scrolled through an internet page.

You are much more likely to run into one of the former scenes today than to here of someone sending a telegram, but that doesn’t mean that most of Myanmar still isn’t dependent on simpler forms of communication. The overnight drop of SIM card prices from approximately $160 to $1.50 has predictably sent mobile penetration to between 10% and 15% — maybe higher. Yet it shouldn’t be overlooked that the value of a telegram will not be overridden so quickly. Not in Myanmar.

Excerpt published in The Diplomat: http://thediplomat.com/2014/11/myanmars-telegram-system-still-active/

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

 

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