Burma—Asia’s Chaotic Rising Star

By Saw Yan Naing 17 November 2012

RANGOON—Landing at Rangoon International Airport and riding into downtown is unlike entering most cities. Although there are glimpses of modernity these days—a few gleaming Japanese and Chinese cars—most vehicles still date from the 1980s while decrepit buildings remain the norm.

But change is definitely afoot. New construction work is taking place all around the city, more flight routes are now being introduced, the price of hotel rooms has skyrocketed and international visitors are descending in their droves.

The military-dominated country which was isolated from the outside world for more than half-a-century is now being hailed as Asia’s rising star. With its wealth of stunning scenery, ancient Buddhist temples and crumbing colonial architecture, Burma is once more becoming a tourism hotspot as well as a center of commerce.

“When I was in Rangoon, I saw many businessmen,” said Michelle, a French tourist. “They looked Chinese and were busy with calculators counting money and discussing their business shares. It is like they plan to share Myanmar like a pizza.”

Hotels are often fully-booked and even those willing to pay top dollar can find it extremely difficult to get a room. Asian nations appear to be leading the way with Thailand’s Kasikorn Research Center recently reporting that the top five nationalities to visit Burma this year are expected to be tourists from China, Thailand, Malaysia, South Korea and Japan.

According to official figures from Burma’s Hotels and Tourism Ministry, visitor numbers were already up 26 percent in 2011 at 391,000. However, 600,000 tourists are expected to visit Rangoon alone this year, following the recent political glasnost, with up to 900,000 predicted for 2013, according to a report by Directorate of Hotels and Tourism chief Aung Zaw Win.

Yet despite the undeniable tourism and trade potential Burma possesses, there remain major barriers to overcome with regards the country’s infrastructure, transport, municipal institutions and public services. And this comes against a background of spiraling costs.

Sean Turnell, a Burma expert and economist at Australia’s Macquarie University said, “Burma’s infrastructure deficiencies are certainly a brake on the country’s current economic growth. More importantly, it inhibits Burma’s ability to take advantage of the opportunities that are newly available.

“But, this is also an area of opportunity as well. Because the infrastructure problems are so severe, investment in this sector is likely to yield high returns—both for investors in infrastructure specifically, and for the country as a whole from the productivity boost that better infrastructure would deliver to all sectors.”

In Rangoon, top hotels such as the Traders or Sedona cost around US $200 for a room, while even the budget hotels and hostels that are permitted to take foreigners start at $20. The price of property has also skyrocketed with rental fees of houses, retail premises and offices in Rangoon surpassing Southeast Asian rivals such as Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur or Jakarta.

Vacant lots in Hlaingtharyar Industrial Zone in western Rangoon have risen to about 450 million kyat ($523,000) per acre from around 3.5 million kyat ($4,000 today) in 1995, according to a report by Bloomberg news agency, quoting the chairman of Singapore-listed Yoma Strategic Holdings Ltd.

But even though costs remain high, poor infrastructure and construction means that accidents are frequent and grievous. Rangoon-based journal Eleven Media Group recently reported the case of 23-year-old Thet Htet Sa who died on Sept. 9 when an emergency exit ladder collapsed from under her. Similarly, another man called Than Win, 35, died on Sept. 16 after falling from a building in Kamayut Township when an emergency ladder broke.

Regardless of Rangoon’s exorbitant costs and burgeoning population of five million, students in outer suburbs must still rely on candles when reading or doing homework at night. Many businesses use private generators to ensure adequate power resources due to an antiquated power grid caused by decades of mismanagement.

By contrast, tourists in the new capital Naypyidaw say that the picture is totally different, with the seat of government enjoying few electricity blackouts, smooth four-lane highways and clean pavements. Yet observers doubt whether this rosy picture will soon be spreading to the rest of the country.

Khuang Ling, a Lower House MP for the Chin National Progressive Party, said that his native area of western Burma, bordering India and Bangladesh, is the most impoverished state of one of Asia’s poorest nations.

Natural disasters are especially common in Chin State. In August 2008, Chin humanitarian organizations reported that over 40 children died in famine. Inhabitants of 45 villages in Chin State were forced to forage for food in the jungle as their rice stocks were lost to a plague of rats.

Asked if there are any supermarkets in Chin State, Khuang Ling laughed loudly and joked that, “Our houses are supermarkets!” He also complained that the government and media turn a blind eye to problems at home.

Burma may be Asia’s rising star, but serious doubts remains whether it can battle through the chaos of past mismanagement in order to swiftly realize this potential.