Expats Cite Optimism in ‘New Burma’

By Jen Swanson 27 June 2012

Last August, President Thein Sein put out a call appealing to the thousands of Burmese nationals living in exile to come home. He asked that they use the skills and education developed abroad to support the country’s political and economic re-awakening—so ending the ‘brain drain” that has plagued Burma for decades.

But exiles were not the only ones targeted—foreign expatriates, encouraged by the lifting of sanctions on the military-dominated nation or simply by opportunities that no longer seem possible in the West, have also descended on the country in droves.

While some are businessmen and women racing to leverage their first-mover’s advantage in an untapped and resource-rich market, others are aid workers, physicians and skilled professionals hoping to lend an expert hand as the country rebuilds.

Regardless of their motives, this talent infusion can be felt around the country, particularly in the former capital of Rangoon, injecting new life, energy and something akin to revelry.

The city’s Strand Hotel has long been a bastion for wealthy foreigners. The mood during the Friday night happy-hour is almost festive as both new and seasoned expats loosen their ties over half-priced drinks.

Tony Picon, originally from London, has spent much of the past two years in Rangoon as a research director for Colliers International, where he says rentals are topping US $60 per square meter compared with just $25 in Bangkok—a startling disparity only expected to grow.

“Everyone wants to get into ‘new Myanmar,’” he says, describing the recently reformed country as better-connected, relatively untapped and increasingly business-friendly. As one of the “last frontiers” in Asia, and possibly the world, he believes Burma will soon throw off all remaining vestiges of its previous antiquation, which saw people pay for property in cash for the lack of a workable banking system.

Picon says he came to Rangoon at exactly the right time and hopes to leverage his first mover’s advantage as Burma’s real estate market continues to mushroom.

Of course, hurdles remain to doing business even in the age of new Burma and probably will for some time. Picon recalls frustratingly slowly email systems and local clients who do not always grasp his vision.

One of the bigger challenges may be the shortage of accommodation available to expats, since finding units was tricky even before the country warmed to foreign investment. Another factor will be restoring and maintaining old colonial buildings to make Rangoon habitable without losing its distinctive heritage.

Despite these quandaries, Picon is optimistic Burma’s number has finally come up. “The country’s location is its advantage,” he says, referring to its enviable position between global superpowers China and India.

Indeed, some experts compare the country to Vietnam. This is not just because both are former pariah states with similarly sized populations, but also because Vietnam’s economy took off in the mid-90s upon repairing relations with the West—just as post-sanctions Burma may be poised to do now.

Some expats such as Paul, who lived in Rangoon for around five years from the early 2000s, are returning to find a changed city, at least in certain regards. “Some things have changed, and others are the same,” he says, explaining that WiFi and growing internet connectivity are new developments as well as a general increase in living costs. The biggest difference might be the whiff of optimism in the air, he says, with a distinctive new atmosphere he describes as “cautiously optimistic.”

But since the pollution, poverty and power cuts remain, Paul hopes to spearhead some social and environmental initiatives as soon as he gets resettled. “We might miss some things about the old Myanmar in a few years,” he says, speaking of the many development projects planned that may erase some of the charms that make Burma special. “But if the changes are creating new jobs and lessening poverty, then that is a good thing.”

Nancy has also just returned to Rangoon after an absence of several years and is collaborating on a new project to provide practical work experience to Burmese students seeking a career in finance—a sector so woeful many once preferred to store kyat under their mattress rather than a local bank.

“[The students] are at a disadvantage because the banking system in this country has been nonexistent for so many years,” she says, describing her project as offering Burmese banks the opportunity to send promising young people abroad to develop their skills at a competitive rate.

Naturally, as Rangoon International Airport sees record arrivals, many expats work in tourism. Richard Mayhew, the general manager of Mandalay Hill Resort, a luxury hotel at the base of Mandalay Hill, has lived and worked in Burma for the past decade and saw more tourists than ever last season.

Another hospitality executive revealed that 200,000 tourists came to Burma this season while 600,000 are expected next year. Similarly, a large number of expats in Burma run travel agencies that cater to tourists from their home countries.

Nor is the Strand the only place where expats gather to talk shop. The 50th Street Bar & Grill, a Western-style sports pub just a few streets east, sees a similar energy while Burmese bands croon Western covers in the background.

Here we meet Dr. Steven Siegal, an orthopedic surgeon from San Francisco on a “first pass trip” to determine the different ways US physicians can engage with Burmese doctors and medical institutions.

While his project is in its early stages, Siegal feels optimistic after a promising discussion with the director of a Burmese medical institution, which included some frank talk about the challenges and potential of the sector.

Calling this “a special time for Burma,” and certainly more conducive to such ventures than his first visit 13 years ago, Siegal plans to share his newfound knowledge with colleagues at home, round up funding and hopefully visiting again as early as October to lay the groundwork for long-term education and training programs.

But not everyone is so optimistic. One foreign aid worker, who has lived on-and-off in Rangoon for the past decade, says nothing has changed on the ground for normal people and the promises of reform remain just that—promises.

She gives the example of a recent conference held in the city where different ministers and government officials publically laid out their plans to develop a much-maligned sector. “People came away from the conference saying, ‘oh they’re so nice!’” she says, recalling the reactions of some of the newer expats to government proposals.

“It’s not that they’ve ever been jerks face-to-face,” she says of the generals, describing politeness as key to most Burmese interactions. “They’re nice, polite Asian gentlemen,” she says, “who say one thing and do another.”

“The newer [expats] took every word at face value. The long time foreign aid workers and the Burmese were considerably less impressed.” Her advice? Optimism is well and good, but the bad times were too recent to be totally forgotten.