Finding Emma Larkin in Myanmar

Published in Mizzima Business Weekly on 28 July 2014

Source: Wikicommons
Source: Wikicommons

The award-winning Finding George Orwell in Burma is a non-fiction account of a woman who retraces George Orwell’s footsteps during the five years he served as a colonial police officer in what was then a province of British India. After his return to Britain in 1927, George Orwell (whose real name was Eric Blair) wrote a scathing account of colonial rule called Burmese Days, as well as the dystopian classics Animal Farm and Nineteen-Eighty-Four - the latter of which depicts a society shackled by its extreme authoritarian rulers. Recounting her visits to Yangon, Twante, Pyin Oo Lwin, Mawlamyine and Katha, where Orwell served as a police officer, the author shed new light on the creative influence Myanmar had on his later works and political outlook. Extensive interviews with sources – connected and unconnected to Orwell – also provide a glimpse into Burmese society during the 1990s and early 21st century, when it was truly Orwellian.

Finding George Orwell in Burma was written by an American journalist who uses the pen name Emma Larkin. The author has never disclosed her identity and little is known about her, except that she was born and raised in Asia and that she studied Burmese in London. In an exclusive interview with Mizzima Business Weekly to mark the 10th anniversary of the publication of Finding George Orwell in Burma, Emma Larkin discusses contemporary Myanmar and explains why the time is not yet right to shed her nom de plume.

Which came first – your interest in George Orwell or your interest in Myanmar?

It was a case of both working in parallel. I’d read Orwell’s books and while I was travelling around Burma [during the 1990s] I developed more and more questions about the country that I couldn’t find answers to. His later books, such as Animal Farm, Nineteen-Eighty-Four and Burmese Days really spoke to me in a literary sense. I found his work very intriguing and came up with the idea to write a book about Orwell’s time in Burma and how it influenced his writing.

In previous interviews you said that you would not disclose your identity to protect your sources and to be able to return to Myanmar. Is that still the case, 10 years on?

Actually in terms of Burma, I think I probably wouldn’t need to keep a pen name anymore. However I’m working on a book about Thailand and things here are quite tense. As I live here permanently, it turns out it’s quite useful to have a pen name and I’d like to hang onto it for a couple more years. If you’d asked me just three months ago, I would have answered the question differently, but since the coup [on May 22] I need to be more careful than ever about protecting my identity – and it’s becoming increasingly difficult in this era of social media and what not. I was just talking to a friend about a protester who was arrested in Bangkok last month for reading Nineteen-Eighty-Four. I never thought that would ever happen in Thailand – it used to be Burma where something like that could occur. It’s very strange and worrying.

How often do you visit Myanmar? Have you noticed a change in atmosphere since the transition to quasi-civilian rule in 2011?

I’ve always lived in Bangkok, so Burma is close and I used to come about three or four times a year. But of late I’ve not done so as frequently because I’m working on my new book. My most recent visit was back in February. My last few trips have just been to Yangon and I can definitely see a dramatic change. One thing is that everyone is so busy – Yangon used to be a city stagnating but now it’s a city on the move. In the past, no one ever had anything to do except sit in a teashop.

That reminds me of a passage in your book when you say to a source, “I don’t want to take up too much of your time” and he replies, “Time! Time is the one thing in Burma we have a lot of. We are forced to spend our days quite listlessly. After all, what is there to do?”

When I visit nowadays I’m lucky if I have 15 minutes with that guy! So that’s definitely a turnaround. However I’d need to travel outside Yangon to get a sense of whether change has really occurred. I suspect that life doesn’t feel very different in the villages.

Are you and your sources cynical about the reform process in Myanmar?

It’s funny to hear you say “sources” because I’ve known the people in my book for so long now that I think of them as my friends. In February people were – I don’t think cynical is the right word – but I would definitely say that the euphoria had died down and there was a general idea that perhaps not that much has changed in terms of day-to-day life. For the first two years after the reforms began there was great sense of excitement and energy, but I no longer see that.

Referring to Finding George Orwell in Burma in an essay in 2008 called Being Eric/Being George: Or, What it’s Really Like to Become Someone Else, you wrote, “The book was a non-fiction account of life in Burma, a country ruled by a military dictatorship that is – I have to say it – truly Orwellian.” Have your views changed much since then?

Burma is no longer an Orwellian state – if anything it would be Thailand. When I wrote about Burma there was extreme propaganda, censorship and the distortion of truth – that’s no longer occurring. Wikileaks and whistleblowers such as Snowden demonstrate that there are still pockets of that which is Orwellian all over the world.

Most biographers agree that Eric Blair chose to write under the pen name George Orwell out of a fear of failure. You adopted a pen name for purely practical reasons. Your book has won several awards but has it ever been hard to have to shun any public recognition for your work?

I went to a boarding school in Britain and the headmistress there told me that I would never amount to anything. So yes, I would like her to know! But aside from that, I’m really quite happy with the way things are. I’m not an attention seeker and I prefer to write books rather to turn into the story itself.

Have you ever published books under your own name?

Yes I have. But they were not the kind of books I write as Emma Larkin.

The fact that you have remained anonymous is something of a triumph over military intelligence and testimony to the strength of your network of contacts, inside and outside Myanmar. How do you think you’ve managed to stay under the radar for so long?

I think what likely happened is that whatever local file was being kept on me may have been lost or scattered at around the time the former chief of [Military] Intelligence and then Prime Minister Khin Nyunt was placed under house arrest [in 2004]. There was so much else going on at the time – perhaps that’s why I was able to continue with my research.

You have said your cover was nearly blown several times. Could you describe such an encounter?

I was on a train once and I met a man who at the time I just thought was friendly and charming – he wasn’t in a uniform or anything. But I still took the precaution of getting off a station earlier than him. After checking into the hotel, I realised the man had checked into the room right next door to mine.

Did you immediately check out of the hotel?

I actually left the country. When I encountered these kinds of problems along the way I’d ask my friends what they thought I should do. They told me that as soon as I went to another hotel, the hotel staff would have to inform the police, as that was standard procedure back then, so they’d know exactly where to find me. That made changing hotels pointless – my friends told me to leave Burma, wait a while, and then return.

How long did it take to research your book? Did the fact that you spoke Myanmar arouse suspicions?

It took me three years to research and write it. I did indeed speak Burmese – though not elegantly [laughs] – and yes, I was a lone, white, female solo traveller. So I really stuck out and needed to be careful. But my task was easier in some ways than for journalists, who need to come in and get the information they need quickly. I was able to take things slower to stay under the radar. Burma was a lot cheaper back then so I was able to make the small advance for my book last quite a while longer than it would now…

Did you ever interview Daw Aung San Suu Kyi?

I saw her speaking outside her home but no, I never interviewed her. I would have been automatically blacklisted if I had. But actually, what I really admired at the time was the bravery of the normal people who came out to listen to her.

Do you make anything of the fact that Winston, the name of the main character in Nineteen-Eighty-Four, is a popular name in Myanmar?

I hadn’t thought of that! [Laughs]  Yes sure, I have friends called Winston. But I think there are many old-fashioned Christian names in Burma that are still quite popular – Penelope also comes to mind. I think it’s just part of the country having been insolated in a sort of time warp for so many years, rather than there being any sort of connection to Nineteen-Eighty-Four.

In your book, you write, “The only recorded memory of Orwell in Burma dates back to his time in Rangoon and doesn’t show him in the best light.” You then describe a Myanmar lecturer recalling that as a young boy, he and his friends were messing about and accidentally knocked into Eric Blair at Rangoon Railway Station. He retaliated by lifting his cane and almost hitting a child on the head with it, before whacking him on the back at the last minute. Others described him as “every bit the imperial officer.” Do you separate the man from the writer or do you think Orwell’s experience in Myanmar profoundly changed him?

I think it’s important to remember that both Orwell’s maternal and paternal sides had served in the colonies – him doing so was expected and in his blood, you could say. But why he chose to serve in the police force mystifies me to this day. Why not the civil service? What does seem apparent is that his experiences in Burma changed him and enabled him to go back and write books that were critical of colonialism and totalitarianism. As for some of the attitudes he expressed while serving in Burma, well, I think he was a product of his times. For him to have stood out in a significant way from the chit-chatterers at the colonial clubs in Burma, who would complain about this and that, would have been very exceptional indeed. He was part of a very large colonialist system.

Do you think Orwell joined the imperial police to find material for books?

No, I don’t think he did. The great thing about Orwell is that every single thing he ever wrote has been published – even the things he wrote as a young boy.  The Complete Works of George Orwell is a 20-volume series: of course ordinary people don’t own it but they can be accessed in libraries. So when I read the things he’d written before he left for Burma, I could see that it’s all there and that his motivations were straightforward and practical. Up until then his writing wasn’t political. It was the experience that changed him.

Your book also reveals that George Orwell, who was born in India in 1903, had Anglo-Burmese cousins. Is there any chance he may have had Burmese blood? Some have hypothesised that there is an autobiographical element to the main character in Burmese Days, Flory, whose birthmark was teasingly referred to as a “having lick of the tar brush” and that he felt a sense of shame about this.

Orwell did have cousins who were Burmese – the birth certificates and marriage certificates have been found. A later biographer discovered a passport of his that had never been seen and it recorded the presence of blue tattoos on his hands that were inked in Burma. But as to whether Orwell had Burmese blood is a far less likely possibility. I’m cautious about reading too much between the lines of his work. But it would be interesting to talk more to his relatives and I hope that more archive material will become available in the future so that we can learn more about him.

You say “Burma” as opposed to “Myanmar” – why is that?

For me it’s not a political issue but a grammatical problem. We don’t say, for example, that a person is “America” and their language is “America” so for me it’s problematic to say “Myanmar people” and “Myanmar language.” So until that’s sorted out I will continue to use Burma.

Other books by Emma Larkin include Everything is Broken: The Untold Story of Disaster Under Burma’s Military Regime (2010).

 

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Myanmar producers of indigenous textiles eager to export but lack infrastructure

Published in Twist International, 2014

A Padaung tribeswoman weaving silk in Bagan, Mandalay.
A Padaung tribeswoman weaving silk in Bagan, Mandalay.

As Myanmar’s economic and political reforms continue at a steady pace, its indigenous traditional textiles could become commercialised. Myanmar does not yet systematically export its traditional fabrics and there are no official associations to promote the industry. It currently relies largely on tourists for small-scale revenues.

But that could change. Myanmar is unique in the region, because its most renowned ‘silks’ are actually not made from silkworm threads, but from lotus buds. The tourist hot spot of Inle Lake in Shan State is currently the only location in Myanmar where lotus fibre is extracted and used to create textiles on any significant scale. Its soft texture is similar to a mixture of standard silk and linen.

According to Khine Jiu Jiu Lynn, sales manager at Khit Sunn Yinn, a lotus, standard silk and cotton weaving centre at Innpawkohn village, Inle Lake, Shan State, a product made from lotus bud is seven times more expensive than regular silk due to its many qualities, which include being naturally stain resistant, waterproof, soft to the touch, breathable and wrinkle-free.

“A single stick of lotus bud costs Burmese Kyat MMK4,000 (USD4.05) and a single scarf requires…20 days’ work, which is why it costs around USD75 [retail],” she told Twist International.

While about 80% of scarf purchases are made by international tourists, Ms Lynn said the majority of lotus products are currently spun into robes for monks and sent to the cities of Yangon and Mandalay for commercial sale. Although lotus silk is rare and expensive, monks acquire the robes through donations in the Buddhist majority nation.

Myint Thein Htun, the owner of Khit Sunn Yinn, a fourth generation family-run business, said that he is keen to export his products and has the capacity with 120 skilled workers, but fears a lack of quality control could be a problem.

Workers’ feet are also used to operate looms, making it a highly labour intensive process.
Workers’ feet are also used to operate looms, making it a highly labour intensive process.

“We can’t export because our products because they’re hand-made. Customers want their textiles to be uniform, and we can’t guarantee that, particularly for the finishing and colours,” he said.

He pointed out small imperfections in scarves, explaining, “A weaver can only use their eyes to see whether a thread has broken. If we were using machines, the machine would automatically stop when a thread breaks. Also, hand-woven mistakes can’t be fixed. Likewise, because we hand-dye the colours, we can’t ensure the colours are uniform.”

Mr Htun added: “We could buy machines but this is a local industry and a lot of people would lose their jobs.”

For the time being, he said he is content to sell to tourists – visiting the beauty-spot Inle Lake in increasing numbers since political reforms began in 2011. His business gained international recognition by winning several awards at the ASEAN Silk Fabric and Fashion Design Contest ASEAN Silk Fabric and Fashion contest, staged in Bangkok in 2010. “No such awards exist in Myanmar,” he lamented.

Mr Htun added that a significant number of tourists refrain from purchasing indigenous silk products because, “They see scarves being sold on the streets of Thailand and Cambodia for an absolute fraction of the price that ours sell for – but what they don’t realise is that those products are made from polyester.”

An intricate Burmese loom used to create raw silk and lotus silk textiles.
An intricate Burmese loom used to create raw silk and lotus silk textiles.

U Kyaw Aye, general manager at Injynn Development Company, a Myanmar trading company selling garments, oil and gas and telecommunications and a former industry ministry technical planning officer said: “None of the traditional forms of textiles are mechanical,” so as regards bulk mass exports, “there’s not much to hope for because it’s so time-consuming and output is low. Unlike commercial textiles, Myanmar’s indigenous textiles are not made by the bale of 30 to 50 yards, but rather in short pieces.”

But he warned, if the industry were to mechanise, “the quality and texture wouldn’t be the same again.”

So the likelihood is that Myanmar fabrics will remain a scarce item, of potential use for luxury apparel brands and manufacturers. As yet that potential has yet to be realised, he said: “It’s unlike Thailand’s silk industry, which makes good money selling items such as neckties – Myanmar’s are more of a novelty item which a few tourists and businesspeople take out.”

Nevertheless, Mr Aye stressed the potential. Production costs in Myanmar are currently low compared to potential competitors in Thailand, India and China.

The owner of Khit Sunn Yin, Myint Thein Htun in Inle Lake, Myanmar.
The owner of Khit Sunn Yin, Myint Thein Htun in Inle Lake, Myanmar.

Furthermore, the diversity of products created in Myanmar is staggering: each of Myanmar’s 135 officially recognised ethnic groups has its own unique patterns and traditions, and powerful customs associated with various textile products.

In Chin State culture, for example, it is customary for a bride to weave a large blanket with homespun cotton and silk, dyed with herbs and woven in a back-strapped loom, maybe containing herbs and leaves. When one partner dies, the blanket is cut in half and wrapped around the body. The other half is stored until the other spouse passes away – it is believed that the blanket serves to unite the spirits in the afterlife.

As for standard silk from silkworms, much of the silk is grown in Mandalay, with key weaving centres in Rakhine state, based in the ancient capital of Mrauk U. Thandar Win works at a silk and cotton shop in downtown’s Yangon’s bustling Bogyoke Market, selling local handicrafts, gems and artwork. She told Twist International: “Burmese silk isn’t as shiny as Thai silk and much of Thailand’s silk products are made with machines. It’s the same in China. The Burmese regard the quality of Chinese silk as inferior to ours, which is why we never sell it, even though it’s cheaper.”

As for traditional cotton weaving, there are also regional craft industry centres such as Kachin state, as well as in Rakhine state.

Inle Lake in Shan State, Myanmar, is the only place in the world where lotus silk is used to make textiles.
Inle Lake in Shan State, Myanmar, is the only place in the world where lotus silk is used to make textiles.

The patterns of indigenous textiles, whether made from cotton, raw silk, pure raw silk and lotus bud silk, differ greatly from one region to the next. Mandalay is famous for criss-crossed designs, which are washed and dyed before spinning to create a softer fabric. Meanwhile, Inle Lake manufacturers are well known for ‘ikat’ dyeing techniques used to pattern textiles that uses a resist-dyeing process similar to tie-dye textiles, which was initially developed in Indonesia.

As Mr Htun explained, “Before 1932, Myanmar artisans just made plain stripes. My great-grandfather went to Thailand to learn how to make ‘ikat’ – the Thais had previously learnt it from the Indonesians. And it spread from that moment on.”

Nyan Lynn Aung, director of Fine 9, an advisory firm that connects foreign and domestic investors in Myanmar, (most often regarding garments), said he received his first inquiry about importing Myanmar’s indigenous silk products, from a buyer in New York, this month (February 2014).

A weaver using a loom to create lotus bud silk at Khit Sunn Yin in Inle Lake, Myanmar.
A weaver using a loom to create lotus bud silk at Khit Sunn Yin in Inle Lake, Myanmar.

“Myanmar’s indigenous textiles definitely have potential. Of course, like anything, it depends how you sell it and how it’s set up, but much like free-trade coffee beans, buying ‘Made in Myanmar’ indigenous textiles could be seen as very trendy and ethical,” he told Twist International. Mr Aung suggested that repurposing traditional textiles into bags and belts could become a boom industry.

However he added that “investment – as well as at least some technology – is needed for the sector to properly develop.”

The export market potential for Myanmar’s seafood bounty

Published in Mizzima Business Weekly on 14 July 2014

Ocean Harvest's factory in Yangon
Ocean Harvest’s factory in Yangon

A leading player in Myanmar’s seafood export sector talks to Mizzima Business Weekly about the industry’s future potential – which may only be realised if current constraints can be overcome.

Very few countries in the world can boast that crab is sold a cheap street food snack. Yet whilst Myanmar’s natural abundance of seafood is evident – both in terms of its availability and comparable affordability – the sector remains largely untapped in terms of export volumes. Much has improved since the European Union and United States lifted export sanctions against Myanmar in 2012, however ongoing challenges such as electricity shortages and weak infrastructure continue to hold back the country’s capacity to export enough of its beautiful bounty of seafood.

U Myat Aung Nyunt is the Managing Director of Ocean Harvest (Myanmar) Limited, a seafood cold storage, processing and ice plant factory in Yangon, which he set up more than two decades ago. He is also the joint secretary of the Myanmar Fishery Products Processors and Exporters Association, which was established in 2004 and aims to forge investment links between exporters and importers, as well as disseminating information about best practices in the industry.

“Myanmar’s potential to increase seafood exports is huge – but we need to set up prawn farms to obtain higher quantities to export. At the moment there’s only one prawn farm in the entire country,” U Myat Aung Nyunt told Mizzima Business Weekly.

However prawn farming is a highly skilled and labour intensive endeavour, and at this stage Myanmar is yet to even establish a seafood processing training centre. This means that Ocean Harvest’s 200-odd workers – had to be taught several different skill sets on the job.

While reports have recently surfaced in neighbouring Thailand about an illegal fishing industry that relies on slave labour and trafficked workers, U Myat Aung Nyunt said he’s never heard of fishery workers being ill-treated in Myanmar.

“I provide my staff with three meals a day as well as free healthcare and accommodation. My unmarried workers live in a dormitory at the back of the factory, while housing is provided for 20 families in North Dagon. I treat my staff as my family, because without them, how can I do this business?”

Although some of U Myat Aung Nyunt’s workers (most of whom are female – he says because they’re harder working) have been with the company since it was first set up back in 1993, he said that the demand for skilled workers has resulted in rife poaching among competitors. As Myanmar does not yet have a seafood processing training centre, each of his 200 factory workers were trained on site.

“I do everything I can to retain my staff, but there are several Chinese companies in Myanmar who have bigger budgets and operate with a local proxy. It’s causing a lot of problems for players in the local industry,” he said.

Myat Aung Nyunt, Managing Director of Ocean Harvest and Joint Secretary of Myanmar Fisheries and Seafood Exporters and Processors Association
Myat Aung Nyunt, Managing Director of Ocean Harvest and Joint Secretary of Myanmar Fisheries and Seafood Exporters and Processors Association

Although Myanmar’s seafood stocks have declined over the past five years, U Myat Aung Nyunt said that conditions in Thailand are far worse and that Myanmar’s industry could easily be sustainable if the right measures are put in place. In the meantime, quantities could be exponentially multiplied if prawn farming took off. At present, just one prawn farm exists in Myanmar. This is part due to the high overheads of operating the farming equipment (particularly if diesel generators are required as a back-up power source) and the complexities of round-the-clock maintenance and care.

Therefore, the overwhelming majority of prawns – which fetches some of the highest prices – are caught in the wild. U Myat Aung Nyunt explained that a net is used to seal off a sizeable population of prawns, who remain confined for two or three months and scavenge around for whatever food they can find. Once the prawns have grown bigger, the haul is seized and brought to various markets in Yangon, including Anawar Fishery, VMP Jetty, Anawar Hlwam Jetty, Shwe Zin Yaw Hein Jetty (the latter of which has been approved by the European Union). Other methods include small boats with trawlers, however in both cases, U Myat Aung Nyunt said that road conditions need to be improved so that travel times from Rakhine State and Ayeyarwady Region, which are the source of prawns and other seafood, can be reduced. This is particularly important because the boats lack refrigeration facilities, relying instead on ice to keep the produce fresh.

Frozen pink shrimps for export
Frozen pink shrimps for export

“Although there’s definitely a demand for prawns without their heads removed, most fishermen tend to cut off the head because it’s too easy for bacteria to spread from the head to the body,” he explained.

Despite ongoing infrastructural challenges, Myanmar’s Fishery Department is serious about ensuring that Myanmar’s sea produce meets international standards. Factory checks are carried out by department officials every month to ensure that exporters are complying with processing laws, which include stringent hygiene regulations.

In early June, the Ministry of Livestock Breeding, Fisheries and Rural Development announced that it will grant K1.5 billion (US$1.5 million) to livestock breeders and fish farmers to help boost capacity and export revenues, which in the last 10 months of the 2013-14 fiscal year fell by US$76 million.

Ocean Harvest is also registered with the FTA in the United States – which is important, because 80 percent of the 400 tonnes it exports annually (which includes shrimp, squid and fish) usually end up in restaurants in Los Angeles or Los Vegas.

“Until the sanctions were lifted, we mostly exported to Japan. However Japanese buyers tend to buy smaller quantities of a particular size or species. The US is a constant buyer, and often in bulk,” he said.

A hotel owner in Los Angeles was so delighted with Ocean Harvest’s produce and delivery service (which involves ice-trays of seafood travelling for 40 days on a container ship from Yangon via Singapore or Malaysia in refrigerated temperatures of at least -18 degrees Celsius) that U Myat Aung Nyunt’s entire family was invited for an all expenses paid holiday last year.

Indonesia and Australia are other popular export destinations, U Myat Aung Nyunt said.

“The Australians are clever – they sell the best of their seafood to Japan and then import for domestic consumption,” he said with a laugh.

The European Union is a less appealing destination, as it offers significantly lower prices than the US.

“I’m not sure why that is – it could be that buyers in the EU are sourcing seafood from markets elsewhere that are cheaper,” U Myat Aung Nyunt said.

After being cheated out of payment for an order of freshwater fish valued at US$200,000 last year, Ocean Harvest will no longer supply to any company based in the Middle East.

“I’m not sure whether it was the agent in Yangon or the company in the Middle East who was responsible for not paying me. After a few containers were released from the cargo, the company had told me they had a cash shortfall and asked if I could release the entire order – and that I’d be paid the following week. If I’d said no, I would have had to have paid extra storage costs until the entire amount came through. We had a gentleman’s agreement,” he said ruefully.

The company in the Middle East refused to even acknowledge U Myat Aung Nyunt’s demands for payment and his attempts to sue the local agent were unsuccessful because the agent lacks assets (“Not even a car!” he said).

Ocean Harvest's shrimp size classifying machine
Ocean Harvest’s shrimp size classifying machine

“Many exporters in Myanmar have lost money to Middle Eastern companies. Sometimes even their banks operate dishonestly – such as by allowing containers to be released before money has been deposited. And often it’s all done through brokers and we don’t know who the company at the end of the line is. When we supplied to Iraq, for example, our goods would be dropped in Kuwait and taken to Iraq by a separate transport company. We can’t exactly go to Iraq to find out what happened to an outstanding payment,” he explained.

Nonetheless, U Myat Aung Nyunt is upbeat about his future prospects and in June, his 26-year-old daughter Myint Myat opened a restaurant in Parami called – you guessed it – Crustacean.

“I supply all the seafood to my daughter’s restaurant – she worked at Ocean Harvest for five years and after getting an MBA, she decided she wanted to run her own business.”

In addition to Crustacean, Ocean Harvest sells to a German company that operates flights for VIPs.

“But we stick to exporting simply because the prices are better for us,” he said.

Myanmar’s tobacco industry ripe for growth

Published in Tobacco Journal International 2014 edition

Yangon's wide variety of cigarettes on sale
Yangon’s wide variety of cigarettes on sale

The market liberalisation of Burma is enticing global tobacco companies such as British American Tobacco (BAT) to sell and manufacture cigarettes in Myanmar – however rampant smuggling of duty-free cigarettes into the country and the dominance of low-end local brands pose a challenge to legitimate business ventures.

BAT returned to Myanmar this year following a decade’s absence. The British government requested BAT to leave Myanmar in 2003 following an investigation by Burma Campaign UK establishing that it had links to the military-backed Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings (UMEHL).

The editor-in-chief of Myanma Freedom Daily, Thiha Saw, who is also deputy chief of the Myanmar Journalists Association, said that the introduction of political reforms in Myanmar over the past two years has provided opportunities for new players to emerge in the tobacco industry.

He said, “Before 2010 it wasn’t possible to manufacture cigarettes without having links to the military, because there were two military owned companies that had a monopoly over beer and tobacco. That’s changed now, but there’s still a huge black market in smuggling duty-free cigarettes.”

A Yangon tobacco retailer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that he buys duty-free cigarettes from pilots and cabin crew. He said the practice is widespread and also involves major supermarkets.

The retailer said that major cigarette brands such as Marlboro Light – the most popular in terms of sales – are brought in from Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia, but that Myanmar people prefer those imported from Singapore because “People don’t want to buy a packet with a graphic warning about the effects of smoking.”

He also said that Chinese tobacco companies are keen to enter the market but are unlikely to succeed due to widespread concerns about the quality of Chinese products.

Fighting back against illicit trade

The government of Myanmar has stepped up efforts to counter illicit trade in a bid to attract more foreign investment. In late October, a team from the Ministry of Commerce raided a warehouse owned by one of Myanmar’s leading food and beverage distributors, Quarto Products. Quarto has since been shut down because it was unable to produce import declaration documentation, government officials said.

Rehan Baig, BAT’s managing director in Myanmar told Tobacco Journal International, “BAT is willing to work closely with the government and industry stakeholders… to counter illicit trade by raising awareness and providing information as well as experience in this area. At our own end, we take steps to ensure product stewardship, such as using track and trace technology to monitor the movement of our products within the supply chain.”

BAT has implemented the technology in Russia, Poland, Ukraine and Belarus and is aiming to cover 42 international markets by the end of 2016.

BAT now has a majority stake in a joint venture with local partner IMU enterprise, which is a unit of Sein Wut Hmon Group. BAT will invest US$50 million over five years in a production factory in Shwe Than Lwin Industrial Zone in Yangon to produce its London brand of cigarettes, which were extremely popular in Myanmar but have since been overtaken by the similarly priced local brand Red Ruby.

Advertising ban and penetration rates

Local tobacco companies attempt to circumvent the ban on the advertising of tobacco products by providing tea shops and pubs with branded, complimentary napkin holders, ashtrays and sometimes even handing out free lighters and cigarettes to patrons. When asked whether BAT will use such tactics to regain consumer loyalty, Rehan Baig said, “We are a legitimate company selling a legal product and we conduct our business in a responsible way – abiding by the laws in all the countries we operate in. Furthermore, we also have voluntary international marketing principles in place, some of which are stricter than local laws.”

He added that BAT will “cater to any requests or requirements such as [providing] lighters and ashtrays from our trade partners by providing unbranded material where deemed necessary.”

Chinese cigarette brand Dubao flouts a ban on advertising, while a Grand Royal whisky ad advertises its line of bottled water underneath
Chinese cigarette brand Dubao flouts a ban on advertising, while a Grand Royal whisky ad advertises its line of bottled water underneath

Myanmar Survey Research conducted a survey of smoking penetration rates in Myanmar’s biggest cities, Yangon and Mandalay in December 2012. The survey found that 30 percent of urban males are occasional or regular smokers, while 1-2 percent of women are in the same category. Another 15 percent of urban males smoke hand-rolled cheroots [traditional cigars] and 1-2 percent of urban females also smoke cheroots on a regular basis.

Marita Schimpl, head of marketing research at MSR said, “In rural areas, which are where 70 percent of Myanmar’s population resides, betel-chewing is more widespread than conventional cigarettes. Due to being cheaper, cheroots are also more popular than cigarettes in rural areas.”

She added that penetration rates of factory made cigarettes in Myanmar is relatively low. Therefore, in theory at least, there is a large amount of room for growth in Myanmar’s tobacco industry.

 

A delicious kick in every dish: A review of Padonmar Restaurant

Published in the February 2014 edition of Mann Yatanarpon Airlines Inflight Magazine

U Sonny Aung Khin, the owner of Padonmar restaurant in Yangon, stands beside a portrait of his mother in the Padonmar dining room.
U Sonny Aung Khin, the owner of Padonmar restaurant in Yangon, stands beside a portrait of his mother in the Padonmar dining room.

Few restaurants have mastered the ability to cater to hundreds of people in as intimate a manner as Yangon’s Padonmar Restaurant. On a Sunday evening, with 200 diners present in the outdoor garden alone, restaurant owner Sonny Aung Khin leisurely makes his way from one table to the next, chatting to diners and fine-tuning the arrangements of his staff (many of whom sport headpieces), and even stopping to breathe in the scent of an idle pot of coconut infused rice. He is tall, dressed in an immaculate suit, laughs heartily and speaks in a baritone.

Despite the fact that Sonny spends day and night with tourists in Myanmar – who at this time of the peak tourist season, are largely from Western countries, as well as a busload of Thais – Sonny doesn’t hesitate in admitting that he’s not one to take a vacation himself.

“I’m not a holiday person,” he shrugs. “But I like work-related travel.”

In the cooler months of October to February, when it’s possible to sit outside at any time of day in Padonmar’s lush surrounds, the restaurant can serve 300 people at a time during lunch and 400 in the evening. Yet it doesn’t feel crowded because there’s such an array of tropical vegetation (and even the odd squirrel) that divides the driveway of this 80-year-old mansion into separate dining sections. Some of the vines were planted by Sonny five years ago after his restaurant moved from Inya Road to this larger establishment, and he continues to tend to them even now, he said.

Wall painting in Padonmar Hall
Wall painting in Padonmar Hall

The largest outdoor section is spread across the lawn, which is softly lit up at night with red and purple lamps. Inside, there is the annexed Padonmar Hall, which can seat up to 140 people simultaneously, and its walls are adorned with a mural depicting – you guessed it – nature at its loveliest. There’s also a “hall of fame” – which are framed and autographed photographs of some of Sonny’s most high profile guests.

“US Senator John McCain came alone the first time but returned for another meal with three senators,” he said with a smile. Singer Cliff Richard, US Ambassador Derek Mitchell and a chance meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi on a plane are just a few of at least a dozen other portraits on display.

The restaurant is also popular among businesspeople – who have been coming to Myanmar in ever increasing numbers since the country embarked on a range of democratic reforms in 2011.

“Myanmar has been flooded with tourists since 2011 and we’re now seeing a huge increase in the numbers of businesspeople. I don’t know how successful they are during their visits, but they do need to eat!” he said with a laugh.

Inside the mansion itself are four rooms, which can be hired exclusively for dinner parties of 10 to 28 people.Padonmar also hosts wedding receptions for around 80-100 people in its gardens. Buffet dinners are also an option and traditional musicians provide nightly entertainment. There’s some very eye-catching art on display – both photography and paintings (such as the Naga warrior tribe mid-flight with spears) however Sonny said, “I didn’t want to exhibit so much art that it gives the impression of being a gallery. The art on display for sale, which is done to support local artists,” he said.

Surprisingly, whilst the setting is grand, the prices here at Padonmar are very, very reasonable – particularly considering the quality and care that goes into preparing the food. Mains are around US$4 and cocktails are around $3.50.

Padonmar promotes local wines such as Red Mountain and Aythaya, as well as keeping a well stocked cellar of foreign wines. Unless you’d prefer to opt for a freshly squeezed juice over an alcoholic refreshment, trying the rediscovered Pegu Club cocktail – which dates back to 1920 – is a must for any diner at Padonmar.

U Sonny's Hall of Fame, including a photo with US Senator John McCain
U Sonny’s Hall of Fame, including a photo with US Senator John McCain

The menu itself literally weighs a kilogram (in part due to the red leather binding) and it has more vegetarian options than most vegetarian restaurants – and there’s an even split between Burmese and Thai fare.

“We have separate kitchens for the Thai and Burmese chefs because the cuisines are so different from one another,” he said. Sonny said that Burmese food is closer to Indian than any other he knows of, yet many visitors assume it will share the qualities of its ASEAN neighbours.

Sonny spent 16 years living in Bangkok and grew fond of its healthy cuisine, which he said is extremely popular among his local guests in particular.

“Myanmar people come here to eat Thai because they can have local food any night of the week at home,” he said.

“And often tourists tell me that they’re glad to eat Thai because they’ve spent the last 10 days straight eating Myanmar food!” he said with a chuckle.

Nonetheless, the refreshing difference about eating Burmese food here is that while maintaining the traditional flavours, it’s light on oil and free of MSG and cholesterol.

“We use sunflower oil which contains no cholesterol,” he added by way of explanation.

According to traditional Myanmar values, the more oil that is added to a dish, the more welcome a guest is and the wealthier the host is – however this notion is slowly beginning to change as people become more health conscious. The widespread use of MSG, however, remains a problem, particularly at street stalls in Myanmar. It was introduced relatively recently as (an unnecessary) flavour enhancer and people such as Sonny, who is also Vice-Chairman of the Myanmar Restaurants’ Association, is one of a handful of the prominent members of the local hospitality industry trying to send a message about MSG’s harmful health effects.

The restaurant’s signature dish is the hilsa fish, which is a medium sized fish that can also be found in the Chittagong region of neighbouring Bangladesh. The fish is cooked so slowly that the bones simply melt into the juices.

“We used to cook the fish in a traditional oven for eight hours, but nowadays we use a pressure cooker and it takes a bit less time,” he said casually.

The grilled aubergine salad – “everybody’s favourite” – as he describes it, which was accompanied by very finely sliced tomatoes with just a touch of dressing, was the perfect accompaniment to the pork and mango curry and mutton and potato curry (both of which are traditional Burmese dishes). Often at restaurants that cater to tourists, too much of the usual spice is left out on the assumption that a foreign palate would prefer it that way. Thankfully, this is not the case at Padonmar – while undoubtedly being less spicy than home-cooked meals, there’s still a delicious kick to every dish.

I was encouraged to sprinkle the “cheese of the region” over the dishes, which is dried shrimp flakes, although I fell short in courage of being as generous with the dried chilli flakes, which are also hugely popular in Myanmar.

As an entree I had the clear, traditional Karen fish soup, which Sonny said isn’t something found in many restaurants in Myanmar – unless of course, you’re visiting Karen State.

We finished off with banana fritters, which are cooked in a light batter and served with natural honey.

U Sonny Aung Khin with Senator John McCain
U Sonny Aung Khin with Senator John McCain

Somehow Padonmar Restaurant is able to serve up authentic meals that don’t take a couple of hours to serve and devour (in fact, you could be there less than an hour if necessary, the service is that good). This makes it the perfect spot for a tourist or businessperson on the go in Myanmar.

Padmonmar Restaurant is located at No. 105/107 Kha-Yae-Bin Road, Dagon Township, Yangon, Myanmar.

Phone: 01 538 895

Email: padonmar.restaurant@gmail.com

Credit cards are accepted.

The challenges of keeping Yangon’s street dogs alive

Published in Mizzima Business Weekly on 14 May 2014

Yangon street dogs. Photo credit: Terryl Just
Yangon street dogs. Photo credit: Terryl Just

The Yangon Animal Shelter was founded in December 2012 and since then it has provided refuge for hundreds of street dogs who were injured, at risk of poisoning or simply young and motherless. However despite the recent opening of a second, larger shelter, co-founders Terryl Just and Daw Roza Win, both of whom work full-time at the International School Yangon, said they are struggling every month to raise enough funds to feed and care for the dogs, who currently number around 250. They are assisted by a small but committed group of volunteers.

“The dogs end up at the shelters primarily because members of the public have called us pleading to take them in because they are in danger of being poisoned [by Yangon City Development Committee], or their neighbours are throwing rocks at them, or they are sick or injured,” Terryl Just told Mizzima Business Weekly.

“I realise I can’t help every street dog,” Terryl, a self-professed animal lover, concedes.

“My original plan was to help as many dogs as possible by taking them in temporarily, spading or neutering and vaccinating them, or providing any necessary veterinary care, and then to return the dogs to where they’d been found, provided it was safe enough – or to have them adopted. However that whole idea was blown out of the water because of the ongoing poisoning.”

Terryl Just
Terryl Just

Authorities have long used poisoned meat bait as an attempt to keep the number of strays down and thereby reduce the public health risk posed by rabies. However sources told Mizzima Business Weekly that in the lead up to the SEA Games hosted by Myanmar last December, the culling campaign notably intensified.

According to Terryl, an increase in tourist numbers is also a factor in poisonings occurring more frequently than in previous years, as authorities are naturally keen to present Yangon in the best possible light. However it seems the goal has backfired, as public outrage is mounting.

“Tourists have written to me saying, ‘I feel so bad for the street dogs here. How can I help? Can I send money? Many are aware of the poisoning,” Terryl said.

According to Humane Society International’s Asia Director Rahul Sehgal, culling is an ineffective means of controlling the number of stray animals.

“Culling has never eradicated an entire population of street dogs in any given city or country. The amount of resources needed to do that is something [developing] nations are not equipped or disciplined to do.”

He also said that scientific research has established that killing street dogs has no impact on the number of human deaths caused by rabies.

Puppies and dogs rescued by Yangon Animal Shelter
Puppies and dogs rescued by Yangon Animal Shelter

“Dogs move in packs and when certain pack members are culled, it creates an imbalance within their environment. The surviving dogs come together and quickly form new packs. With the temporary decrease in the dog population, there is less competition for food, which allows the new packs to eat and breed more. More puppies are born to the surviving animals, and more of them survive, and more dogs migrate into the area recently rendered dog-free,” he explained.

A far preferable alternative is what is known as animal birth control (ABC) – this involves dogs being briefly captured in order to be sterilised and vaccinated before being released in the same area they were found. However it must be carried out on a wide scale to succeed.

“Within a breeding season, you have to target 70 percent of the existing population of street dogs,” Rahul explained – because if one pair of dogs is allowed to breed successfully, they can produce up to 55,000 dogs within 5 years.

“If the long-term experiment of culling hasn’t yet solved the problem, other options should be considered,” he added.

India is considered the pioneer of animal birth control and in 2000 its parliament passed an amendment to the Dog Management Act, which stipulates that the only way street dogs are to be dealt is by sterilisation and vaccination. Any other method is illegal.

Humane Society International has been invited by the governments of Bhutan, India, The Philippines and Mauritus to carry out sterilisation campaigns, and Rahul said that the concept of ABC “is now widespread across many developing countries, including Bhutan, Sri Lanka, India and Nepal.”

Fortunately for Myanmar’s street dogs, a glimmer of hope has appeared on the horizon. In late April the Bridget Bardot Foundation contacted Terryl Just to express interest in funding a sterilisation and vaccination campaign, as well donating money for necessities such food – which alone amounts to US$3,000 a month.

“However the foundation said that they won’t do anything until the poisoning stops,” Terryl said.

Terryl has since met with representatives from the French embassy in Yangon and a meeting has tentatively been scheduled with relevant YCDC personnel to discuss the idea of using sterilisation as a substitute for culling.

“It would be wonderful if other embassies here could get on board to lobby against it,” she said.

In the meantime, however, both shelters are “completely over capacity,” Terryl said. The first shelter, which is on a third of an acre, was built to accommodate 50 dogs but now has 120. The dogs at this shelter, which is located in Pele, Mingalardon Township, some 23 kilometres from the city centre, are mostly puppies and those with a higher chance of being adopted due to having affable personalities.

Dogs at the new shelter. Photo credit: Terryl Just
Dogs at the new shelter. Photo credit: Terryl Just

“The second shelter is a lot larger but it’s another 30 minutes drive away, which is why we keep the wilder dogs there – it makes it easier for those interested in adopting to come and meet them.”

When asked how many dogs have been adopted since the shelter opened at the end of 2012, Terryl – who herself owns 11 dogs – replied, “Nowhere near enough. Only 40 or so.”

She said there’s a common misconception among expats that it’s not possible to own a pet unless they are living in Myanmar permanently.

“But it’s perfectly possible to export pets – and I’m willing to do the paperwork for anyone who adopts a dog from the Yangon Animal Shelter. I’ve been teaching overseas for 25 years and I’ve always had my dogs and cats with me.”

She also pointed out that for those who live in apartments, older dogs make ideal companions.

“We have an old dog called Sadi who is blind but very sweet – she can work her way around but she gets picked on by the other dogs. Sadi would be ideal in an apartment – she just needs a walk every once in a while.”

And for those who for whatever reason cannot commit to ownership, Terryl said there’s a “desperate need” to find people willing to fostering a puppy for a short period.

She explained that puppies below the age of six to eight weeks can’t be immunised so the risk of them contracting illnesses is high, along with the fact that young puppies without a mother need more TLC than older dogs.

“We’ve lost a lot of puppies due to the fact that some [dogs] carry diseases but don’t show signs – notably canine distemper virus. Sadly it’s very common,” Terryl said.

Needless to say, funding remains an ongoing challenge for the not-for-profit Yangon Animal Shelter, which is a registered NGO in Myanmar and the United States. Donations of any amount are gratefully received and can be deposited at Royal Veterinary Clinic, which is located at 221 Shwegondaing Road in Bahan Township. Phone: 0986 160 037

Help is always needed
Help is always needed

The clinic’s vet, U Myat Oo, is one of two vets who provides treatment to the shelter’s dogs – and he does so free of charge.

For more information, visit the Yangon Animal Shelter’s Facebook page:

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Yangon-Animal-Shelter/323142894458502?fref=ts

An ongoing experiment – The Lab Wine and Tapas Bar

Published in Mizzima Business Weekly on 22 May 2014

The Lab in Yangon
The Lab in Yangon

Amine Zlaoui and Raouf Baccouche spent last year’s Thingyan break travelling across Myanmar and during a particularly pleasant evening in Bagan, the Tunisian duo hit on an idea: to open Yangon’s first tapas bar.

“We were having a few nice bottles of wine and suddenly we said, ‘You know what, let’s start a business together,’” Mr Zlaoui told Mizzima Business Weekly.

Almost exactly a year later, The Lab Wine and Tapas Bar flung open its doors to the public. A couple of hundred patrons poured into the medium-sized venue and its bar staff should be commended for somehow managing to keep up with the demand to pour them all a drink.

It’s even more impressive considering that The Lab’s service staff were recruited just 10 days before its opening on April 25.

Photo credit: Emmanuel Maillard
Photo credit: Emmanuel Maillard

“I know it’s quite hard to find skilled staff so I was stressed – but we were lucky,” Mr Zlaoui said.

Whilst it’s still early days, both managing directors are unanimously confident that their staff are a cut above the rest among the hospitality industry. Each of the 12 employees were headhunted following some strong recommendations from their contractor and executive chef – who also happen to be brothers-in-law. Executive chef Thura (who also goes by Tom) spent 12 years working in kitchens in London and is no stranger to international cuisines. Other candidates were put forward by The Lab’s operations manager, who spent three years in Dubai and is now working alongside several of his former colleagues.

“Most of our staff spent many years working abroad,” Mr Zlaoui said.

Converting the former garments shop into a stylish night venue also went without a hitch, despite the fact that a kitchen, bathroom and water tank needed to be installed, a wall demolished and its drag white walls made over. The brick walls, chairs, tables and light fixtures are custom made, and made in Myanmar.

“Renovations were finished in just six weeks because our contractor is excellent,” Mr Baccouche said.

“Setting up any business in Myanmar isn’t easy – but as you can see it’s possible. In actual fact, our biggest problems weren’t related to Myanmar itself. It was the administrative side of things that took a lot of time. We’d had no advice about how to set up a company,” he added.

However the pair, who were raised in Tunis and have known each other since they were 15 and also later studied together in Toulouse, France, share a strong vision of what they’re offering their clientele: something that can’t be found elsewhere in Yangon – an authentic tapas experience with an international component.

Tapas at The Lab. Photo credit: Emmanuel Maillard
Tapas at The Lab. Photo credit: Emmanuel Maillard

“Tapas isn’t a Spanish concept – it’s a Spanish word. The idea of bite-sized foods with a nice glass of wine also exists in Tunisia and other parts of Northern Africa, as well as France and the Middle East. But it’s known by a different name, such as mezze in the Middle East or kamia in Tunisia,” Mr Zlaoui said.

Tapas is well known for encouraging conversation, as diners may stand while sharing plates and aren’t focused on consuming an entire meal placed before them.

“Sharing is caring,” Mr Baccouche said with a laugh.

Needless to say, The Lab’s tapas selection, which at 26 items should please any palate, isn’t limited to Spanish cuisine alone. It also features scrumptious samples of North African fare, such as Mechouia salad with tuna chunks (K3,500), Middle Eastern classics such as falafel (K3,500), houmous (K,3000) and baba ghannouch (K3,000), as well as European, Asian and American.

“Yangon has virtually nothing in the way of Middle Eastern food, so we really wanted to bring that here,” said Mr Baccouche.

Ditto for the music, which are Middles Eastern and African beats. There are also plans in the works to have a Burmese guitarist play acoustic sets from 6.30pm during the week, and further down the track, on weekends as well.

For the foreseeable future, The Lab is only open for dinner – from 5.30pm until late.

“Firstly, I don’t believe in tapas for lunch. And I don’t think it would be worth it because The Lab is in a busy area and parking is difficult. So for now we’re focusing on nights. But if operations run smoothly we could do a Sunday brunch. I’d really like to be able to do that,” Mr Zlaoui said.

Amine Zlaoui and Raouf Baccouche
Amine Zlaoui and Raouf Baccouche

The only compromise made on classic tapas dining is not displaying every item on a platter for customers to peruse – a decision made necessary for financial reasons. Almost all The Lab’s produce is sourced locally and arrives fresh every day from the markets, whether it be the squid, shrimp, pork, beef, chicken or veggies. The cold cuts – Italian prosciutto and salami – are imported, as is salmon and tahini, as no other alternative yet exists. Fine cheeses will be added to the menu in around a month’s time, and the entire menu will change as regularly as the seasons.

The Lab is closed Mondays, but on the other six days of the week there’s a two-for-one happy hour for cocktails from 5.30pm until 7:30pm. Its wine selection includes 14 standard wines, seven of which are offered by the glass, plus two of the sparkling variety, the latter of which are produced using the champagne method of double fermentation (K28,000). There’s even champagne itself: a bottle of the best bubbly will set you back K80,000 or 90,000.

Something emphasised above all else is that The Lab aims to provide a new experience – not just during the first visit, but continuously. Its logo has more than a passing resemblance to laboratory equipment sketched in the shape of a wine bottle, and the branding is deliberate.

“Our concept is new and people have responded well to it, which is great,” Mr Baccouche said with a grin.

The Lab is at 70/A Shwe Gon Daing Road, Bahan Township, Yangon.

For bookings, call 09250018200 or 09250537979

For more information, visit The Lab’s Facebook page 

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