Is this Myanmar’s Lady Gaga? An exclusive interview with Phyu Phyu Kyaw Thein

Published in Mizzima Business Weekly on 22 February 2014

Phyu Phyu Kyaw Thein on stage
Phyu Phyu Kyaw Thein on stage

Glam rock stalwart Phyu Phyu Kyaw Thein talks to Mizzima Business Weekly about the ups and downs of life as a celebrity and the toll piracy is taking on musician’s livelihoods.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m working on two solo albums, both of which will be released this year. One album will be similar to what my fans are used to, while the other will be a little bit different – you could call it an underground, new alternative to my music. I don’t have a title for that album yet, but it will be released after Thingyan [the Burmese New Year in April].

I’m working on the other album with the Lazy Club band and the album will be more like my last album, Damsel in Distress [released in August 2012] – it will have a mix of ballads, pop, rock and retro.

All songs on both albums will have original lyrics.

You’re often compared with Lady Gaga – how do you feel about that?

I was performing before Lady Gaga became famous but I think people say this because my sister designs my outlandish, glam rock outfits – she kind of tests me as to whether I have the guts to wear them! But I am a poor girl from a third world country so I dare not compare myself with her.

She takes a good selfie!
She takes a good selfie!

How much of a problem is piracy for you and the entire music industry?

Myanmar’s music industry is breaking down as a result of the uncontrollable piracy. Let me start with an example of how rampant it is – my best selling album took two or three years to sell just 10,000 copies – and that’s among a population of 60 million people. The amount of official CDs I sold is about the size of a single township’s population, but I believe that more than a million copies of my album sold were pirated versions.

Piracy is a big business and there is no rule of law to control it. It provides jobs for poor people, selling pirated CDs, and most are unaware that it’s a crime. But it’s also a big business for the rich people who own the factories that make the pirated CDS. Due to the fact that an official album costs $2 while it’s possible to buy three pirated albums for $1, musicians here have to make their money from live performances.

The Myanmar Music Association (MMA), of which I am the general secretary, is campaigning for tougher laws against piracy. But we’re not the authoritative organisation to actually bring about change. Under current laws, the penalty is either a one or two month prison term or a fine of no more than US$200 or $300. Of course the criminals opt to pay the compensation because it’s such a small amount. The big guys in the piracy business can make about $10,000 a day – that amounts to millions over a year. Plus there’s a lot of bribery and corruption – we get threatening phone calls and the judges are bribed. They will even bribe our own lawyers!

Glam alert!
Glam alert!

Can musicians make money from royalties?

The first radio station that signed a contract to pay musicians royalties was in 2008, and in December last year, City FM was the last station to come onboard. We had to meet with them many times to get them to agree to pay us royalties.

What’s the payment per song?

[Laughs] It’s a 600 kyat. And most of the time, it works out to be about 100 kyat per person, because we split the money in various percentages among the vocalist, musicians, composers, the producer, and the sound engineer. For a solo song, I’ll get a little more than 100 kyat, but if it’s a duet it will be around 50, 60 or 70 kyat.

In Thailand, the amount paid is fairly similar, but Thailand has so many more radio stations than Myanmar, which only has seven. We don’t have local stations, so the situation for musicians here is very different in terms of the money we can make from royalty payments. But things are better now in general because the MMA is made up of elected members. Prior to 2011, there were some musicians who were members, but they had to fight a lot with the members who were from the government or ministry. The government appointed the MMA members and often discussions would just come to an end with, “You have to do this or that – and don’t complain.” So the musicians belonging to the MMA were quite powerless to support us.

Never a dull moment...
Never a dull moment…

Were you affected by censorship?

Yes, of course. I was often told to change my lyrics. There was one song I performed called “Phensidyl” [a stimulant cough syrup containing codeine that’s produced in Myanmar and illegal in some countries] that is actually against the drug, and it’s also a love song. It was created by a legendary composer, but the censorship committee seemed to have an allergic reaction to the mere mention of the word “phensidyl.” They asked me to change the words and I didn’t want to, but I had to for the official recording. The composer had passed away by then, so one of his best pupils changed it for me. Then in 2010, just before the elections and the democratic reforms, one of my concerts was aired on a state-run TV channel. Before I sang the song live on air I pleaded to be allowed to sing the original lyrics. Although they didn’t exactly say yes, they didn’t cut transmission and I’ve been allowed to sing the original lyrics ever since. Even my plea was aired.

Does the media in Myanmar give celebrities enough privacy?

Yes, very much so. We have no paparazzi here in Myanmar and sometimes the media actually covers up drug scandals or what not from the public. Of course, people want to know about the lives of celebrities, but it’s possible for us to choose how much information we give to the public. And I don’t have much to lie about anyway [laughs].

Do you feel that success is tied to flaunting good looks?

I always try to look beautiful within the local cultural context. I don’t reveal too much – it’s just not my style. Being sexy in Myanmar is different from say, America. Take Shakira – she used to be a simple girl singing in her own language but when she went to America they sexualised everything about here. Here it just doesn’t sell. But that said, there’s some pretty revealing outfits among Myanmar’s hip hop scene!

She leaves so many star-struck
She leaves so many star-struck

Do you have any issues when you’re in public?

I hear a lot of “Oh my Gods” every day, but that’s okay for me. It’s become normal and I’m used to it. Even when I’m not wearing makeup, people still recognise me and follow me around. Sometimes I’m not even able to shop because people are asking for autographs and pictures, and of course I have to allow them. It’s a combination of boys and girls – and sometimes even really, really young kids!!

Have you thought of going out with a disguise – such as by wearing sunglasses?

No one wears sunglasses in Myanmar so that wouldn’t work. [laughs]

Have you had any stalkers?

Yeah I have. I was in Mandalay last year and was meant to be taken to a concert venue from my hotel. The hotel told me to go down and get in the car, so off I went with my makeup crew. By the time we reached the venue I realised it wasn’t the same chauffer that had driven me on other occasions because he clearly had no idea where to drop me off when we arrived. He was meant to take to me via a secret route so that I could get inside. It turned out that he was a creepy fan, but he wasn’t trying to harm me. But the concert organisers were shocked and security came as soon as I called them on my mobile and grabbed me out of the car. That’s been the only incident in my 10 year career.

Queen of the one-piece
Queen of the one-piece

You’ve said that your Christian faith is an important part of your identity, and you’re also a successful businesswoman, having achieved so much during your decade long career. Where do you see yourself headed from here?

It’s funny, you know – people call me a “doctor-singer” because I’m a qualified doctor, and when I release music clips, I’m an “actress-singer” – even though I’m not at all into acting. When I sing different styles of music, I come to know that I have different types of Phyu Phyu Kyaw Thein inside me. There are a lot of other parts that I don’t even understand yet. I think I might be at the beginning of an underground, alternate version of myself as a musician.


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Why sustainable investment matters: Anthem Asia

Published in Mizzima Business Weekly on 13 March 2014

Josephine Price, director of Anthem Asia
Josephine Price, director of Anthem Asia

Josephine Price is a director of Anthem Asia, an independent investment group which was established two years ago and adheres to the United Nations’ principles of responsible investment. Anthem Asia made its first investment in Myanmar in September last year – a US$1 million office rental firm called Hintha Business Centers. Ms Price was originally a lawyer and prior to cofounding Anthem Asia, she spent three decades working in investment in frontier markets across Asia. She talks to Mizzima Business Weekly about why sustainable investment matters in Myanmar.

What exactly is “responsible investment”?
There’s often a lot of jargon thrown around in terms of being “responsible” and “sustainable” when it comes to investing. So let’s start with what we mean by “sustainable:” businesses that create value within the community in which they’re investing and that are sustainable in the long term. For us its’ a commercial approach – we’re not an NGO. We want to make money, but we want to make it responsibly.

Sometimes people assume that sustainability means that you reduce your investments return. We believe that gradually, people will start costing their environmental and social impact into their investment, which means that investments which are sustainable should have a higher long term value, because the risk profile is reduced. It’s not free to take things from the earth and it’s not free to pollute. Well, it may be now, but it won’t be forever. So having a sustainable investment is a better business model because the risks are a lot lower.

This sounds like the idea of the “triple bottom line,” a phrase that was coined in 1994 by British consultant John Elkington. Is your concept about factoring in more than traditional notions of profit?

Sort of – it’s one of the benchmarks for measuring the environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) of a company. However while there are hundreds of academic papers on how this is achieved, when you look and who is doing it and how, you find that the practical demonstration on the ground is much less frequent than academics seem to suggest.

Could you provide an example of a successful case study of responsible investment?

In the commodities sector, there are some big players working with farmers to improve crop yields and to improve how their products are being purchased so that farmers get a better deal. Usually a farmer is in a vicious cycle of borrowing to buy seed at an appalling interest rate and then has to sell their seed to someone who takes a big cut as the middle man. This leaves farmers in a cycle of poverty. So some of the big commodity companies have been working to improve yields and trying to buy crops directly from farmers, at fixed prices. This is more sustainable because farmer become better educated about their business and there’s a more effective use of fertilizer and so forth – you create a much more beneficial cycle. There’s been a lot happening across Southeast Asia in working more sustainably with farmers.

One of the sector’s Anthem Asia works in is tourism – what’s your take on Myanmar’s tourism industry?

At this stage we’ve had limited experience in tourism but we believe it’s going to be a great sector. What will be difficult is how to manage to the large volume of tourists that will be coming without destroying the environment. We like to work with those who are working with local partners and are sensitive to local communities. We also believe that tourists like it. I think this makes commercial sense and it’s more sustainable: the entire tourist dollar shouldn’t be leaving Myanmar and with little or no benefits going to the local community.

We held a workshop two weeks ago and have been talking to members of the government along with development agencies about how to cooperate on a range of issues, such as conserving the environment and providing better training for staff in the tourist sector. I think the government is very willing to work in cooperation and is trying to get a working group together, which is positive.
Obviously, plonking down big hotels in the middle of nowhere has a lot of unfortunate consequences. But just to reiterate, we aren’t an NGO – our mission is to do what we do right, to try to no do no harm. We’re not out to change the world but to change the little bit that we deal with.

How do you convince potential clients to do the right thing in a country such as Myanmar, where it may be somewhat easier to simply go down the “pure profits” path?

It’s no different from anywhere in the world – we find clients through networking. We tell people what we do, and I actually don’t believe it’s a hard sell here in Myanmar. There’s a culture of giving back to the community, whether it’s by setting up a schools or making merit – you should try it in places like China. Here, I think there’s a lot of sensitivity to the idea of investing sustainably. However do bear in mind that we target small to medium business, not huge, complicated, well-connected businesses.

How does Myanmar as a frontier market compare to the likes of China, Vietnam and Indonesia, when they were first opening up to foreign investment?

Many of the challenges are similar – issues such as a lack of rule of law, a limited understanding of how contracts work, terrible accounting, very few people are paying tax… But what’s unique about Myanmar is that political reforms are coinciding with political ones. China opened up to business without opening up politically, which was the same case in Vietnam. Indonesia opened and then had its revolution. So the fact that the two things are coinciding here is a good thing, but it’s also very complicated because of the regulatory uncertainty – there’s ongoing political debate at the same time as trying to work out new commercial laws.

A recent report by Reuters described Myanmar as the poorest country in Asia after Afghanistan. When do you believe it will become a middle income country?

Not soon. At least 10 to 15 years. And remember that being “middle income” is still quite poor. Myanmar is starting off with such a low base. However I’d also that due to the fact there’s a lot of black money here, the size of its economy is very difficult to gauge.

A Bagan temple at sunset

“No good, no pay:” Aroma (2)’s promise to patrons in Bagan

Published in Mizzima Business Weekly on 8 March 2014

A Bagan temple at sunset
A Bagan temple at sunset

It takes a bold restaurateur to put potential profits on the line by pledging “No good, no pay” for every meal served. Yet it’s also a very clever marketing strategy that makes Aroma (2) stand out from the rest of the restaurants in Bagan’s tourist hot spot of Nyaung U – which is no easy feat. As Mizzima Business Weekly discovered, competition is fierce along “Restaurant Street” (a.k.a. Yarrkinnthar Street) and consumer loyalty is extremely difficult (if not impossible) to maintain, as most diners are tourists that flit in and out to see Bagan’s temples, likely never to be seen again.

Hence the owner of Aroma (2), Rajendura Kumar (who simply goes by Mr Raju), believes that his food is so good that his greatest challenge is getting people to try it. When asked why he feels it necessary to make such a commitment to his customers, he almost seemed surprised by the question.

“How else will people know that my food is good?” he said earnestly.

Mr Raju's daughter Chadni on left, with a waitress
Mr Raju’s daughter Chadni on left, with a waitress

That’s why “No good, no pay” is written in large letters on the signs outside, and the mantra has been translated into more than 50 languages on the back of the menu, just to be sure everyone understands the deal.

Only three diners have ever refused to pay for their meals at Aroma (2) since it opened in 2005. The first was a stingy backpacker who claimed to have left his wallet in his hotel, only to run off the following day when he bumped into Mr Raju at the local market. One lady simply refused and left on the premise that the food contained MSG (it doesn’t), and a local woman claimed the next day that she got sick – and called the police. Mr Raju had to pay the woman a fine, despite describing in detail to police how well he maintains hygiene and that it simply wasn’t possible to have made someone sick. He looked pained at he described the past encounter. Nonetheless, the fact that such incidents have been so rare is a stellar achievement on the part of this family-run restaurant, and proof that the food is made with love and served with pride. Further evidence of Aroma (2’s) merits lies in the fact that it remains the top choice for a meal in Nyaung U in Lonely Planet – it’s been recommended in every edition of the guidebook for the past nine years.

Restaurant Street in Nyaung Oo, Bagan
Restaurant Street in Nyaung Oo, Bagan

Aroma (2) is one of the few places in Nyaung U that doesn’t take a shot at serving multi-cuisines; most of the other restaurant signboards decry a choice of Indian, Chinese, Thai, Western, Italian and of course, Burmese. Depending on your perspective, these signboards could actually sow seeds of doubt in a potential diner’s mind about whether it’s a case of being “a jack of all trades but a master of none” type of place. Thus it was with some surprise that at two other restaurants further up Restaurant Street, the Indian food served was actually extremely good. The meals definitely didn’t lack authenticity – and one restaurant had the same delicious condiments, albeit offered in tiny serves, as at Aroma (2).

However Mr Raju feels very bitter towards one of these restaurants in particular because he claims that its owner dined at Aroma (2) every day for a week after it opened, expressing a professed interest in Indian cuisine. Mr Raju told the owner all that’s contained in the meals and how Indian food is prepared, and he was staggered to find his dishes replicated at the other restaurant shortly afterwards.

“Another mistake I made was to close Aroma (2) to help out my wife with Aroma (1) in Inle Lake during the low tourist season in Bagan. By the time I came back, a bunch of places offering Indian had opened,” he lamented.

Nonetheless, Aroma (2) boldly claims to be “Number One” for Indian food in Myanmar, and it certainly outranks any Indian I’ve ever tasted outside of India itself – even Yangon’s Coriander Leaf (whose prices are about double that of Aroma (2’s). There’s no longer an Aroma at Inle Lake because the family closed it down so as to be able to live together.

Customers who have fallen in love with Aroma 2 in days past have designed cartoons for the signboards and menus that depict the “before and after” eating experience. One such cartoon depicts a “normal” stick figure arriving for a meal and being carried out with a bulging belly in the back of a trishaw. I heard Mr Raju’s son, a waiter, gently telling another diner – with a definite twinkle in his eye – to “take it gently”.

Mr Raju said that other diners have helped to refine his initially very broad menu to include a selection of the greatest Indian classics, such as tandoori chicken. He is constantly on the lookout for suggestions to improve the dining experience and although busy, he’s clearly happy to chat away with customers, including the balloon pilots, who are some of his regulars. And if you’d curious about what it’s like to actually live in Bagan as a local, get the lowdown from Mr Raju’s bubbly daughter Chadni, who waits on the tables (“The low season is incredibly boring because there’s nothing to do without the tourists here…”)

Mr Raju
Mr Raju

Meals begin with massive, melt-in-your-mouth poppadums, followed by the plain, potato or garlic naans and chapatti, which accompany the authentic flavours contained in northern Indian dishes such as tikka masala. The amount of spice in the curries will be tailor-made according to your individual preference. Then there’s the refreshing raitha (a mix of curd and cucumber) and no less than six complimentary chutneys, including tamarind and mint. Obviously it’s not obligatory to have as much food as this, but if you have any sense, you will – and it will cost around $30 for two people to eat like kings.

Aroma (2) boasts a small bridge as an entrance-way to the open air restaurants and a warm glow is cast over diners at night with attractive lamps. Beer is served icy cold. However the table arrangement is perhaps a little too cosy, which means that other diners’ conversations are easily overheard, as are your own. Whilst this can be a little awkward, it made it possible to confirm that other diners appeared to be in raptures over their meals on the two evenings I dined at Aroma (2). Expect to hear a lot of happy sighs.

Action needed on Myanmar’s elderly care gap

Published in IRIN News on 18 February 2014

An elderly woman at the Home for the Aged Poor in Yangon
An elderly woman at the Home for the Aged Poor in Yangon

Increasing economic migration is straining families in Myanmar, leaving the elderly to care for grandchildren as their own health diminishes, according to NGO HelpAge International, which warns this phenomenon will intensify in the coming years as migration increases.

A “skip generation” – households with older people living only with grandchildren – is emerging, and places a double burden on older people struggling to care for themselves.

In 2013 HelpAge, with support from the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), carried out the country’s first comprehensive study on the elderly population in decades, which found that people over 60 accounted for about 9 percent of Myanmar’s estimated population of 60 million, a figure that had “virtually quadrupled over the past 60 years”.

But these are only estimates, and “need to be replaced with accurate information and it is a census which can help validate this,” said Janet Jackson, UNFPA’s Myanmar representative, in reference to the upcoming census in March and April this year – the first for more than 30 years.

“The number of elderly people is increasing steadily in Myanmar, but no one knows how many there are. This means that planning for them in terms of policy or services is not easy,” Jackson added.

By 2050, older people are expected to form a quarter of the population, a huge challenge for a nation that does not yet have a policy on elderly care.

Sister Mary Andrews is pictured on the left
Sister Mary Andrews is pictured on the left

With no pension system in place, more than half of people aged 60 or over in Myanmar are still economically active, while a quarter of those aged 70 to 74 are still working, mostly in agriculture.

A third of the roughly 4,000 elderly people the NGO interviewed reported a lack of electricity, while almost 60 percent had no running water. A quarter of the survey’s respondents said they had not been able to afford health care in 2012. Half are illiterate, with a disproportionate number being women.

The “skip generation”

Even by Southeast Asian standards, the elderly in Myanmar are “exceptionally” close to their families, noted HelpAge.

“Economic migration is becoming an increasingly important issue. We’ve found that as many as 70 percent of households in villages in Kayin and Mon states have a child living in bordering Thailand or an urban hub in Myanmar. Many parents aren’t sending any money home and as the grandparents start to struggle with their own health and mental health issues, it’s having an impact on [grand]children,” Tapan Barman, country director of HelpAge, told IRIN.

A resident of Home for the Aged Poor
A resident of Home for the Aged Poor

“In Hpa-An Township [in Kayin State], I was struck by the huge extent of migration… Virtually every older person said they had at least one child working in Thailand,” Peter Morrison, HelpAge’s regional programme manager, said.

According to Sister Mary Andrew at the Home for Aged Poor in Yangon which cares for 134 older people, cases of children abandoning their parents are relatively common.

“We find some [older people] on the street, whereas others come knocking on the door, saying, ‘I have no shelter or food and no one to take care of me.’ Others have families, but the children don’t want to care for them. We’ve taken in many older people whose children have gone abroad, left their parents and never come back for them,” she told IRIN.

She added that there is now a waiting list as the home has reached maximum capacity and funding from private donors decreased dramatically following Cyclone Nargis in 2008.

“Myanmar’s traditional social support system, whether it be a church, pagoda or mosque, fills the gap – to some extent. But if you ask older people, most will say that they don’t want to leave their villages and live in an institution,” Barman added.

Costly legislation

Although a National Action Plan on Ageing was expected to be approved during the 2013-14 financial year, Barman said it was delayed due to a ministerial shuffle.

“Unlike Thailand, which began the process [of introducing pensions] about 30 years ago, Myanmar was a closed country for so long and social protection is completely new to the government. It wasn’t until last year that there was any interest in the idea,” Barman said.

Aung Tun Khaing, deputy director-general of the Ministry of Social Welfare, told IRIN parliament is “likely” to approve a plan by the end of 2014.

An ageing policy, and implementation legislation, is expected to follow the action plan, which will set up a pension system and subsidized health care. The law (HelpAge will advise on drafting) is expected to contain a section on gender equity, said Barman, which aims to prevent discrimination against women in land ownership and employment.

“A universal pension isn’t affordable at this stage. The government has so many other priorities and the health sector is weak. It will need to be introduced in phases – for example, by covering those above 80. In The Philippines, the pension is really small. But it helps – something is better than nothing,” Barman concluded.

Kyar Pauk onstage - Photo by Chris James White -

Mocking the system: Kyar Pauk from Bloodsugar Politik

Published in Mizzima Business Weekly on 20 February 2014

Kyar Pauk onstage - Photo by Chris James White -
Kyar Pauk onstage – Photo by Chris James White –

Kyar Pauk is a vocalist, guitarist and producer for Bloodsugar Politik and the former lead man of Big Bag. He talks to Mizzima Business Weekly about his life as a musician under censorship and what makes him tick as songwriter.

What made you decide to become a musician?

I grew up in Taungoo in Bago, where there were no playgrounds, TVs, or toy stores. As kids we used to play guitar and drums for fun. There was literally nothing else to do. My father was a drummer and I started learning drums from the age of four, and did my first recording as a 13-year-old. My grandfather actually started an orchestra in that tiny town… Anyway, by the time I was 16 I was never at home. I grew up on the streets, hanging out with friends who were a lot older than me and playing gigs. I flunked my exams and slept in the studios. I guess you could say I was a gypsy type.

I eventually got a degree as a dental surgeon and married my professor’s daughter at the age of 23, which is pretty young. At the time my professor was pretty much looking after me because I was never at home. But after two years I backed out of being a dentist because I was unhappy. I hate the 9-5 life and all I wanted was to make music. So I dropped out of the clinic in 2009 and started working at a radio station. No regrets. Music is one of the few very things I’ve chosen in my life – otherwise I was just doing stuff to please my parents.

Your first album with Big Bag was released back in 2003. Was what it like being a musician back then?

Getting approval from the censorship board was standard procedure for me, but so many of my songs were rejected. One album had a quarter of the songs knocked back. Censorship was a really complicated process and sometimes it could take up to six months to get the permission needed to legally distribute an album. The first stage involved providing several copies of an entire album’s lyrics, and if the board thought that certain words conflicted with their laws or was anti-government, they’d cross them out and say, “You can’t use it.” The second stage was applying the changes they told me to make on an audio CD, and submitting that to them. However by that time I was already performing the songs as I’d originally written them. It was so f*&%king crazy!

Photo by Chris James White -
Photo by Chris James White –

The rules and regulations were very unpredictable: it was one rule for one person. The censorship board would check a singer’s background for certain actions: did the person make an anti-government speech on stage? I hadn’t done that, fortunately.

I’d get a call being summoned to meet with the censorship board. I never dressed up or anything for those meetings. I found it impossible to reason with them. They would rewrite my lyrics and say, “Sing it, sing it – it’s okay, right?” My reply would be, “It’s okay, I won’t bother.” And then I’d put the recording up on the internet. It wasn’t that those people insulted or threatened me, but all the same, it was a bully speech.

What sorts of lyrics were disallowed?

Jail, imprison, sentence, inmate – they never let musicians use those words. Although it was tricky, I managed to find loopholes. Take for example my album title “One second sentence” – how can anyone possibly know what I’m implying? I’ll tell you that what it meant was the feeling of being imprisoned for a fleeting moment. It used to be part of a normal day to have those feelings – for example if I read the propaganda newspapers or watched the 8pm news. I’d feel totally speechless when I saw something extraordinarily stupid or stunningly cruel… I don’t have that sensation anywhere as often anymore.

Another thing is that Myanmar words are kind of tricky – one word can have three or even four meanings, so it’s easy to twist them. I would tell them it’s about this or that, but it’s wasn’t. And as their English was so limited, I’d translate any approved lyrics into whatever I wanted.

One other trick I had was “bleeping.” I started the “bleep trend” in Myanmar actually. I barely use harsh words in my daily life but I did so in my songs because I was angry and wanted to prove that censorship was idiotic. I did it album after album, and they didn’t realise what I was doing because they thought a bleep is a musical sound. They don’t know what music is.

Photo by Chris James White -
Photo by Chris James White –

What do you write about in your songs?

I don’t write stories: I’ve always tried to mock the system. One song I wrote, for example, is about having no power, no electricity and no water in my toilet.

Does Myanmar have a healthy indie scene nowadays?

I can’t say that it does. It’s really hard to invade the current scene with new sounds. There’s a yearly awards system organised by City FM but it’s such a joke because the awards are given to people who sing cover songs. And the live scene is really difficult because we don’t have enough venues to support live gigs. Newcomers will find the existing venues impossibly expensive.

Will you take your music outside Myanmar?

I’ve already performed in London, but I’m not looking for international recognition. But I do want to perform in front of international audiences in English. I want the world to know that there are people like us doing this kind of thing in Burma.

But the reason I sing in English isn’t because I’m good at it or anything – this sounds weird but sometimes I can’t express my feelings in Burmese.

Why did you set up Bloodsugar Politik while Big Bag was such a success?

Frankly, we got bored. We’d been playing together for almost 10 years. When we started that band I was a drummer, but then our singer went to prison for drugs so I took over. He’s out of prison now but he’s not in the band. All of had the feeling that we wanted to start experimenting, to do something new, something not “us”. We all knew that one day Big Bag would come to an end. So I told the band that I wanted to do a side project and they said, “So do we.” So we’ve been able to do it together and that’s been really good.

For more info about Kyar Pauk and Bloodsugar Politik, visit


The calm before the smoke storm: Myanmar’s changing tobacco industry

Published in The Bangkok Post on 9 December 2013

Cigarettes are often sold individually in Myanmar - particularly at beer stations like this one as well as in tea shops.
Cigarettes are often sold individually in Myanmar – particularly at beer stations like this one as well as in tea shops.

Myanmar’s tobacco market is set for a shakeup following the return this year of the world’s second largest cigarette manufacturer, British American Tobacco, which entered into a joint partnership to locally manufacture its once ubiquitous London brand of cigarettes. However BAT faces an uneasy coexistence among a thriving black market of duty-free cigarettes and renewed efforts by the Ministry of Health to enforce existing anti-tobacco laws and bring new ones into effect.

Smoking rates in Myanmar are relatively high, among men at least. According to 2012 data from Myanmar Survey Research (MSR), 30 percent of males in the two largest cities, Yangon and Mandalay, are occasional or regular smokers. An additional 15 percent of urban males smoke the traditional, hand-rolled cigars, known as cheroots. MSR said that the chewing of betel nut is far more prevalent in rural areas – where 70 percent of Myanmar’s population of an estimated 60 million resides – than any other form of tobacco because of its low cost. Yet the study found that only 1 to 2 percent of urban women smoke either form of tobacco on a regular basis – however this may be starting to change.

According to a Yangon tobacco retailer with 30 years of experience in the trade and who spoke on condition of anonymity, 10 percent of his customers are now young Myanmar women.

“I’ve noticed a big increase [in the numbers of women buying cigarettes] lately, which may be due to the emergence of a nightclub scene in Yangon.”

Local and international brands aplenty on display
Local and international brands aplenty on display

The retailer stocks more than 100 brands of cigarettes, which he buys from pilots and cabin crew flying in from countries such as Thailand, The Philippines, Vietnam, Singapore and Indonesia. He sells major brands such as Marlboro and Benson and Hedges for less than $2 because each carton was purchased duty-free.

“Supermarkets are also involved in the black market trade of duty-free cigarettes,” he told Asia Focus.

Whether cigarettes are smuggled across Myanmar’s porous borders or flown in on duty-free allowances, the likes of BAT are well aware of how illicit trade damages their chances of success among price conscious consumers in Myanmar.

Rehan Baig, BAT’s managing director in Myanmar told Asia Focus, “Duty-free cigarettes are meant to be sold through the travel trade channel [but] they are sold in the domestic market through illicit channels. BAT is willing to work closely with government and industry stakeholders such as law enforcement agencies, customs officials and international organizations, such as the World Customs Organization, to counter illicit trade.”

The retailer said that cigarettes from Singapore are by far the most popular because the packets don’t contain graphic warnings about the effects of smoking. It seems BAT has done its homework well: London cigarettes, which are already being manufactured in Yangon, contain a small written warning in Myanmar along the side of its packets, which also states that a person must be over 18 to buy cigarettes.

Yangon resident Khin Thanda, 30, who has been smoking since she was in her mid-20s, told Asia Focus, “I’ve never once heard of anyone being asked to prove that they’re 18 when buying cigarettes.”

Stricter controls

Local tobacco competitors Red Ruby, Nine and Premium
Local tobacco competitors Red Ruby, Nine and Premium

Myanmar’s Ministry of Health is starting to get tough on the blasé attitude towards the dangers of smoking. Anti-smoking seminars are currently being planned to take place in schools and a new by-law about tobacco is being drafted. There is even talk that a ban on smoking in public areas, such as bars and restaurants, is on the cards.

An expatriate hotelier from one of Yangon’s busiest hotels told Asia Focus: “There have been rumours for some time that a smoking ban in public indoor areas will come into effect in the next six months or so. Expats in Yangon seem to be the heavy smoker types, but we get a lot of complaints from tourists – particularly Americans – who resent others smoking around them.”

Another hotelier said that although he’d not received any information via government channels, a report in a Myanmar language newspaper two weeks ago stated that preparations to enforce a smoking ban in public areas are underway.

“Sure, it will hurt business, but we’ll all be in the same boat,” added the expat hotelier, who is not authorised to speak to the media.

In theory at least, BAT would endorse such a move. Mr Baig said, “We support sensible regulations which are based on sound evidence. We believe, by working together, we can develop effective regulations which meet public health objectives, but not damage the livelihoods of farmers and people who are related to tobacco business.”

However Mr Baig stressed the need for stakeholders to be consulted before any new regulations come into effect.

The introduction of a smoking ban – in addition to the ban on advertising tobacco products already in place – would be in accordance with the World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which Myanmar signed up to several years ago. Until recently, implementing such laws was problematic, if not outright impossible, because tobacco production was monopolized by two military-run companies, the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings (UMEHL) and Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC). According to Marita Schimpl, head of marketing research at MSR, “It wasn’t until 2010 that other companies had the right to manufacture and distribute cigarettes.”

BAT’s links to UMEHL caused its downfall a decade ago: the company was forced to leave Myanmar on the request of the British government, following an investigation by Burma Campaign UK establishing it was linked to the military-backed UMEHL.

Mr Baig said that BAT selected its new local partner, I.M.U. Enterprise Ltd (which is part of Sein Wut Hmon Group) because it “brings considerable experience and expertise in distribution and trade marketing of consumer goods across Myanmar, and provides the infrastructure and capabilities required to build a sustainable business.”

A young girl preparing betel in downtown Yangon
A young girl preparing betel in downtown Yangon

Indeed, London cigarettes are already saturating the market and BAT may soon achieve its goal to knock local brand Red Ruby off the top spot in mid-range cigarette sales.

According to the editor-in-chief of Myanma Freedom Daily, Thiha Saw, who is also deputy chief of the Myanmar Journalists Association, “The real money has always been in mid-range brands. That’s still true today, although mid-range cigarette companies are no longer in the hands of drug-lords.”

In Myanmar, a mid-range brand costs less than a dollar, while low-end brands can cost as little as $0.25.

Unfortunately for BAT, it seems that despite its “exhaustive consumer research” to “understand the preferences of adult consumers” in Myanmar, the London brand hasn’t struck the right cord among Myanmar’s smokers, who have a strong leaning towards heavy cigarettes.

“London’s not selling well – customers are telling me they’re too light,” the retailer said.


Hidden identities – the policing of sex work in Myanmar

Published in Mizzima Business Weekly on 26 January 2014

A "dancing show" at Thiri Mingalar market in Yangon. The feather boa denotes that the woman has been "auctioned" to someone - not necessarily for sex.
A “dancing show” at Thiri Mingalar market in Yangon. The feather boa denotes that the woman has been “auctioned” to someone – not necessarily for sex.

Harsh, outdated laws and police corruption are hindering efforts to safely regulate Myanmar’s commercial sex industry

As a cool breeze blows through the open windows of a ramshackle house that serves as a massage parlour on the outskirts of Bago, the shrill sound of a mobile phone pierces the silence during yet another power cut. The manager of the massage parlour listens anxiously for a few seconds, then hangs up and says, “We’ll stay open tonight.”

The manager had been contacted by someone working at a nearby brothel who told him there was no need to worry about a police raid – for that night anyway.

As a pimp at the massage parlour explained, “Police are on a drive to make as many arrests as possible – the drive to fill certain quotas starts in December every year and continues until the end of January. We often have to shut for the night, or even a few nights – it’s not easy doing good business at this time of year. If the problems last too long, we’ll move to another house.”

The penalties for commercial sex work in Myanmar are tough: the Suppression of Prostitution Act (1949), adapted from a colonial law, provides for a jail term of up to three years for sex workers and up to five years for pimps. Clients, however, are not prosecuted under the law.

As the pimp explained, the massage parlour is in regular contact with the brothel – as well as local police officers, who warn of a possible raid in exchange for “protection money”.

“We have problems when police from outside Bago, such as Yangon or Naypyitaw, turn up un-announced,” he said.

The manager has been to prison several times – mostly for sentences of about six months.

“Whoever is on reception [when the police arrive] will go to jail, along with the women working here,” he said.

Krittayawan Tina Boonto from UNAIDS, who conducted a legal review of the laws surrounding commercial sex work in Myanmar last year, said police harassment is a major issue among sex workers.

“Sex workers spoke repeatedly of harassment – for example, a policeman will use a person’s reputation as a sex worker to arrest her, even after she stops being a sex worker. To get out of it the woman has to pay a bribe, which can include providing sexual services to police.”

Unlike Vietnam, which recently abolished the practice of keeping women in detention centres before they are charged for commercial sex work, Myanmar has two female detention centres in Yangon, and one each in  Twante and Mandalay.

“It’s a cross between a jail and a rehab centre. They are horrific. Women are forced to sew clothes and what not, before they are told whether they’ll be charged. It’s not at all voluntary – the women cannot leave. It’s not a solution we encourage,” said Anne Lancelot, the director of the Targeted Outreach Programme at Population Services International.

“Vietnam is now considering other ways to prosecute sex work; rather than forcing women to stitch bed nets in the detention centres, the government is considering introducing fines,” said Eamonn Murphy, the country coordinator in Myanmar for UNAIDS.

Inconsistency in the law

“The laws are impractical and difficult to enforce and are applied with varying degrees of severity. Those who are most disadvantaged tend to be the hardest hit and that’s unfair,” said Sid Naing, country director of Marie Stopes International.


Kay Thi Win, policy officer for the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers and founder of the AMA Sex Workers Network in Myanmar, which provides support to women who have been imprisoned for sex work, said “Evidence has shown that criminal penalties surrounding sex work drive the industry underground. It is in these unsafe settings with no protection from the law that sex workers are vulnerable to violence.”

Government figures for 2012 say there are 60,000 commercial sex workers in Myanmar, with a HIV/AIDS infection rate of 7.1 percent, compared to a rate of 0.5 percent among the general population.

Health experts say that while HIV/AIDS prevalence is decreasing among this risk group, their efforts to further reduce the infection rate are hampered by the harsh penalties for sex work, which can be a deterrent to seek health services out of fear of prosecution.

“The laws have very negative consequences on controlling the HIV/AIDS epidemic because sex workers don’t want to get tested. It’s an extra barrier,” Sid Naing said.
There are other laws that affect safe sex practices – not just among sex workers but the general population.

Police can prosecute anyone considered to be “loitering with intent to solicit” – as well “loitering after dark without adult supervision.”

“There can be situations where a police will say to a woman, “You have condoms in your purse and you have been standing at this bus station for two hours – so you are obviously loitering and soliciting,” said Ms Lancelot. “Some people joke that with all the power cuts in Myanmar, almost any time can mean ‘after dark,’” she said.

“It’s impacting youth terribly,” she added.

Not enough condoms

Until a directive was issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs in 2000, possessing a condom could be used as evidence of sex work.

However, UNAIDS says most people are unaware of the directive – and this includes members of the police, who continue to use possession of condoms as circumstantial evidence to make arrests at the street level.

“There is a need for more comprehensive police instruction that prohibits police from interfering with the right of all persons to carry condoms for HIV prevention or contraception,” said Mr Murphy.

Until the situation changes, condom sales in Myanmar are likely to remain dangerously low. The biggest seller of condoms in Myanmar is PSI; it sells Aphaw brand condoms at a subsidized price of between 20 percent and 50 percent of the retail value.

“We distribute condoms free to sex workers and men who have sex with men, because they are most at risk of contracting HIV/AIDS,” Ms Lancelot said.

“PSI sells 20 million condoms in Myanmar each year but that’s not that much for a population of 60 million or so. I think we need to be selling five times as much,” she said.

“People should be encouraged to buy condoms, even if they don’t use them. In a lot of cases, the mindset of police is still ‘no sex before marriage and marriages should be faithful’ in terms of public health. But in reality this is not what happens – so we should go where the reality is,” said Mr Murphy.

Thuza Win, the founder of the Sex Workers in Myanmar network (SWIM), an advocacy group for commercial sex workers, told Mizzima Business Weekly said that although prostitution is also illegal in neighbouring Thailand, where the World Health Organization estimates there are more than 200,000 sex workers, less severe policing tactics make it easier to spread health and legal awareness messages.

“I visited HIV/AIDS projects in Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Mae Sot and found that the sex industry is more regulated and that it’s easier to get condoms. It’s also easier to hold HIV/AIDS education sessions in Thailand, and to reach out to people with the disease,” said Ma Thuza Win.

“People in Thailand will admit they have HIV/AIDS, but in Myanmar, some prefer to die.”


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