Before the big opening

Long-term expats with a total of more than a century in Myanmar talk about how times have changed since they first arrived.

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Published in Mizzima Business Weekly on 31 March 2014

Long-term expats with a total of more than a century in Myanmar talk about how times have changed since they first arrived.

The Chai family (pic supplied)
The Chai family (pic supplied)

Few countries in the world have undergone change as rapidly as Myanmar has in recent years.After half a century of military rule ended in early 2011, the former pariah state launched a reform process which inspired the United States and the European Union to lift or relax their sanctions, precipitating a rush of foreign investors and an influx of expatriates. After the military under General Ne Win seized power from a democratically-elected government in 1962, the regime adopted as state policy a bizarre mix of Socialism and Buddhism and closed the country to the world. Foreigners were expelled, foreign organisations were banned and tourist visas were limited to a maximum stay of three days. Yet despite Myanmar’s hermit identity, an expatriate community has existed for decades, albeit in negligible numbers. Many of these “old hands” came when the military successor to Ne Win’s regime opened the doors a fraction in the early 1990s.

“There weren’t very many expats living here full-time because it was a really hard place to live. The backpacker crowd and the young crowd that’s here now just didn’t exist,” said Damon Zumbroegel, an American architect who moved to Myanmar 10 years ago.

“Nobody encouraged us to come,” said Aysha Bhuiya, a Bangladeshi who moved to Yangon with her family 15 years ago.

“But due to the expense of international school fees back in Dhaka, we saw my husband’s transfer as the opening of a door for our children’s education.”

Most foreigners, however, weren’t convinced that life in Myanmar could offer any advantages.

“The embassy postings and NGO jobs used to be considered the non-desirable ones. I have a friend working for an NGO and he said to me the other day: ‘It’s insane: we’re getting thousands of applications to come to Myanmar,’” Mr Zumbroegal said.

Indeed, until after the installation of the Thein Sein’s reformist government in early 2011 there were frequent reminders that Myanmar was a police state, determined to “crush all external and internal destructive elements as the common enemy.”

“Up until six or seven years ago, you couldn’t talk about building a university,” said an expat who spoke on condition of anonymity. “My colleagues and I would turn off all the lights [in the office] and whisper so that no one could hear us talking about it,” said an expat who declined to be named.

Universities have long been distrusted by authorities, as they have often been the hub of protests, such as during the suppressed democracy uprising of 1988.

In fact, anything linked to education was a sensitive topic and expatriate journalists who worked on Yangon publications in the early 2000s can remember being instructed by government censors to change any references to privately-run schools to “educational institutions”.

Peter Swarbrick, a British writer who came to Yangon with his Myanmar wife and son in 2007 said: “Almost everybody I met told me to assume I was being followed. There was just a kind of general feeling that it was a military regime and supposedly xenophobic, though the people themselves are not xenophobic at all.”

Australian Geoffrey Goddard, who arrived in mid-2001 after being appointed editor of the English edition of the Myanmar Times, discovered that even seemingly innocuous behaviour could result in unwanted attention from the authorities.

Mr Goddard and the then Deputy Head of Mission at the British embassy, Martin Garrit, were laying a trail of shredded paper for a Yangon Hash House Harriers event in Shwe Pyi Thar Township one Saturday morning in 2004, when they were detained by government intelligence agents and taken to a community hall.

“There were four of them and they sat us down in the hall and began the interrogation, asking what we were doing and writing down our names; I think we might have been detained longer had Martin not been a diplomat,” he said.

“My most vivid memory of the experience is that one of these young men was looking at me with an expression of pure hatred.”

In the 1990s, the Saturday afternoon events organised by the Yangon Hash almost always took place under the close and conspicuous surveillance of intelligence operatives, including filming the participants. And sometimes the Hash incurred their extreme displeasure.

When the Hash was planning an event in 1999 which was being quietly promoted as the 9-9-99 run, a combination of numbers not likely to enthuse the authorities due its astrological link to the 8888 uprising 10 years earlier, one of the group’s organisers received a threatening call from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“If you value your continued good health, we advise you not to run tonight,” the caller said.

Other interactions between foreigners and the authorities were less sinister, but equally bewildering.

American architect Amelie Chai, who came to Myanmar in 2004 to join her husband, Zaw Moe Shwe, who launched Spine Architects the previous year, was driving through Yangon’s poorly lit streets one night when she ran into a ditch.

An official from the local township office accused her of damaging the ditch and told her she was lucky not to be fined.

French citizen Natasha Schaffner, who owns the Alamanda Inn in Yangon’s exclusive Golden Valley neighbourhood, has lived in Myanmar for nine years. She is required to give authorities three weeks’ notice before hosting a function.

“I think they’re stricter now than in the past,” she said.

“This might be because Myanmar people are out drinking a lot more, whereas in the past no one used to go out late in the evening,” she added.

The Bhuiya family (pic supplied)
The Bhuiya family (pic supplied)

Ms Schaffner cited acute electricity shortages and a lack of imported foods as the biggest challenges to running a French restaurant in Yangon, though fortunately neither is anywhere near as severe a hindrance today.

Another expat, who declined to be named, said that while Myanmar people were constantly on edge about being monitored by the country’s countless spies and informants, foreigners were able to move around more freely.

“It wasn’t like going to East Germany back in the day and literally knowing that over your shoulder was some shiesty little guy following you.”

However, friendships between Myanmar and foreigners were strongly discouraged. In 2001, the Myanmar Tourism Promotion Board issued an order for officials to limit “unnecessary contact” between locals and foreigners. The director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, Brad Adams, was quoted as saying in 2004: “Average Burmese people are afraid to speak to foreigners except in the most superficial of manners, for fear of being hauled in later for questioning or worse.”

Aysha’s husband, Fahmid Bhuiya, who is Chief Operating Officer of Pact Global Microfinance Fund in described the relationship between Myanmar and expatriates when they first arrived in the 1990s as “uneasy”.

“Locals had some sort of reservation – not fear, but a reservation to meet foreigners.”

His interactions with neighbours were limited to basic pleasantries: “There was no socialising.”

Mr Zumbroegal explained that a great deal of trust had to be established before friendships were formed.

“I was never going to get into trouble, but whoever I was associated with would. There really was a lot of fear. People opened up to me, but very, very slowly. But then there were times when I’d get in a cab and the driver would roll up the windows and say, ‘This is the way my country is …’”

Until imported vehicles began in flood in to Myanmar about three years ago, there were far fewer cars on the streets, and many of them were ramshackle rust buckets.
Until the import restrictions on vehicles were eased, cars were a preferred investment, along with real estate, because they retained their value.

Mr Zumbroegal said that in 2009, a second-hand Mitsubishi Pajero cost about US$120,000 (about K116 million), with the permit itself costing up to $60,000.

For those whose costly new cars didn’t match the new requirements, there were two options, as Mr Zumbroegal explained.

“You could get a car ‘re-licensed’ if you knew people and paid money under the table, or you could cut the back off with a chainsaw to make it resemble a lightweight truck.”

People opted for the latter in droves.

“I still see a lot of cars with the backs sawn off,” Mr Zumbroegal said.

Mobile phones were also rare, due to the prohibitive cost of SIM cards, which in 2003 was set at an exorbitant $5,000.

“It seemed that mobile phones were for the privileged – well-connected businessmen and high ranking members of the military,” said Mr Goddard, now an editor with Mizzima Media Group.

The cost of a SIM card hovered at about $1,000 until President Thein Sein’s government slashed the price to $1.50 in July last year. However, the number of SIM cards available is inadequate and there have also been allegations of corruption in the awarding of “SIM lotteries.” Most people continue to buy SIM cards on the black market, for about $100.

Few businesses had internet connections in the early 2000s, but the situation had begun to improve within a few years. But with limited internet access and international telephone calls from landlines prohibitively expensive at up to $8 a minute, many expats felt cut off from their family and friends.

“We gave our letters to the French embassy to post so as to be sure they would arrive,” Ms Schaffner said.

“I felt suffocated by the information gap; that was the biggest problem for me,” Mr Bhuiya said.

His teenaged son told him a few years ago that he was unable to compete with students elsewhere in the world because his school did not have internet facilities.

“He told me his school was 20 years behind.”

Mr Zumbroegal said he and his young family were so isolated that for days after the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 they were unaware of the devastation it had caused.

“We’d been trying to get flights to Bangkok but travel agents refused to sell them or give an explanation as to why. We finally got a note from one of our parents a few days later – they were going crazy because we were supposed to have been vacationing in Phuket over Christmas.”

Horizon School Principal Vugar Bababayev from Azerberjian arrived in Myanmar 17 years ago and initially lived in Mandalay, where there was no internet whatsoever. When the technology did arrive, internet cafes were under a state monopoly and it cost $1 to open or send an email.

The concept of privacy was unknown, as Mr Bababayev explained. “A few days after I first went to an internet cafe, someone there phoned to say that I’d received a new email,” he said. “When I returned to read it, I was shown a piece of paper with my colleagues’ email addresses and passwords and was asked to choose which one was mine. It was bizarre.”

As well as the monitoring of online content, internet speeds were exceedingly slow.

“I remember sitting for hours in an internet cafe waiting for a page to load,” Ms Schaffner said.

Two years ago, an internet connection at home cost $1,700. Connections are available now through wi-fi on ubiquitous smart phones.

Yet despite the hardships of everyday life, many of Myanmar’s long-term expats share a fondness for the past, when the streets were quieter, prices lower and the pace of life was more relaxed.
“As an expat, I do kind of treasure some of the past, the quietness,” Ms Chai said. “I have mixed feelings about Myanmar opening up, though it is of course good for the economy.”

“When my wife and I first came to Myanmar, we felt we’d found a place on Earth that wasn’t caught up in the crazy materialistic cycle like the rest of the world. Until a few years ago, that is,” Mr Zumbroegal said.

“A lot of my friends who have been here 20 years have been making an exit strategy, and others have already left for Chiang Mai or Nepal,” he added.

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