What’s Next for Myanmar?

Sunset
Yangon: A city under construction.

I’m back in New York reflecting on the view from my Yangon hotel room. Each morning I woke up to a city under construction. Cranes seemed to rise from the streets trying to make up for lost decades—a perfect metaphor for our week in Myanmar, which I left with two major lessons in mind.

  1. Capacity Is Key: We saw this time and time again in both human capacity and capital capacity. In terms of human capacity, the educational systems don’t exist in the ways that are necessary and an entire generation is essentially lost to the decades of military rule. The key now, is to figure out to best educate the next generation. Repatriation can’t be the only answer, but it’s a start. Capital capacity is equally important, and there are many organizations working to solve this through economic and legal reforms that will make it easier for foreign investors. But these two issues work hand in hand, and one without the other will do little to move the country forward.
start up
At Phandeeyar’s tech accelerator, we heard pitches from six startup founders and got a better sense of the startup scene and the country’s capacity for, and interest in, startups.
  1. The Democratic Government Is Not Where It Needs to Be, Economically or Ethically: Leading up to our trip to Myanmar, one concern rose above all others for me: Why am I visiting a country amid a humanitarian crisis—and does that make me, by default, a supporter of what is happening? I made sure to read as much as possible about it in the English-language press so I could come prepared to ask hard-hitting questions. Ultimately though, it was shocking how much Yangon feels divorced from the controversy. People we met with dismissed it as something that has been going on for years and therefore not a real issue. Others excused Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence as a sign she is working with the military behind the scenes to bring peace, and making a public statement would compromise that position. Their excuses rang false to my ears and if the country really plans to move forward with the help of international aid it’s going to need to reckon with its actions. What I was not expecting, was the sentiments of ex-pats and citizens who missed the efficiency of military rule. People are nostalgic for those days and are critical of how the current government is stacked with party loyalists who are older and not as well versed in many of the issues that they oversee. Bottlenecks in decision making are common, making processes that should take hours or days take months. This comes back to the issues from my first point: Human capacity makes all the difference, and, if you’re not training people and educating them properly, what does that mean for your future?
mond
A monk takes a break to admire the sunset.

While I seem to be ending on a pessimistic tone, I am hopeful that in the coming years we will see Myanmar reckon with its past. Only then can it truly emerge as the regional leader it once was.

-Miriam Krule ’18

 

Is Repatriation the Answer to Myanmar’s Capacity Gap?

Sunset Cruise
Sunset cruise. In retrospect, we maybe should have stood in front of the tables.

Over the past three days, we’ve heard from three inspiring Burmese men—Htet Myet Oo, the co-founder of Rangoon Tea House; Phyo Phyu Noe, the director at Delta Capital Myanmar; and Godfrey Tan, the chairman and CEO of Frontiir. They all have one thing in common: they studied abroad and then repatriated to Myanmar.

On Wednesday, we had lunch at Rangoon Tea House and got to experience a twist on Burmese food. The restaurant was founded by a group of repatriated Burmese citizens who wanted Burmese food to be more recognizable and respected, both nationally and internationally. Like many other presenters we heard from, Htet Myet Oo emphasized that the biggest problem in Myanmar is access to capital, as interest rates are often prohibitive. Yet, despite all that, after living in London, he came back. While his English was great, he mentioned that one of his reasons for returning was that outside of Myanmar no one speaks Burmese, making it difficult. But he also spoke about how he thought of Myanmar as being one of the most innovative places in the world because there are so many problems and so much room for change and opportunity.

Rangoon Tea House
Htet Myet Oo, co-founder of Rangoon Tea House, spoke to us during lunch.

Today, we heard from Phyo Phyu Noe, who spent a significant amount of time in the United States—both undergraduate and graduate degrees—but always had the goal of coming back to Myanmar. Frontiir, run by Godfrey Tan, is one of his PE investments. Through proprietary technology, Frontiir provides affordable digital access and useful information services to people in Myanmar. In a country where power can go out intermittently, they provide unlimited internet access to more than 120,000 households—double what was available just a year ago. Additionally, they employ more than 1,300 Myanmar people—one-in-eight of which is repatriated, with the goal of repatriating even more.

Hearing from the three of them ended our short trip on a sense of hope for a country trying to make up for decades of lost time. I look forward to following developments on both the humanitarian front and the economic front over the coming months and years.

Indeed, we’ve learned a lot in Myanmar, but perhaps the most useful skill we gained was learning how to tie a lungyi.

Miriam Krule ’18

 

Mingalabar From Myanmar!

Pagoda
Shwedagon Pagoda at sunset.

While I may not be able to read the beautiful Burmese script in all its circular glory, I do know how to say hello. Everywhere we go in Myanmar we are greeted with enthusiastic mingalabar’s. When people find out we are visiting from the United States, they grow even more excited. For a country closed off from the rest of the world for many years—and facing continued criticism for a conflict that has caused many human rights leaders to question the country’s leadership—tourists can be an encouraging sign.

In our first two days of meetings we’ve concentrated on how Myanmar is working to recover from these years of isolation—and what’s holding the country back. We met with the people in both the public and private sector, and, with four company visits in the books, some themes have become clear.

  1. In Myanmar, internet is equivalent to Facebook: Some phone sellers will even go as far as to help people set up Facebook accounts when purchasing a device. As a result, Facebook is the main source of information for many Burmese people. What makes this even more interesting, is that, because of the political situation and the sanctions, many Burmese people jumped straight from having no computers to having smartphones with Facebook.
  2. The biggest opportunities come from the agriculture and infrastructure sectors. There are so many possibilities in the former that can drastically change the lives of Myanmar’s farmers. Almost 30% of Myanmar’s grains and produces is destroyed while almost 60% of grocery store products are imported. Additionally, access to capital for farmers in nearly nonexistent. Which leads me to theme No. 3.
  3. It’s nearly impossible for farmers to get bank loans, and those that do are required to use land as collateral. One of the most important initiatives in recent years has been the Investment Law, which makes it easier and safer for foreigners to invest in Myanmar.
  4. Years of economic sanctions and military rule mean that capacity is not where it needs to be—skill levels don’t meet the job requirements leaving many unemployed and many available positions that can’t be filled by capable candidates.
  5. People are nostalgic for the days of military rule and are critical of how the current government is stacked with party loyalists who are older and not as well versed in many of the issues that they oversee. Bottlenecks in decision making are common, making processes that should take hours or days take months. To me, this was perhaps the most shocking theme we heard. Before this class, most of what I knew about Myanmar was the international excitement about the opportunity of a new democratic government.

 

Proximity
Visit to the Proximity Design offices in Yangon, one of the largest non-profits in Myanmar.

We have three more days to of visits, but, after beating the Yangon traffic on Monday, we had some time for touring. At sunset we visited the Shwedagon Pagoda, the holiest pagoda in Myanmar (partially because it’s said to hold eight strands of Buddha’s hair). It’s enormous and is a landmark of the city’s skyline. Covered in hundreds of gold plates and encrusted with thousands of diamonds it sparkles from a great distance.

-Miriam Krule ’18

A Historic and Whirlwind Week in the South Korean Capital

Miriam Krule ’18
Chazen South Korea

New York—I’m back in the United States attempting to recover from the 13-hour time difference by donning one of the 43 Korean face masks I did not at all impulsively purchase on Dongdaemun Street, so there’s no better time for me to take a few minutes (the directions advise 15-20) to reflect on our whirlwind week in Seoul.

It was a truly fascinating time to be in South Korea. Many in our group arrived in Seoul the day after the president’s impeachment was upheld. Just blocks from our hotel, there were rallies both supporting and protesting this decision on the Saturdays that book-ended our trip . (Video above from March 11, courtesy of Heather Liu.) To top it off, United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spent some of Friday in Seoul due to mounting tension with North Korea and China. This tension also meant that there were significantly fewer Chinese tourists in the country, which, while bad for the South Korean economy, made for an interesting and somewhat empty experience for us. This is all to say that our time spent visiting the DMZ and the Korean War Memorial felt like it held just a bit more significance than it ordinarily might as the historical implications of such a young country could be felt everywhere we went.

The importance of this history was the backbone of many of the companies we visited. Take the skin care and cosmetics company Amore Pacific. Even as its grown to be one of the world’s largest beauty companies, more than half of its company presentation was devoted to its humble origin story about the company’s founder’s mother. This emphasis on a foundation story was true of Lotte and Samsung as well. Even the country’s former president was in the family business. On the other hand, all the companies we visited emphasized their plans beyond South Korea and into international growth. Our meeting with newer companies, like YG Entertainment, SendBird, and Line were informative for us, but also served as mini focus groups for our hosts as they think critically about the opportunities for U.S. expansion. One of the biggest challenges for them is thinking about how to maintain their identity and home base while also appealing to a wider audience. At places like YG Entertainment, this is a particular challenge with language and style presenting a particular challenge, one that I look forward to seeing how they approach.

During our final night (post DMZ, pre Octagon) we had a few moments to debrief in small groups at dinner. My table was interested in looking forward. Coming from the DMZ, we were all wondering if it would be possible for the two Koreas to reunite. The discussion turned into a debate about whether it was economically feasible for the south to absorb the north, or if Russia or China would get to it first. The one image I can’t get out of my mind though is how cut off from the rest of Asia, and by extension Europe, South Korea is by land. At the DMZ, we visited a train station that was meant to be part of the Trans-Asian Railway. It was eerie to see hopeful signs that say “To Pyongyang” despite the fact that North Korea hasn’t agreed to anything yet.

North Korea
Looking to the future … and North Korea.

And no, I didn’t forget about the live octopus dinner. For the queasy (me) or vegan (me) I’ll just link to them here and here.

Seoulong for now!

A Whole Lotte Fun

Miriam Krule ’18
Chazen South Korea

SEOUL–I would apologize for that punny headline, but if you had the day we had, you’d have Lotte fever too. Lotte is the largest confectionery manufacturer in South Korea, but over the past 50 years has grown from a Japanese gum company to become one of South Korea’s largest conglomerates, expanding into hospitality and chemicals. It’s impossible to walk around Seoul without seeing something Lotte on every corner.

We started the morning at one of Lotte’s distribution centers where we learned about the three different processes they use to pack deliveries using the “pick-by-light system.” For items that are purchased the least frequently, they use a “decanting” station to unpack from the bulk orders and then grey bins are sent over to operators who match the incoming grey bins to the outgoing red bins.

tower
Image via KPF

We then headed to Lotte World Tower, the fifth-largest building in the world, and, as you can see in the above image, designed to look like a calligraphy brush. Before hearing from Lotte’s CEO, Shin Dong-bin, Columbia Business School class of 1981, about the history of Lotte and its 2020 goals, we got a private tour of the still unopened observatory where we could look directly down all 123 floors.

from above.JPG

We also saw the beautiful concert hall and enormous aquarium, both inside the tower. The only analogy we could think of for how comprehensive the tower is–it also has offices, hotels, restaurants, movie theaters, and every possible retail store you could ever want–is a modern-day palace. Within its gates it has everything you could ever need.

After lunch, we headed over to Lotte Accelerator, Lotte’s newest division. We heard presentations from some really fun-sounding startups, like Prinker, which allows you to sketch an image on your phone and then use a handheld inkjet printer to create a temporary tattoo. With something like this, there are a lot of opportunities for growth beyond just fun tattoos–hospitals can use it to track patients vitals for example. But we definitely had fun playing around with our personalized CBS/Lotte images.

accelerator

Bonus Points:

On Wednesday we visited Gyeongbokgung Palace dressed up in traditional hanbok:

hanbok

Some of us also ate LIVE octopus for dinner. Check out my next post for video evidence!

Gangnam Style

Miriam Krule ’18
Chazen South Korea

SEOUL–It’s been a bit more than 48 hours since our group touched down in Seoul (and became #CBSSeoulMates), so it’s no surprise that we already got Gangnam Style down. In our first two days we met with a representative from YG Entertainment (the home of PSY and his record-breaking music video), experienced an authentic night of passionate karaoke, and spoke with startup founders in Seoul’s answer to Silicon Valley, Gangnam Valley.

YGA small group of us interested in media had the chance to speak with a member of the global investment team at YG Plus, a division of YG Entertainment. Unlike in the U.S., South Korean record labels generate revenue from all commercial activities of their artists (like concerts), not just the record sales. While this seems to work in South Korea, in the pre-visit case we read, this model was compared to what Motown was like in the late 1960s, when companies owned artists’ likeness and artists were not very pleased with that situation. On the other hand, it also pointed out that Lady Gaga has a “360-degree deal,” which is similar to what YG Entertainment offers. This difference is one of the many important things YG has to think about as it begins plans for expansion into the U.S. The representative spoke candidly with us about these plans and how it might affect YG’s existing Korean fan base. We also learned about some quirks of the Korean music business. One fun fact: All Korean music is released at 12 a.m. so that fans can listen right away and the song can immediately top the charts that day.

In continuing on our musical theme, I was going to tell you a bit about our evening of karaoke, but I think it’d just be best to leave you with this video:  Read more

See You in Seoul!

Miriam Krule ’18
Chazen South Korea

NEW YORK–Reading about South Korea in the news these past few months provides a surreal distraction from our own U.S. political drama. When I land at Incheon International Airport tomorrow, the Republic of Korea’s Constitutional Court will announce the results of the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye. But that’s just one of the things I’ve been thinking about in preparation for this trip. I came to CBS interested in pursuing a career in technology and media, so Seoul placed high on the list of cities I hoped to explore over the course of my two years. In the upcoming week I’ll be joining 39 of my classmates in visiting companies like YG Entertainment—home to some of the biggest K-Pop stars (yes, PSY too)—and the growing messaging startup SendBird.

At our kick-off event, aside from getting the softest Chazen-branded fleeces, we learned about what else we can expect in the coming week: In addition to those I already mentioned, we’ll be visiting South Korean heavyweights like KIA Motors, Samsung, and Lotte. But we’ll also, of course, be rocking out to karaoke, dressing up in traditional clothing at Gyeongbok Palace, and visiting the DMZ.

Having a Chazen trip planned for me by my classmates is a luxury—one that I’m excited to take full advantage of—but it also means that, aside from reading the news, I’ve done a lot less of the logistical prep that goes into learning about a new place. For me though, fiction has always been one of the best introductions into a new country and culture. That’s why I’ve packed the Man Booker International Prize-winning novel, The Vegetarian, for the ultimate plane read.

See You in Seoul.JPG

See you soon in Seoul!