What’s Next for Myanmar?

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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.
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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?
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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.

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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!

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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.

 

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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

Why Go to Myanmar?

Hsinbyume Pagoda in Mingun designed after the Buddhist mythological mountain of Mount Meru. Photo: Anne McGrath ’18

Myanmar may not seem like an obvious choice for a Global Immersion Program—after all, it’s not likely that any of the nearly 30 of us in the class will be moving to Myanmar after school—but the chance to experience a country as it begins to reopen to the rest of the world posed an alluring attraction.

A brief (modern) history of Myanmar: In the 19th century, the British colonized the country, abolishing centuries of dynastic rule (and changed the name to Burma). Myanmar regained its independence in 1948 but came under military rule a little over a decade later. This led to years of outside sanctions, which were supported by the country’s famed and beloved Nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, as she fought for democracy. With embargoes from the U.S. and Europe, Myanmar was essentially closed off to much of the world. Eventually, in 2015 Suu Kyi’s party won the general election, yet the constitution still contains numerous provisions that keep the military in power and limit hers. For example, 25 percent of seats in the Union Assembly and regional assemblies are reserved for military appointees. Suu Kyi can’t even hold the title of prime minister because her children hold British citizenship.

Photos of Aung San Suu Kyi can be found throughout the country–here are old calendars hanging prominently in a store’s entrance. Photo: Anne McGrath ’18

In our class discussions this term, we’ve had the opportunity to dive deeper into the impacts of these sanctions; China’s One Belt, One Road initiative; the textile industry; and many other issues facing a country that is transitioning from a closed economy to an open one. But, the topic that has been at the forefront of many of our minds, looming large as we head into this exciting week of meeting with local companies and going on factory tours, is the current humanitarian crisis taking place in the Rakhine State. The class has given us a forum to hear from experts on the region and seek out information on our own—including reading the devastating Reuters report that led to the arrests of two local journalists. The ethics of de facto supporting a government by visiting the country is something we will continue to address during our week in Yangon—and something many of us have begun to talk about more openly with friends and classmates in an attempt to bring more attention to a devastating situation.

As we lead up to the week, some of us have spent the past few days touring other parts of Myanmar, but when we come together in Yangon (fun fact, not the country’s capital—the capital has its own fascinating back story that you can read about here) on Sunday we’ll be ready to dig deeper into these discussions.  Until then, I have a few thousand pagodas to visit.

Miriam Krule ’18

Key Learnings: Challenges & Optimism for Myanmar

Kate Canfield ‘17

Spending ten days in Myanmar was a fascinating experience for me personally. I studied development economics in New Delhi for a semester in college and, since then, have debated the best way to leverage my career to improve the lives of those who have not yet caught the growth wave in emerging markets. This trip offered a firsthand vantage point of a country recovering from decades of decline and the work being done with a variety of strategies to help Myanmar live up to its full potential.

Reflecting on the week, some of the key takeaways for me were the challenges to development in Myanmar that are strongly felt across the board by those working in Yangon.

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1) Human capital

During the half-century of military rule in Myanmar beginning 1962, the country’s education system was decimated. The University of Rangoon was closed down, meaning there was no way for Burmese citizens to receive a college education unless they were wealthy enough to send their children abroad. As a result, the current population aged 30-50 has virtually no education past the high-school level. From a business perspective, this creates a challenge in that locals are not trained for positions in middle management and have little to no experience with leadership roles. Human capital must either be trained internally by businesses themselves or replaced with expats and/or “repats” (Burmese natives who left the country for work/education and are now returning) who require higher salaries.

Those Burmese who have been working throughout the time of military rule also have little to no ambition or instinct to think creatively or proactively. Military appointees filled all senior positions for decades, so there was never opportunity for the Burmese to grow into higher-level positions; hence, it has been culturally engrained in them to do only as told, no more and no less. This also presents a challenge to businesses seeking to grow talent internally, but business leaders are optimistic about the Burmese willingness and strong desire to learn.

2) Political uncertainty

Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK) and the National League for Democracy (NLD) have been in power for nearly a year, and many are concerned with the lack of immediate, rapid change. ASSK is largely focused on creating peace amongst the five ethnic-driven civil wars taking place in the north of the country, in regions that are completely closed off to the rest of Myanmar. She also inherited an intensely bureaucratic government system, and while she replaced military leaders with her own appointees, many of them have little experience working in government. Her ability to create visible change in the country will take time, and there is concern that the Burmese people could become frustrated with her rule leading up to the next election.

Meanwhile, the former military ruler General Ne Win still resides in his mansion in Naypyidaw, oftentimes receiving visits from foreign ministers despite the fact that he is no longer in power. Some say he has masterfully crafted his image as he transitioned out of power; by allowing the country to open up and have free elections, the general was able to preserve his position rather than be overthrown. He and his cronies have arguably benefitted the most from the country’s reopening, as they own the majority of large businesses in the country (including large hotels, Myanmar beer, and others) that have done extremely well over the past few years. It’s difficult to predict what could happen with politics in the country in the years to come.

3) Business environment

“Everyone wants to help Myanmar; it is both a blessing and a curse,” said Ian Porter from IGC. The business environment in Myanmar is becoming crowded, making it difficult and even slower for things to get done. The government is constantly advised to do one thing by one party and the opposite by another – for example, invest in coal, or invest in gas? Because of these competing viewpoints, decisions are dragged out and business interests stalled. Similarly, resources are fragmented to different groups working to achieve the same goal, rather than all coming together to fund one unilateral project. This creates a unique challenge in a country where much is to be done.

Despite these challenges, Myanmar is full of potential. Never have I heard such universal praise for a population than from the leaders we met with on this trip in their descriptions of the Burmese people. It’s impossible to leave Myanmar without a tremendous sense of hope—I look forward to returning to the country one day to see the progress that has been made by and for the Burmese. Thanks to Professor Amit Khandelwal for the thoughtful lessons, Jennifer and Caitlin with the Chazen Institute for a seamless trip, Rayhan Arif for fun social and cultural activities, and President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for making this trip possible for us (and many Americans to come!).

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Closing dinner at Le Planteur

Yangon: A Cross Section

Kate Canfield ’17

The majority of our trip centers in Yangon, the country’s commercial hub. We returned from Bagan for four days of meetings, during which we gained a full and diverse picture of the country’s political and business environment as well as the country’s recent history and its lasting effects.

Myanmar gained independence from the British in 1948, an achievement often credited to General Aung San, at which point the country entered a period of incredible prosperity. Burma was, during the 1950s, the crown jewel of the ASEAN, far ahead of neighbors like Singapore and Thailand and generally well-positioned as a resource-rich and strategically located land. Students traveled from all over the region to attend the University of Rangoon. In 1962, however, a military coup established a socialist military regime that isolated the country for nearly 50 years and completely destroyed the progress that had been made in Myanmar, from education and business to medicine and infrastructure. The country disintegrated under this rule: the University of Rangoon closed—there was no university-level education available in the country—and trade sanctions and incredibly high import tariffs isolated the country from the rest of the world. Up until a few years ago, no one outside the military and their cronies could afford to purchase a car, let alone a smartphone.

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A sign outside the World Bank


In 2011, for a variety of complex reasons that can be speculated upon, the military government began to open the country up to democracy and reform, and in 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi won the general election and began the country’s transition into a free, democratic system. ASSK and the National League for Democracy (NLD) has been in power nearly a year, meaning the country is still very much in transition. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton worked for years to lift U.S. sanctions on Myanmar, and all sanctions were officially removed as of a few months ago, in October 2016.

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The group after a meeting at the U.S. Embassy

Meeting with a diverse array of companies in Yangon was fascinating: while each offered a different perspective and opinion on the implications of Burma’s history on Myanmar’s future, many had faced the same challenges in their work in this frontier market. From development finance institutions like the International Finance Corporation to private equity firms like Delta Capital Management, we learned about the difficulty businesses here have securing financing in an uncertain political environment and within a capital market that is not fully formed. Startups operating on the ground level, like wifi network company Frontiir, energy development company Puma, and the Phandeeyar Innovation Lab, shared their thoughts on the unique opportunity for business in Myanmar to “leapfrog” over other countries and build completely new, modern infrastructure that will surpass those of already developed countries. The International Growth Centre (IGC) and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce offered a broader perspective on the economic state of the country overall and the types of businesses and sectors that are seeing the most immediate growth in Myanmar.

Overall, the business meetings offered a tremendous cross-sectional view, and it’s difficult to imagine a more fascinating, exciting, yet frustrating place to be in business in the year 2017 than here in Myanmar.

Members of the Social Enterprise Club at the Phandeeyar offices

Getting Acquainted with Burmese Culture and Heritage

Day 1: Yangon

Our trip began with an afternoon of sightseeing in Yangon, the commercial hub of Myanmar. While the nation’s capital was moved to Naypyidaw (a planned city built by the military government, which remains virtually uninhabited) in 2006, Yangon remains the center of business and the country’s largest city, with a population of approximately 5.2 million inhabitants.

The downtown center of the city is full of colonial architecture built during the British occupation leading up to 1948. Sule Pagoda, a beautiful gold stupa in the middle of the old city, is often referred to in Yangon as a point of reference – locations were once described as distances from Sule, the central hub of the city. Several grand colonial buildings surround the pagoda, alongside narrow streets filled with shops, restaurants, and apartments.

Near sunset, we visited the Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar’s most sacred Buddhist shrine and a legendary landmark with its golden stupa soaring above the city’s skyline. The shrine encloses eight hairs from the Buddha and is visited by large numbers of Buddhist monks and Burmese, particularly at dusk, a time of many offerings and general hubbub around the lower terraces of the complex. The topmost point of the pagoda is set with a priceless 76-carat diamond and the upper spires are constructed of centuries-old solid gold plates. In their historic visit to the country in 2012—the first by a sitting U.S. President—President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the Shwedagon Pagoda in between meetings with Aung San Suu Kyi and speeches at the University of Yangon.

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Dusk at Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon

Days 2-3: Bagan

We traveled to the ancient city of Bagan to learn more about the country’s history and experience the region outside of Yangon. The region is scattered with the ruins of over 2,000 monasteries, temples, shrines, and stupas from the 11th to 13th centuries, when Bagan was the imperial capital of Myanmar. The pagodas range in size from grand stupas built by kings to small shrines built by local families, and all are available to explore. Unfortunately, as we learned in our meeting with UNESCO, the site is poorly managed and having a difficult time gaining World Heritage Site status and the funding and support that would come with it, but it’s a stunningly beautiful place nonetheless. We also visited the nearby Mount Popa, a revered center of Nat worship located atop a small mountain of volcanic rock.

Group selfie at Taung Kalat Buddhist Monastery atop Mount Popa!


One of my favorite moments was when we hiked up the steep steps of Shwesandaw Pagoda at dusk to soak in the views from the top. These few days offered a deep cultural understanding of the country leading into our week of business meetings in Yangon, as well as the opportunity to spend time getting to know each other as a group – and a fantastic one at that!

– Kate Canfield ‘17