Update From Yangon

It is remarkable to me how much has changed in the year-and-a-half since I first visited Burma. As I mentioned in the previous post, the introduction of visa on arrival started an influx of tourism that was further compounded by the elections and the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. The result has been a sea of foreign faces in places where I have never seen them before.

Small things are more expensive but big things are getting cheaper.* The exchange rate has taken a nose dive, dropping 15% since I started coming to Burma. Hotel prices are increasing. The price of a single air-conditioned room in my hotel has risen 60%. Cheaper rooms have had an even more dramatic increase. The price of a glass of beer, always a good judge of an economy, has risen about 20%. On the other hand, the price of a permanent cell phone number has dropped from $1000+ to $500 and is continuing to fall. Car prices are also dropping, though still are not in the realm of affordability for the ordinary Burmese. A used Toyota was around $30,000 on my first visit and I am told the price is now closer to $15,000. Locals expect the price to fall in half again in the coming year.

Technology is improving rapidly. Wifi is becoming more widely available and I have seen wifi-enabled cellphones. A relatively new satellite provider is offering packages including phone, internet, and television for around $30 per month, plus the cost of the satellite dish. The internet has become more open. Fewer websites are being blocked by the government. Since my first visit, the New York Times website, for example, has become accessible.**

Though I am not an expert on Burmese economics, the drop in prices for large items and increased technology appears to be a result of the government loosening their monopoly in many areas of the economy. More companies are now permitted to register vehicles, which has cause registration fees to fall. Moreover, foreign companies are getting in on technology projects in the country. The rise in prices for consumer goods is a result, in part, of new government restrictions on maximum truck weight. I imagine part of it is also related to the worldwide increases in food prices, but as I mentioned before, I am most certainly not an economist. Why are fewer websites blocked? I have absolutely no idea.

Community activists I’ve spoken to have also told me that they seem to have more space to operate. As long as they are not talking about politics, the government generally is leaving them alone. Education and health care projects run by locals, while not supported by the government, are not hampered by it either. For a while now, getting a visa for education abroad has been relatively easy, as long as people have the money to pay for a passport.

Of course, many things have not changed. Whatever it may call itself, the government is still a repressive dictatorship, run by the much of the same group that has been running it for many years. Natural resources are still being plundered and violence is still erupting in ethnic areas. Most of the country still lives in extreme poverty and working conditions for many, if not most, are still brutal. In spite of promises in the newspaper that the country now has enough power to last 50 years, the electricity frequently went off, as usual, as the hot season approached. The Australian editor of the Myanmar Times was recently arrested for reasons that are still unclear. The Myanmar Times, an English language weekly that, while subject to censorship as is all media in Burma and often criticized for its ties to the regime, had only a moderate feeling of propaganda about it, has since begun to tow the government party line with unabashed enthusiasm. One additional item is worth taking notice. While Burma has a 28 day limit for tourist visas, in the past it had been quite easy to overstay the visa and pay a relatively moderate fee. Now, the government appears to be taking a harder line on visa overstays. I am told that they have begun fining guesthouses for having guests with expired visa. My guesthouse in Yangon has posted a sign indicating that expired visas will no longer be accepted. Why the crackdown? Again, I have no idea.

*This information is for Yangon. Of course, prices and available technology change drastically outside the major cities and even more so in the ethnic areas.

**The government’s blocking technology is not terribly sophisticated. Most young people I met in Yangon easily circumvented it, as did my guesthouse, the owners of which have an amicable relationship with the military.

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3 Responses to “Update From Yangon”

  1. Hi,

    Thanks for the post, some good observations here. I’m the editor of the English edition of The Myanmar Times so I’d be interested to see some examples of how we’re towing the government line more as it’s obviously something we try and avoid!

    It’s certainly not how it feels from our end, either. I compare the editions we’re putting out now with two years ago and it’s like chalk and cheese… there’s a lot more space for debate. I think you’ll find other people in the media industry will tell you the same.

    In terms of sites being blocked, I don’t think it’s worth trying to come up with rational answers! For example, why is the BBC unblocked? Why is the Irrawaddy mirror site still accessible? And so on.

    Anyway, look forward to future posts (I wish the government would unblock WordPress though! By the way, I found your site through a comment you left on New Mandala,)

    Cheers,
    Tom

    • Tom-

      Thanks so much for reading and for your thoughtful comments. I wrote the above post back in February and there was a perception among people that I spoke with at that time that the Times had pulled back a bit after Ross’s arrest. I wish I had some examples to share, but I don’t. If that perception was misguided, I certainly apologize. There is no doubt that in the last year, we are seeing more space in the Burmese media generally for broader views. I actually think this is an under-reported development in the international sphere. In line with my comments on New Mandela, I think it is unfortunate that when positive changes do occur, they tend to be minimized. Keep up the great work at the Times.

      Best,
      Neil

  2. Ah sorry. The post doesn’t have the date at the top but I should have realised when you said “recently arrested”. I think there was definitely a difference in the first few weeks after he was arrested. It wasn’t really a conscious decision – just that people were pretty depressed/worried that their boss had been arrested! I’m also surprised there isn’t a bit more international coverage about changes in the media, although I noticed this funny article in The Australian yesterday (http://www.theaustralian.com.au/business/media/changes-to-dim-view-of-burmese-daily/story-e6frg996-1226124014223).

    Send me an email if you want to come into the office and have a look around sometime, or just catch up for a beer or something. And yeah great work on the blog!

    Cheers,
    Tom

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