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Profitable Road to Mandalay

Yangon's few business hotels - bastions of modernity in a city of crumbling buildings streaked with mould and the black diesel fumes - have seen a continual turnover of international business people since President Thein Sein began implementing reforms from last year.

world Updated: Apr 14, 2012 23:08 IST

The sweetly acrid smell of incense filled the hotel lobby, where a group of Chinese businessmen had converged to do a deal. Passing a small piece of wood around, they lit it, sniffed it, analysed the perfume of its smoke, and argued loudly about its value. A traditional Chinese remedy for various health complaints, agarwood - or its incense - is worth more today than its weight in gold, and Myanmar is being touted as a potential exporter.

Thanks to Aung San Suu Kyi's landslide victory in Myanmar's recent byelections, such business deals are increasingly visible around the country.

From hotel lobbies to street corners, where hawkers sell engraved silverware, jewellery and teapots dating back to when the British ruled this country of 50 million people, everyone is eager to tap into the last frontier.

"Here in Burma, anything and everything can and will happen," said Stephen Lee, a Chinese-born businessman who moved to Yangon in 2010 to start a chain of businesses. "This is the last untapped country, the last frontier, so everyone is jumping on the bandwagon."

Yangon's few business hotels - bastions of modernity in a city of crumbling buildings streaked with mould and the black diesel fumes - have seen a continual turnover of international business people since President Thein Sein began implementing reforms from last year.

Now economic opportunities are expected to grow, with the US relaxing sanctions, the EU expected to follow suit, and Myanmar chairing the Association of South East Asian Nations in 2014.

Property prices, as well as hotel rates, have rocketed, and tourism - once considered an activity of only the most determined traveller - has doubled since 2010 and is expected to increase by 30% annually, according to official figures.

Catering for the new visitors, English-language business magazines have popped up, such as the soon-to-be-launched MZ+, directed at diplomats and corporate investors coming to Myanmar.

The brainchild of editors at the Myanmarese news agency Mizzima, MZ+ will charge $19 a month for its weekly 40-page content, ranging from politics and lifestyle to investment and tourism. It will be far too expensive for the average local buyer, but "it's not for locals" anyway, says its editor-in-chief, Sein Win.

"This is for international businessmen who are looking to invest in things like mining, tourism and real estate, and need information catered to them in English."

Cultural awakening
Change in Myanmar is widespread. It is also having a cultural awakening. At a recent international evening of jazz at the colonial-era Strand hotel in Rangoon, locals in longyis toe-tapped along to classical Burmese renditions of John Coltrane's Afro Blue and Miles Davis's So What, played by twenty-something musicians in jeans from the Myanmar National Orchestra and other local ensembles.

"The crowd tonight is good," said the double bass player Kyaw Zin Htet, 20. "People here don't really like jazz, but that's changing. It's hard [for us] to get used to the improvisation involved. It took me two years to like it myself."

In art galleries downtown, change is also afoot. Up a dusty staircase at Pansodan art gallery, the influx of visitors has seen painting sales increase by 300% in the past four years, said the gallery's founder, Aung Soe Min.

This in turn has inspired local Myanmarese buyers to reinvest in an art form that was used less for culture and more for propaganda purposes under the military regime.

Local artists have been able to create an independent artists' alliance, and plan to form an art colony and museum of contemporary works in the coming months.

"For me, the opening up [of Burma] is really good for our culture and our community," said Aung Soe Min. "But I'm also afraid how healthy our culture can remain, because as we become industrialised … we find ourselves facing two things: social and political freedom, and the forces of capitalism and materialism."

For the 25-year-old rapper Nay Zaw, who sprang to fame for his National League for Democracy campaign rap Wake Up Myanmar, his country's reintroduction to the world is a double-edged sword.

"If you look at places where there is so much change already, like Mandalay, you see that all of these businesses opening up, all of this change, is from one group: the wealthy," he said. "The rest of Myanmar is still so poor. The money doesn't spread."