Burmese Days

“Beauty is meaningless until it is shared” George Orwell wrote in his novel Burmese days.

It is not only a good quote to start a blog post, but also true about Myanmar: it is a beautiful country which has mostly been in isolation until 2011. Moreover, I had the chance to share this escape with a friend and together we celebrated Christmas while exploring pagodas in Bagan, cruising over Inle Lake, and surviving a bumpy train journey. This blog post acts as an introduction to the country and lays the groundwork for all subsequent posts about Burma.

Orwell’s first novel is mostly based on observations he made when he was stationed as a police officer in Burma, today’s Myanmar, from 1922 to 1927. Burma was annexed by the British Empire when Mandalay had been conquered in 1885 during the Third Anglo-Burmese war. Under the British auspices, Burma became the wealthiest country in Southeast Asia and produced respectively 75% and 50% of the world’s teak and rice export.

The economic rise slowed down after Myanmar’s independence in 1948. However, it was only after the 1962 coup d’etat when Ne Win onboarded the country on his disastrous Burmese Way to Socialism throughout 60s, 70s, and 80s. U Nu, Myanmar’s previous and first prime minister, handed over power to Ne Win and was carefully placed under protective custody, which sounds like a cozy beach holiday. Ne Win’s master plan was to trade foreign influence for military, but in reality his military dictatorship isolated the country and impoverished its population as it was not able to benefit from global trade.

The military junta or officially the “State Peace and Development Council” was officially abolished in 2011 but its former members still heavily influence and control business and politics. The current government and military are also expected to play a major role in the country’s illegal drug trade as it is “too big” not to be noticed. Myanmar’s borders are so heavily militarized that a drug smuggler simply needs the government’s consent to get anything out (or in) of the country. As a consequence, Transparency International ranks Myanmar 156th out of 175 countries in their annual Corruption Perceptions Index.

Although Myanmar has taken its first steps to improve its diplomatic relationship and countries have decreased their trade sanctions against the country, every day’s life and business is still affected by poor policy making, generally low productivity, and a horribly outdated infrastructure. Major airports are being upgraded or expanded, but the roads and rails still date from colonial times. We witnessed road and rail works and can only conclude they yet have to see any heavy equipment: most of the work is done with simple tools and bare hands.

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Euromonitor International identified Myanmar as one of the 20 markets that will offer the most opportunities for global consumer goods companies. While traveling, we recognized this potential and saw that consumer spending is picking up across the country. A mix of Asian and Western consumer goods companies is percolating Myanmar, hoping to bank on the long closed-off country.

Food & Beverages

Instant coffee is ubiquitous and consumed with heaps of sugar and/or condensed milk. No Starbucks but a few coffee shops offering fresh espresso at a premium price exist – say 1,500-2,500 kyat or 1.5-2.5 dollar a cup. (The local currency is kyat (MMK) and 1 dollar is approximately 1,000 kyat as of December 2014.)

Dairy products are rare and we did not find any milk, butter or cheese. Ice cream and condensed milk were the closest to milk we got during our journey.

Whiskey and beer are very, very popular. Beer is drunk ice cold and Myanmar is the most widely advertised and sold beer. Other beers include Mandalay, Dagon, ABC, Andaman Gold and international brands such as Heineken and Carlsberg trying to tap the country. Similar to their Thai neighbors (and in turn, their Vietnamese neighbors), Burmese love whiskey. The clear market leader is Grand Royal which is promoted under the tagline “premium drinking water” and has had a partnership with Chelsea FC since 2012. Other whiskeys have inspiring names such as High Class and are sold alongside international brands as Jim Beam, Johnnie Walker, and Jack Daniels.

Soft drinks, of course. You got to mix the whiskey with something, no? Until 2012, Myanmar was off limits to Coca-Cola because of trade sanctions. In fact, it was one of the only three countries worldwide (with Cuba and North Korea) where people were not able to open happiness. In 2012, the floodgates opened to a thirsty market of close to 60 million people and today Coca-Cola is generally available in cans (1,000 kyat or 1 dollar) and bottles (300 kyat) throughout Myanmar. Although Coca-Cola competes with Pepsi and the local Star Cola, it is omnipresent in every little shop.

Tap water is not drinkable in Myanmar. Bottled water is produced locally using reverse osmosis and ozone treatment. It usually sells at 300 kyat a bottle and its producers brand it under original names such as Like (which includes the Facebook thumb on the bottle).

Dry goods and canned/preserved foods are generally imported from Thailand and it is easy to find a package of MAMA noodles in most shops.

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Health & Beauty

Inexpensive cosmetics brands as the Thai Mistine are heavily promoted next to other imported personal care products. Interestingly, hair gel seems especially popular among young men.

Cars and motorcycles

Mostly Japanese and Chinese motorcycles and run-down Japanese buses. Cars and taxis are mostly basic Toyotas. In December 2014 there was a huge BMW billboard in Yangon claiming “The world’s number one luxury car brand has arrived.”

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Entertainment

We saw only one movie theater in Yangon and it was showing almost exclusively Korean and Thai dramas.

Telecommunication

Traditionally, calls are made from little telephone stalls next to the main road. This is changing rapidly and Ooredoo and Telenor are aggressively advertising their mobile services to capture early adopters. Telenor operates in Thailand under the same logo but a different brand, DTAC. Huawei and Samsung billboards dot the cityscape and most mobile phones we saw were inexpensive Android devices. The latter can be key for online retail.

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Retail

Got to sell all those imported products! City Mart is the largest retailer in Myanmar but the country yet has to see widespread, Western-style (convenience) stores pop up. While in Bangkok you cannot walk a single block without encountering a 711, in Myanmar, most consumer goods are sold from hole-in-the-wall shops with no displayed prices. Bargaining is still OK here.

How will retail further develop in Myanmar?

Likely the country will see a similar evolution as in China or the rest of Southeast Asia: online retailers leapfrogging offline, brick-and-mortar retail. Skipping traditional retail has proven to be an attractive opportunity for e-commerce companies such as Alibaba in China or Lazada in Southeast Asia. Internet-powered, inexpensive mobile devices allow anyone to shop online from anywhere at anytime. The biggest hurdle is distribution, i.e. logistics. Getting goods to rural ares is a challenge but e-commerce companies have successfully tackled it in similar markets as Vietnam.

Internet and mobile are tectonic changes driving economic growth. You can expect an e-commerce gold rush in Myanmar.

Fast Food

Here, again, the situation is very different from Bangkok where a range of fast-food restaurants is present (most notably McDonalds). KFC is expected to open its first restaurant in 2015, but South Korean Lotteria is already there. This heavily reminds me of Vietnam’s fast food landscape as reported before.

Myanmar is a long-isolated nation that has quickly become the last economic frontier for Western brands in Southeast Asia. A bottle of Coca-Cola or Colgate toothpaste are tangible symbols of change and represent a gigantic opportunity: a population of 60 million people with middle class consumption expected to double by 2020.

Given that the GDP per capita is a little north of 1,000 dollar, the country must produce something – right? Let’s take a look.

Up to 50% of GDP consists of agriculture (rice), livestock, forestry (teak), and fisheries. The agricultural economy is thought to employ about 70% of the country. The most significant exports are in order of value: oil and gas, timber, beans and pulses, fish and seafood, clothing, and ore.

But Myanmar’s most lucrative export is not timber or oil. It is drugs.

Myanmar has a booming narcotics industry and its proceeds most probably exceed all other exports. Myanmar is the largest producer of methamphetamine and the second largest exporter of opium (heroin) after Afghanistan. Together with Laos and Thailand, Myanmar is part of the Golden Triangle: together with the Golden Crescent (Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran) the main opium-producing area.

More recently, opium bans have shifted production to meth. The meth is mixed with caffeine to make ya ba, literally translated horse drug as it was given to horses during hard work. Ya ba grew big across Southeast Asia and especially in Thailand it is popular. More than one billion pills cross the Myanmar-Thai border every year through the Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai Provinces of Thailand. Next, the drugs are smuggled to international markets with Bangkok and Hong Kong often acting as an international hub for export. Lately, more drugs are channeled to China because of the growing domestic demand.

Myanmar’s most notorious drug lord was Khun Sa, nicknamed the Opium King. During his 20-years tenure from 1974 to 1994, the Shan mountains in the north of Myanmar were dotted by his poppy fields and the share of heroin in the US coming from the Golden Triangle increased from 5 to 80%. The quality was best-in-class with a purity of 90%. Khun Sa was depicted in the movie American Gangster when Frank Lucas, played by Denzel Washington, travels to Myanmar to source heroin, which he branded as Blue Magic in the US. Frank got the economics totally right: “I sell a product that’s better than the competition at a price that’s less than the competition.”

Also on branding, Frank Lucas was spot on: “Brand names mean something, Nicky. Consumers rely on them to know what they’re getting. They know the company isn’t going to try to fool them with an inferior product. They buy a Ford, they know they’re gonna get a Ford. Not a fuckin’ Datsun. Blue Magic that’s a brand name; Like Pepsi, that’s a brand name. I stand behind it, I guarantee it. They know that even if they don’t know me any more than they know the chairman of General Mills.”

Khun Sa was a business man who was also inventive in his approach towards governments: he proposed both the US and Australian government to buy his opium production or he would offer it on the international narcotics markets. (They didn’t buy.) Moreover, research has revealed that the state-owned Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE) acted as a money laundering vehicle for Khun Sa.

Eventually the US put 2 million dollars on Khun’s head and he surrendered in Burma in 1996. Instead of being deported to the US, he was allowed to retire in Rangoon (now Yangon) with four wives and spend the rest of his life investing in real-estate and mining.

Justice always triumphs, right?!

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