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 their semicircle of red leather armchairs, they lit it, sniffed it, analyzed the perfume of its smoke, and argued loudly about its value. A traditional Chinese remedy for various health complaints, agarwood — or, more specifically, its incense — is worth more today than its weight in gold, and Burma is being touted as a potential exporter.
Thanks to Aung San Suu Kyi’s landslide victory in Burma’s recent parliamentary by-elections, in which her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won 43 out of 45 available seats, such business deals are increasingly visible around the country.
From hotel lobbies to street corners, where hawkers sell engraved silverware, jewelry and teapots dating back to when the British ruled this country of 50 million people, everyone is eager to tap into what many have called the last frontier.
“Here in Burma, anything and everything can and will happen,” said Stephen Lee, a Chinese-born businessman who made his wealth in Australian property before moving to Rangoon in 2010 to start a chain of businesses. “This is the last untapped country, the last frontier, so everyone is jumping on the bandwagon, in every industry that you can dream of.”
Lee’s own investments range from property and overseas trading to travel agencies, English-language schools and business consulting — and next, possibly the sale of agarwood, he said.
Rangoon’s few business-oriented hotels — bastions of modernity in a city of crumbling buildings — have seen a continual turnover of international business people since Burmese President Thein Sein took office last year and implemented unprecedented reforms, from the release of political prisoners to the relaxation of censorship and business ownership laws.
Now that the April 1 elections have been widely assessed as a positive first step on Burma’s apparent road to democracy, economic opportunities are expected to grow, with the US relaxing sanctions, the EU expected to follow suit and Burma chairing ASEAN in 2014.
Property prices, as well as hotel rates, have rocketed, and tourism — once considered an activity of only the most determined traveler — has doubled since 2010, and is expected to increase by 30 percent 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. The brainchild of editors at the Burmese news agency Mizzima, MZ+ will charge US$19 a month for its weekly 40-page content, ranging from politics and lifestyle to investment and tourism. It will be far too pricey for the average local buyer, but “it is not for locals” anyway, editor-in-chief Sein Win said.
“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,” he added.
Burma is also experiencing 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 20-something musicians in jeans from the Burmese National Orchestra and other local ensembles.