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.
The Burma Meets Europe evening was sponsored by the German embassy — German musicians had visited Rangoon to hold a workshop with Burmese students, many of whom will play in Germany next month.
“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 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 staircase at Pansodan art gallery, the influx of visitors to Burma has seen painting sales increase by 300 percent in four years, the gallery’s owner, Aung Soe Min, said.
With Thein Sein’s recent relaxation of unionization regulations, 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,” Aung Soe Min said. “But I am also afraid how healthy our culture can remain because as we become industrialized ... we find ourselves facing two things: social and political freedom, and the forces of capitalism and materialism.”
Aung Soe Min pointed to the gallery’s crowded walls, where images of gilded monks hang next to expressionist themes of liberty and censorship, many of them featuring Aung San Suu Kyi.
“The tourist market is interested in beautiful paintings of markets and monks, and most galleries, four years ago, were aimed at this market,” he said. “But that’s craft, not art. With the alliance, we want to give a space for artists to explore their own creativity, to explore their true feelings.”
For the 25-year-old rapper Nay Zaw, who sprang to fame for his NLD campaign rap Wake Up Myanmar, the 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,” he said.
The full effect of such an economic awakening is unknown. Numbers in Burma are wildly elastic (even the exact population is unclear). Critics warn that the nation stands to lose not only huge swathes of natural resources — from timber to gems, oil and gas — but also its culture and peace of mind as it opens up borders that have been heavily restricted for 50 years.
Like Nay Zaw, they say many changes will not benefit most of the population, 70 percent of whom live in the countryside and work in agriculture.
Davie Channon of the British Council in Rangoon — which will this year spearhead the first teacher--training program with the Burmese Ministry of Education since sanctions were first imposed in 1988 — sounded a note of caution over the motives behind the opening up.
“We need to ask, is this a genuine commitment to change, to democracy, to human rights?” he said. “Or is it an attempt to get the sanctions lifted so that more business, more investment will flow in, and certain people who are already in a position of advantage and privilege will gain even more?”
Those who stand to gain directly from Burma’s open borders say the wealth will trickle down as businesses hire local staff and more Burmese move from the countryside to work in industries in the cities.
In a nation known for being shy, but sweet and gentle to visitors, however, there are fears that once the Burmese see just how much foreign investors are reaping from their country, they may not stay nice for too long.
“Well,” Lee said, “I guess that’s the price you pay for progress.”
Esmer Golluoglu is the pseudonym of a journalist working in Rangoon (Editor’s note: The Guardian newspaper prefers to retain the designations Burma and Rangoon when writing about the country.)