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Thursday, January 09, 2014

Japan in Myanmar


Over New Year, my partner and I spent a week in Myanmar (Burma). The destination was at my partner's suggestion and was one that, to be honest, I was not expecting a lot of. I imagined it would be much the same kind of milling, pushy, rowdy, smelly, potholed, unworkable mess that we have already encountered in other developing countries on our travels.

Sure, grottiness has its own charms. I'm always on the lookout for the kind of stained, crumbling walls that can provide a charmingly exotic backdrop to pair shots of my partner and me. And I treasure such moments as one I saw recently in a Bangkok riverside market of a great big hairy sow tenderly nuzzling a resting dog, which raised its head and meekly licked the amorous pig's snout.

Hello Kitty in Burma.

However, I was unprepared for Myanmar. Unprepared for the (comparatively) good roads - barely a pothole anywhere; unprepared for the atmosphere of gentleness - free of the jostling and pushing that you get even in Japan; unprepared for the new atmosphere of (comparative) liberality that has freed the country from the close monitoring and harassment that I had heard accounts of before going there; unprepared for the gleam of gold that richly and warmly colors almost every part - somewhere - of the Myanmar landscape; unprepared for the jazzy variegated clothing worn by the populace, much more diverse and vivid than anywhere I'd ever seen before; and, as a long-term resident of Japan, unprepared, too, for the size of the Japanese presence in Myanmar.

Holy Balanced Rock at Kyaiktiyo Pagoda, Burma.
Golden, multicolored Myanmar

The most conspicuous Japanese presence is in the form of Japanese vehicles. We must have seen thousands of Japan-made cars, trucks and buses during our week in Myanmar, many of them second-hand, most of which, in the case of taxis, trucks and buses, still had the original Japanese signage on them. One taxi we took came complete with the satellite navigation system from Japan (with the cursor stationary on Tokyo).

Japanese companies are making deep inroads into the Myanmar market, with virtually all the big Japanese car and electronics manufacturers present by way of street advertising and dealerships.

Japan was bigger here than we expected for food, too. While there wasn't much in the way of imported Japanese food on shop shelves, there were little sushi shops everywhere - evidence of Japanese culinary culture making a far-reaching mark on Myanmar. (Not that we tried any: uncooked food is definitely to be avoided in Myanmar!)

Yet, China and South Korea, too, are if not equally represented, not far behind. LG in particular has a very big presence in Myanmar that rivals that of any Japanese company. And the electric motor scooters we hired up in Bagan for a couple of days, to tour its vast plain of myriad padodas, were by a Chinese company—almost as attractively designed as a Japanese product and every bit as solid and reliable in performance (with 7 hours' riding on a single, overnight recharge).

News about Japan in a Burma newspaper.
News about Japan in a Myanmar newspaper

Myanmar's infrastructure is still very much in its infancy, but for the length of our stay, everything physically worked pretty satisfactorily. Hotel front desks were a bit of a mess, though, in that requested wake up calls were late or not made, messages or even a suitcase left for us by local friends/acquaintances were not passed on, and one hotel even insisted on payment for a reservation that we had paid for already! The idea of service has yet to permeate, but there were shining exceptions of solicitousness and courtesy.

Japan is Myanmar's most generous donor of aid, and just two weeks before our visit the two countries signed an investment treaty to enhance commercial relations. As part of the deal, Japan forgave over five billion dollars' worth of debt, with bridge loans for the remainder. This follows a 51 billion yen loan made to Myanmar for infrastructure development in June 2013 by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).

The biggest such project is the Thilawa Special Economic Zone just outside Yangon, which, again, was getting underway at the very time of our visit. 51 percent of it is owned by Myanmar, and 49% by Japan Thilawa SEZ Company Limited (JTSC), which includes Japanese multinationals like Marubeni, Mitsubishi and Sumitomo. The joint Japanese-Burmese Thilawa Special Economic Zone and is expected to be completed next year.

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