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<p>Photo by Aubrey Belford</p>

Photo by Aubrey Belford

Yangon’s dilapidated downtown.

21st Century Gold Diggers

Myanmar’s parliamentary poll has elevated Aung San Suu Kyi back into the political stratosphere. But as the country opens up, Westerners circle one of globalisation’s last frontiers.


The Traders Hotel in downtown Yangon is a reassuring, generically global place, in the way only business hotels and airport lounges can be.

The city outside is anything but. Myanmar's capital is dusty and ramshackle. Decades-old cars and jeeps jerk along the roads, women sport faces smeared with thanaka bark paste, and men hoist distinctive sarong-like longyi around their waists. There are few ATMs here, and a trip to exchange a few hundred US dollars will send you home with a plastic bag full of filthy 1000 kyat notes.

If Cuba's famously dilapidated capital, Havana, is a time warp to the 1950s that reflects the socialist country's decades of stagnation, Yangon is a city shaped by Myanmar's economically bungling military rulers and the Western sanctions aimed at bringing them down. In many ways, it feels as if the clock stopped not long after 1988, when the country was still calledBurma and students rose up against the dictatorship of General Ne Win and were slaughtered in their thousands in the streets.

But inside the packed Traders Hotel, and others like it, things are now humming.

“It’s like the gold diggers. Everybody sees the opportunity and is rushing in. But only one out of 100 are successful.”

By-elections on April 1 for a small fraction of parliamentary seats have elevated the formerly jailed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi into parliament for the first time, with a landslide victory for her National League for Democracy. And as that sets the stage for an eventual end to sanctions, Western businesses are probing for openings in one of globalisation's last great holdouts.

Inside the Traders Hotel, about 300 visitors congregated late in March for a three-day government-backed summit promoting investment in Myanmar's oil, gas and energy industries. It's a big prize: Myanmar has significant and underdeveloped petroleum reserves that, under Western (particularly United States) sanctions dating from the mid to late 1990s, have been largely the plaything of firms from Malaysia, Thailand, India and China. (European Union sanctions, while tight in other areas, have been loose here, and France's Total has done well.)

The country wants to massively boost its power generation but remains stuck as one of Asia's least developed countries. It also wants to break its dependence on China, which for decades has been Myanmar's main patron.

<p>Photo by Aubrey Belford</p>

Photo by Aubrey Belford

Enter the Western businessman and woman, with plenty of speed and not much grace. The rush for Myanmar is on, and it's not particularly dignified.

"There is a simple rule: If we are not going to do it, someone else will," says Nils Hansen, the sales director of Navigat Energy, a supplier of large gas power generators made by the US corporate giant General Electric in Southeast Asia. Years of sanctions have meant the corporation has turned down all proposals to do business in Myanmar, but that is now changing, says Hansen, a German.

Doing business here, in Hansen's line of work, is mostly illegal. But the country's frontier status means the first in the door will have a killer advantage. "You have a few countries left: Iran, Syria, North Korea and Myanmar," he says. "It's a bit like, how do you call it in English? It's like the gold diggers. Everybody sees the opportunity and is rushing in. But only one out of 100 are successful." Hansen doesn't like his chances much, either.

There are plenty of reasons why business in Myanmar may not work out. For one, the reforms instituted by President Thein Sein, the ex-general who took power in 2010, may run out of steam or reverse. Land prices in Yangon already are surging, infrastructure is shocking, and the banking system is a mess. One key government reform — the suddenly announced floating of the kyat — began on April 1, the same day as the by-election. The country also has drafted a new foreign investment law.

And there's another problem: the changes here have been so rapid, businesses have been poking their noses in here before doing their homework.

Chuck Dommer, an affable American oil and gas explorer based in Abu Dhabi, says he only found out about the conference a week before and decided to come on a whim. He's visibly weary and reckons he's about three months too late.

Even while countries such as China have risen, the fact that they haven’t been able to fully make a mark here shows how central Western corporations still are to globalisation – and how every piece of the puzzle needs to fit together.

"It doesn't hurt to come and have a look. I think most people I've talked to are like 'Well, we'll see how it goes,'" says Dommer, who works for a Texan junior firm called Hydrocarb Corp.

"I go to four countries every month. This is just one on the circuit," he says.

Speaking of circuits, five minutes later the power fails and the lights in the hotel cut out. Everyone stands awkwardly in darkness before the generator finally kicks in and the lights flicker back on.

Yangon bears the marks of a city that hasn't been completely closed to the world — only to much of the West. Chinese-made goods and Japanese brands abound. Television stations screen a steady diet of South Korean dramas that, with all their glitz, have chipped away at the popularity of the longyi for men. With a population of nearly 50 million people, Myanmar has a huge domestic market for everything from biscuits to mobile phones, which, depending on how you count them, are as rare or rarer than in North Korea.

“Logistically it’s the most important country on the planet, it’s between India and China. There’s numerous amounts of natural resources waiting to be tapped.”

And even while countries such as China have risen, the fact that they haven't been able to fully make a mark here shows how central Western corporations still are to globalisation — and how every piece of the puzzle needs to fit together.

As the part-owner of one of the few bars and restaurants in town that caters to Westerners, 50th Street, Anthony Alderson, a New Zealander, sees a fairly large chunk of the foreign businessmen that come through town. He's seen his own business grow (rich Burmese also have played a part) and sees the potential of Myanmar in fairly epic terms.

"You've got everyone chasing everything, to be honest," he says. "Logistically it's the most important country on the planet, it's between India and China. There's numerous amounts of natural resources waiting to be tapped. There's a country that is not one to be reliant on China and wants competition and realises … they need the whole Western bandwagon to come to town, from the UN, to competition on oil and gas, to everything.

"Everyone's sniffing, trying to make contacts, trying to get their positioning," he says. "You're either looking at people coming in to service the big domestic market, or they're looking to drill something and take it away."

And are many of them going to make it?

Not likely, reckons Alderson.

"Most of them don't have a fucking clue," he says. "They just got on a plane then came here."

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