Welcome to our 50th blog post. This week, we will be featuring: Burma’s rapid urbanization, challenges to internet access, a homecoming, and Burmese script’s debut on iTunes.
Returning tourists to Burma will immediately notice signs of rapid urbanization. Demand for accommodations and office space from tourists, expats, and investors has led to a ‘race to the sky’ in Yangon. Construction of a 38-storey office tower was announced, just weeks after the development of a 34-storey luxury building near Inya Lake was unveiled. This urban sprawl is not limited to Yangon, and is slowly creeping into the neighboring townships of Dagon. Expats and Burmese professionals are moving out of the city center, in search of less expensive accommodations and more peaceful surroundings.
An official draft of the Condominium Law published on November 10th in the New Light of Myanmar also allows foreigners to own apartments on the 6th floor or above of condominiums. The law encourages investment in Burma and further fuels urbanization in the country.
Urbanization can bring about jobs and economic opportunities. However, unrestrained, it poses a danger to many of Burma’s heritage buildings. Unfortunately, the zoning and land-use plan designed to protect historic sites has not yet been legislated. In Dagon, construction of buildings above the proposed height limitations continue, and there is economic pressure to demolish beautiful, century-old dilapidated buildings. For this reason, the historic center of downtown Yangon was selected for entry in the World Monuments Fund’s (WMF) 2014 Watch List. According to a statement from the WMF, Burma’s “religious heritage is complemented by the largest collection of late-19th-century and early 20th-century colonial architecture in Southeast Asia”. At the moment, the Yangon city government has indicated they are willing to work with international partners to preserve the city’s rich architectural and cultural heritage.
The Myanmar Urban Development Conference is scheduled from May 25-28, 2014. Hopefully, this provides the government with the impetus to pass crucial legislation that will protect historic buildings as the country welcomes investors.
Internet Freedom and Connectivity
For years, Burma’s internet was tightly controlled by the military junta. Two years ago, a Freedom House report ranked Burma’s internet policies as the world’s second most repressive (Iran was the only country that scored lower than Burma). While the internet in Burma is still ‘not free’, the government changed its policy on media censorship in 2012. Previously banned websites have now been unblocked, and journalists are no longer required to submit their writing to government censors prior to publication.
But tourists will find that internet access remains difficult. Information and communication technology infrastructure in Burma is both insufficient and inefficient, with internet coverage estimated at 1 percent. Electricity, an integral part of internet connectivity, remains unreliable. There is no national grid, and 70% of electrical power in the country comes from hydroelectric dams. Currently, over two-thirds of the country has no access electricity.
There are also accusations that the government continues to interfere with internet freedom, and has fanned ethnic tension in the country via fake social media accounts. The laws used to imprison people have not been repealed or amended; and as such, people remain uncomfortable having online discussions. Travelers inside Burma report that accessing websites with heavy text and photos remains difficult. Thus, locals are no longer frequenting internet cafes and mobile phone use has boomed.
Last June, two telecommunications operators, Telenor (Norway) and Ooredoo (Qatar), won the bidding for new licenses in Burma. The second Telecoms and Infrastructure Summit is also scheduled from February 17-18, 2014 in Yangon. Whether or not these developments pave the way for greater internet freedom and broader access remains to be seen.
An 11th-century Buddha sculpture was returned to Burma after being taken from a pagoda near Bagan in 1989. The sculpture is unique, as the hand gestures and standing position are unusual in Buddhist iconography. Visitors interested in seeing this priceless part of Burma’s history will find it on a pedestal on the upper floor of the national museum. This repatriation is much-welcomed at a time when Burma’s artifacts and heritage sites are vulnerable to looters and developers.
Burmese script is set to make its debut on iTunes and in the ebook world early next year. Journey to the Third Axis with the Third Eye chronicles the adventures of four Burmese national’s 19-day trek up Mount Everest in April 2011. A first on many fronts, Zin Min Swe, one of the trekkers remarks, “As far as I’m aware, there were no Burmese travelers who had previously trekked the Mt. Everest region.” Adventurous travelers will surely enjoy reading about their unique Burmese perspective on the local customs and traditions of Nepal and Tibetan China. The ebook will include video clips and is expected to cost US$9.99.