Myanmar – a nation in transition

(Note: I had traveled to Yangon, Myanmar, to participate in a program called TechCamp between Jan 14-16, 2014. These are put together based on my observations as a tourist, discussions with people on the street and with participants at TechCamp. The viewpoint will be limited by this constraint)

I had only heard of Myanmar, but when I go the invite to visit it, I didn’t know what to make of the place. I knew they had decades of military rule by the junta, and Aung San Suu Kyi had managed to press for a democratic process in the near future. The transition wasn’t complete, and I fully expected a rather hostile military presence that was forced to concede their control over the way things were run.

Though Myanmar and India are neighbours, there have not been steady diplomatic relations between us. I was curious as to how they would see Indians – with friendship, wariness or suspicion.

I got talking to a guy from BBC on the flight to Yangon. He was helping their fledgling media learn about international standards in reporting, as well as setting up an independent media channel.

I had fully expected a thorough questioning at immigration on my motives to enter Myanmar. I had prepared mentally for being handed a list of things I could/couldn’t do, places I couldn’t visit and areas I could not photograph.

In reality, it was a pleasant surprise. Immigration was quick and document inspection was cursory. There was a taxi counter and money changers just outside, and I was out of the airport within 20 minutes of landing.

Myanmar is at an interesting point today. The first general elections are to be held in 2015, and they are framing a revised constitution currently. They discarded the earlier one, and are grappling with issues of not having a framed constitution in the interim. For instance, there is no telecom policy yet, but sensing that mobiles are crucial, the government has allowed a couple of firms to setup networks. Till sometime back, it cost close to USD200 to get a SIM card. Now, pre-paid cards are also available at USD25 but still mainly in cities. Smartphones abound in Yangon, with many of the young using WiFi to get their fix of Facebook.

Land records are another point of debate. In the earlier regime, land records were at best approximate. Myanmar wants to use GIS systems to setup proper land records, but they are faced with the problem of reconciling ownership based on old claims. It literally is a country in transition.

At first sight, Yangon seemed like any other city. As a reminder of the change, a huge hoarding advertising an LG phone welcomed those leaving the airport. However, it was apparent that this was an aberration. Most hoardings advertised various concoctions of multi-vitamins showing young models (fully clothed) energised by having them.

Something seemed out of place as we drove down. In India, the driver sits at the right of the car and we drive on the left side. In the US it is the other way. In Myanmar, the driver sits at the right of the car, but drives on the right side. This means he is further away from the centre of the road and theoretically increases the risk of accidents with oncoming traffic. (I later learnt that most vehicles were imported in the 50s and 60s, and later only over the last two years. These were usually second-hand cars, and most owners went for budget models without considering whether they were right-hand or left-hand drive)

I kept looking out for military presence, but in all the days I was there, I didn’t see any overt display of power. Someone later told me that there never had been a strong military presence on the ground. The junta had kept control by having a network of informers.

I reached Saturday afternoon, so had a couple of days to walk around town before the event. On the first day, I visited Shwedagon Pagoda, the largest pagoda in Myanmar, situated in downtown Yangon. Property prices have been on a rise since the announcement that the military was ceding control. Sensing opportunity, many large firms are trying to establish presence here. Downtown property prices are anecdotally as high as New York.

At Shwedagon, I sat admiring the architecture when a Buddhist monk came to sit by me. Like others, he had a shaved head and wore ochre robes. We got talking about the changes at Myanmar. After a long discussion, he finally asked, “Are you on Facebook?” We added each other as Facebook friends and went our different ways.

TechCamp itself was held at the MICT conference hall with over 150 local participants. Since many did not know English, we were each assigned a translator. I met Jovan, a kid who had just finished 10th grade and had volunteered to help me with translation. He was keen on writing the SAT the coming year and study abroad.

I quickly noticed that brevity was not a virtue in Burmese. Whatever I said, Jovan would take a long time to explain that in Burmese. I later found out that in Burmese, it was customary to repeat the same sentence in two different tenses during any conversation. No wonder it took so long to get a point across!

Towards the end, Jovan turned to me – they are asking if the story telling is similar to what gets told in school?

It turns out that in Myanmar, stories were associated with what teachers used to instruct kids. All through the initial session, people were trying hard to fathom why I was talking of stories when we clearly weren’t in school mode!

During the first session, I sat with a group of about 15 people, working on basics of marketing and funding. It was amazing listening to some of the work that the NGOs were doing. I met a guy who’s organisation had planted over 3000 trees in the last two years, and who wanted funds to plant 5000 more in the coming three years. They would plant trees in school compounds and hospitals; trees like teak that these organisations could cut and sell in a few years if they needed money.

Another was struggling to help students prepare for competitive exams. The general agreement was that there had not been enough focus on keeping education to international standards during the military rule. Students were not able to cope with international exams if/when they applied to outside universities. Myanmar was also facing a huge shortage of skilled labor. To alleviate this, some organisations were working on translating Khan Academy lectures in Burmese. Others were working on setting up WiFi networks in colleges to help more people get online.

Since I had time, I ended up speaking to a lot of participants.

The intensity of what’s happening on ground is amazing. Almost everyone is aware of the upcoming elections, but viewpoints about the same are varied. Some worry that the military government will stoke fights between the Buddhist majority and Muslim minority to divert people’s attention. Others believe democracy will be a panacea. Yet others are working on hard on educating a population that hasn’t voted in a generation on the basis of elections: why you should vote, how do you identify candidates, what basis should you vote, etc. Some felt the transition process was too slow and the military should have stepped out even faster.

I ended up having long discussions on democracy with many participants. It may not be the quickest form, but it was better things were moving gradually than have a flash like the Arab Spring with no concrete outcome. Many were curious how democracy worked in a country like India. My answer: noisy, chaotic, but it works! It’s gotten us this far, and I strongly believe it is the best form of governance we have, despite its shortcomings.

Many had concerns on the near future: how to fix land issues, get more tourists to visit and generate employment, invest in skill building, exploit technology, etc.

No matter what, I will be watching Myanmar closely till the 2015 elections. I wish the transition happens smoothly. The world needs such an example.

Do brown skinned men go to oktoberfest?

Ever since I started putting in more efforts on my blog, I also started noticing why people land up there (habit from my product management stint where we religiously tracked metrics!)

Most of the visits are through link referrals from Facebook, but occasionally, there are search terms from Google.

I chanced upon this priceless one today ‘do brown skinned men go to oktoberfest’. The fifth link to the query is my visit to Oktoberfest 2011.

But I’d love to know what links the person fired the query finally based his decision on. And if he finally plans to get there. I would strongly recommend that he go 🙂


….and then was creativity no more


Aggrandized the statement may be. But perfect war cry it is, in the battle against corporate conformity.

Now, I thrive on creativity. I revel in noticing, appreciating and contributing to new and fun ways of doing things. And that was precisely what drew me to the job of product management – the opportunity to create and design what would work.

But over the year, the routine allele grew dominant and the creative one recessive, and what arose were half-burps of expression.

Many a time I have woken up, thrilled by a creative germ. But most of them have been killed by a quick disinfectant spray of corporate lingo.

Yes, it is the area of linguistic expression that I dread most.

The apt metaphors that I could construct at will were the first to go. Wisps of imagination they always were, but they would earlier snarl thought and solidify into coherent sentences.

Alas! Potent are they no more. They rise wisps, but stay indiscernible and melt away into nothingness.

And with metaphors gone, can similes be far behind? Like faded posters on the wall, they slowly come unglued with disuse.

Perhaps this is the curse of the always-on times. Even composition of narrative seems to be a strain.

I remember reading about the work of Benjamin Lee Whorf and Stephen Pinker. Is it words that we know that determine how we think? Or if we think hard enough, can we always find the words?

I must admit that I favor the former. New words have always tasted wonderful, and I swirl them around to see what they express and how I could use them. But now….I find that even words I know slipping away over the chasm of neglect.

I ask you – when was the last time you used the word ‘relish’? Isn’t it a word that all of us know of, one that brings to mind the flavor of something we enjoy?

Still wondering when you used it?

Then try these – marvelous, sore, clever, prudent, bliss.

Now try these – fantastic (or the trite aussum), angry, smart, practical, happiness.

Do they bring to mind the same feelings as the earlier list?

Take the word ‘clever’. To me, it imbues the subject with a creative intelligence. ‘Cleverness’ is about discovery – a new way to do things, a quick and apt riposte. But I find smart banal. Smart connotes someone with a good IQ and who can get work done.  We do have many smart people around, but are they clever?

Maybe the question just does not matter any more…

The terrorism of words

Words (Photo credit: Southernpixel

It is late, but I cannot sleep.

Every moment sires in me new thoughts, and the dreaded vehicles of these thoughts – words.

Words swarm through my head, like a disturbed nest of bees, and like an army of traitors, they pound my head from within, seeking to escape from their confines.

Yes, now I see it. All through, it has only been words that are the harbingers of peril. At any time, I am assaulted by a million of these, as if there were an army of soldiers aiming them at me. But nay, this army seeks more than to wound. They seek to destroy; they tip the barbs the shoot with the dreaded poison – meaning.

Continue reading The terrorism of words

The Sagrada Familia

Entrance to the Sagrada Familia. Click to see more pics

The Sagrada Familia is a UNESCO heritage site, and one of the finest modern constructions.

I found it the most amazing place I visited (after the Taj).

We first spied it when on a bus tour around Barcelona, and later returned for an amazing morning spent admiring the building.

Memories of Istanbul

I wake suddenly at night to look at the alarms I have set on my two phones. One is set to India time, the other to local time.

The local time shows 4:45AM.

I do some quick math on the India time and deduce that it should be 5:45AM, given the time zone difference.

I am still not fully awake, and the dichotomy takes its time sinking in. I indulge a fuzzy idea that perhaps I am living two moments separated by an hour at the same time – can I live in my past as well as present? I realize that there must be a simpler explanation, and vigorously shake my head to welcome sanity in.

One perceived moment of dual existence does not seem startling here. In Turkey, hyphenated dualism exists everywhere – neolithic and recent republic history, Greek and Roman legends, glorious pasts of Christianity and Islam, even the geographic reality of being in Asia as well as Europe.

The simplest explanation is that the daylight savings has kicked in. I call the reception to confirm – yes, it is indeed so.

‘Wake up,’ I tell Sudha. ‘The day has just begun.

A view of the spice market. Click to see slideshow

  Continue reading Memories of Istanbul

The Temple of Artemis & the city of Ephesus

Ephesus, at its peak, was the capital of Asia Minor and the second largest city after Rome. Ephesus takes its name from Ephesia, an Amazonian queen reputed to have built the city around 2000BC.

The city was perfect for a Hindi film punar-janam story. It flourished in many epochs, only to die out slowly till reborn in a new century. After its origin in 2000BC, it was again resurrected around 1000BC by a Greek general. Legend has it that he was looking for land to establish a city, and was told by an oracle to look for three new things. He saw fire, fish and a boar while visiting the site of Ephesus, and decided to rebuild the city. To test the surroundings, he had his lieutenants cut up three animals – healthy internals meant that there was fresh water and food nearby. Continue reading The Temple of Artemis & the city of Ephesus

The Ruins of Aphrodisias

Aphrodisias, city built around the temple for Aphrodite, Greek goddess of beauty.

More on Turkey below:

Or read all my travel posts here.

Hierapolis and the cotton castle at Pamukkale

Hierapolis is an ancient Greek city dated around 400BC, renowned as a medical centre of yore. It was built near Pamukkale, natural thermal springs that were proclaimed to have health benefits.

As per legend, the more prominent health city was Pergamum, which had a huge medical facility that declared – No one can die here. In case they found any patient who had bleak chances of survival, they would send them off to Hierapolis so that death would not enter Peragum’s health facilities. One such unfortunate patient was trudging his way to Hierapolis and saw a snake drinking from a vessel. Tired of life, he decided to partake the contents and hasten his death, only to find that he recovered quickly as the snake’s venom had acted as an antidote for his ailment. Since then, snakes were seen as symbols of medicine. Continue reading Hierapolis and the cotton castle at Pamukkale

Technophile, literary addict, lensman. LBS & Maps expert, product manager when at work.

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