Myanmar descends into chaos

YANGON, 27 April 2021: As news continues to focus on Myanmar’s dreadful loss of civilian lives since the 1 February military coup, TTR Weekly takes a closer look at how the travel industry is fairing during the unfolding crisis.

More than 760 unarmed civilians, including young children, have been killed by the military junta and thousands arrested. Many executives and leaders in tourism fled, fearing for their lives, and all interviewed requested anonymity as they fear for their safety.

Here are some of the observations of people living in Myanmar who have first-hand knowledge of the impact on residents and the travel industry community. They correctly fear their lives are at risk if they are identified.

Criticizing the military junta and its appointed government is punishable by several years in prison. There are even dire consequences for those who wear an innocuous black facemask during a protest march. Banging pots and pans every evening at 2000 has been a form of protest nationwide since 2 February, but it can lead to a heavy-handed response from security forces.  Posting a pro-movement message on your Facebook could lead to arrest and a prison sentence. Even donating food to a charity can be risky.

What are the problems the Myanmar SME’s now face? We spoke to owners of restaurants, bars, small hotels and travel agencies, and they all claim the military is out of its depth and incapable of running a country in the digital and social media era.

Here are the challenges, many of them compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic.

• The mobile internet (about 95% of the country’s main source to get connected) is cut off completely; only fibre connections work. So working from home is not possible as most staff have only mobile internet at home. If you have a mobile connection, it is cut off from 0100 to 0900 daily, and many websites can only be accessed by using a VPN connection.

• Staff are scared to commute between home and office as there are random check-points manned by heavily armed police and military. Public busses are being stopped and searched. Yangon residents are subject to verbal or physical abuse and threats by the military.

• Staff have gone into hiding out of fear of being arrested for being part of the demonstrations. Or they were called back to the countryside by their families for safety reasons or because living costs are lower. Staff attending the office have trouble concentrating as many are suffering from traumatic experiences ( seeing friends or family being shoot, colleagues arrested and in prison)

• Banks are mostly closed, and no international money transfers are possible. There is a limit of how much money you can withdraw weekly from the bank and a limit set on the daily number of customers who can enter the bank. One travel agency manager said she has been waiting for three weeks to withdraw USD1000 from the bank.

• There are no regular scheduled international flights to and from the three international airports in the country. Since April last year, only relief flights have operated.

• It is not possible for a visitor to apply for a tourist visa to be allowed to enter the country.

• Many government offices are closed due to the general strike from the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM).  Practical things like extending your driving license, paying taxes or extending your operating license are not possible.

• Borders are mostly closed, and ports are on strike, which leads to limited goods coming in from overseas and for a restaurant or bar. It isn’t easy to find imported ingredients.

• There are no trains running in the county, only two domestic airlines are operating flights (Myanmar National Airlines and Air Kanbawza), and there are limited public busses services operating.

• Some landmark attractions remain are open such as the Shwedagon pagoda, but it’s controlled by the military accused of dipping its fingers into the pagoda’s treasury. A social shaming campaign also encourages people to stay clear of the pagoda.

• There are accusations of thieving by rogue police and the military. Business owners face harassment as police demand bribes and request free services. Media outlets report thefts by police and military officers who commandeer motorbikes, phones, food, alcohol, cash and jewellery.

• SME’s have to be alert to make sure they are not using suppliers that are on the social shaming list as the public pressure is high. Selling Myanmar beer or promoting, for example, Shangri-La (see earlier reports on Shangri-La and Hilton Hotels) or any other business that is on the social shaming list could lead to huge PR damage.

The image of the country has been tarnished both for human rights and safety.  Covid-19 restrictions during the past year ensured for most tourism-related companies no income. Restaurants, bars and hotels are on the verge of bankruptcy.

So what do entrepreneurs do in Myanmar to overcome all these challenges?

Many staff are already on reduced salaries. Despite that, entrepreneurs keep busy, and some support people who need it most by providing food and medical aid. Travel clients who visited and came to love Myanmar are donating funds to agencies that provide food and medical help.

Some firms focus on selling street food rather than trying to keep a fancy restaurant open.

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Restaurants said they don’t pay electricity and taxes at the moment as requested by the elected National Unity Government of Myanmar (NUG) and donate the money they save to charity.

Also, individual staff from tourism companies and especially tour guides are actively supporting the movement for the return of the elected government and democracy. They donate food, work as activists and translate documents to inform overseas media about the miscarriage of justice and military corruption.

The military junta appointed a former general as Minister of Hotels & Tourism almost 100 days ago, but looking at the disastrous results of the military coup, it’s clear that the industry has no confidence in the military’s appointee. But the military wants it to look like “business as usual.” However, the situation on the ground witnessed by residents suggests the 1 February coup will ultimately destroy the economy and the aspirations of citizens leading to national chaos.

In response, the ASEAN Summit at the weekend issued the Chairman’s Statement containing a five-point consensus: (1) the immediate cessation of violence and the exercise of restraints by all sides; (2) constructive dialogue among all parties concerned; (3) a special envoy of the ASEAN Chair to facilitate mediation process (4) humanitarian assistance through AHA Centre; and (5) the special envoy and delegation’s visit to Myanmar to meet with all parties concerned.

Now the people of Myanmar will have to wait and see if ASEAN can broker an end to the violence and bring the country back from the brink of civil war.