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Visiting the American Embassy

I attended a town hall meeting tonight at the American Embassy in Yangon. It was pretty cool to enter the compound, and I sort of felt like I was back on American soil. I had a chance to hear from a few members of the administration, including the American Ambassador, Derek Mitchell (who started July 2012 – the first American ambassador here in Myanmar in 22 years).

Here are a few points:

  • The #1 challenge for Myanmar is national reconciliation (e.g. national ceasefire among ethnic communities and Muslim/Buddhist tensions), and the American administration has been working to help in the reform process
  • National elections, coming up in November, is also a major topic
  • The reputation of America here in Myanmar is very high

I know many of you are concerned with safety, so here are some points on that:

  • The American Embassy is not expecting major (evacuation-level) violence
  • There is someone on staff specifically focused on potential hot spots where danger could crop up during the elections
  • Assisted evacuation will be provided if commercial flights aren’t running
  • The American Embassy is employing a warden system (10 in Yangon and 3 spread out across the country), in which each American citizen will be assigned to a warden (by geography) as a point of contact in case any issues arise or if anyone becomes disconnected during conflict. To be assigned, citizens need to enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) via the State Department’s website (https://step.state.gov/step/)

Again, the American Embassy isn’t expecting any major issues, but they do have protocols in place in case something is to arise.

Back from Rakhine

This is my first post since departing for the U.S., and since returning to Myanmar about a week ago I spent the last week in the western province, called Rakhine State, to assess business opportunities.

The blue dot is the general area (a screenshot I took from my phone’s GPS when I was there):

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I spent a day in Thandwe, which is a seaside town where Ngapali Beach is located (the nicest beach in Myanmar from what I’ve heard). Unfortunately it was a bit stormy when we were there.

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Thandwe is quite a small city, if you could even call it that. The lush greens were pretty incredible.

Here’s a view from the front and back of our friend’s house:

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City center and market:

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View from hotel lobby:

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The whole place had a jungle feel to it.

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From there we went to Sittwe, which was the focus area for our business analysis. Sittwe is the capital of Rakhine State, and is a coastal town where fishing takes place.

Definitely a bigger place than Thandwe. Here is a picture of the city center:

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We spent some time outside the city as well. Here is the main road in a village we visited to speak with farmers:

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Farm equipment is in need due to labor shortages. You can see this is not the highest quality machine:

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Solar panels:

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Speaking with farmers about their needs:

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Back in Sittwe, we also had a chance to speak with government officials and local businesses. Overall, everyone was very welcoming with regard to doing business in Sittwe. Although there are many NGOs, we were told that we were the first American or European businessmen to speak with city officials about doing business there (so far, apparently it has been South Koreans and Chinese).

There appears to be a big need for development in Sittwe, and everyone we spoke to was very enthusiastic about having us do business there. This applied to doing business with both Rakhine and Muslim communities.

So now, in Yangon, I am spending some time debriefing and processing the trip. I will be putting together a report for the organization that wrote me a business visa as well as continue to consider potential avenues for next steps.

New “Reflection” Posted (after a 6 month hiatus)

Hi everyone,

I just posted a big “Month 10” reflection under the “Reflections” section of the website. It’s an inwardly focused piece that I wrote to help me reflect and provide transparency to those interested. Here’s a shortcut: Month 10: Deep Reflection

The cliff notes version? Basically, I’m exploring short-term consulting opportunities here in Myanmar to buy me some time before I figure out where I will be longer term. It’s undecided where exactly that will be. I’m also taking a deeper dive into Christianity, particularly as it pertains to my faith.

I’m looking forward to seeing family and friends in the U.S. soon (I’ll be landing in the U.S. this Saturday and will be back for two weeks).

Hope you’re all doing well.

Some important updates

It’s been some time since I’ve posted, and a lot has occurred. I don’t want to belabor this post, but I want to touch on some important areas (I have bolded the main points).

First, as most of you know, my grandmother recently passed away. She was an incredible grandmother who was fundamental to my fantastic upbringing without a mother. From the after-school pick-ups, to purchasing a boat on the pond so I could go fishing, to the big smile that always greeted me when I opened the door to the tranquility of gram’s house.

I wrote a poem for my grandmother’s funeral, which I will share here:

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To be honest, I wrestled quite a bit with whether or not to return home for the funeral. My closest friends here have also faced similar situations; one of the tradeoffs of working on the opposite side of the world.

But with that said, I have booked my flights for my return trip in August. I will be landing in the U.S. on August 15th (Saturday) and will be leaving the U.S. on August 29th (Saturday). I’m really looking forward to seeing everyone.

On the work front, for those who have not heard, I have concluded my work with Proximity Designs and left the organization as of last week. I need to be careful in what I share publicly (out of respect and confidentiality), but at a high level, essentially most of the decision boiled down to two core areas: 1) My inability (whether my fault, the organization’s, or both) to drive improvements in the relative short-term that I felt were critical for the long-term success of Proximity (and the uncertainty of how long it would take to accomplish these items, if at all possible), and 2) A growing inclination that donor-funded financing models may not be the best long-term solution for serving needs that can be addressed with fully market-based solutions (I’m, admittedly, still wrestling with this point).

I am speaking selectively with other organizations about short-term consulting contracts here in Myanmar to buy me some time before committing to a longer-term engagement. I still need time to discern, both geographically and industry-based, where my next step will be. To that end, I’m hoping to do a) Soul-Searching (where do I want to develop my career), b) Praying (where can I best flourish using the gifts that God has given me), and c) Market Research (where are the opportunities where (a) and (b) overlap).

In other news, as I know how much you’ve all enjoyed staying up to date on my gastrointestinal health (haha), here’s the latest addition to the lineup:

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Goodbye parasites!

Apparently you are supposed to take this deworming medication every 6 months. It’s been 10 months, and I’ve been having another bout of stomach issues, so I figure it’s best to rule this out as an issue and take a dose of this stuff (I hear it’s pretty commonly taken here and in the third world in general).

I’ll be honest, my digestive system has been put through the ringer. This has been perhaps the largest unforeseen challenge in moving to Myanmar.

Finally, last weekend I attended the Proximity annual retreat (the last hurrah before my departure) which was a trip to Bagan (I visited Bagan once before and shared about the experience in an earlier post).

Pit stop at Mt. Popa:

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Nature + Temples in Bagan:

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One of my friends who performed at the Proximity talent show:

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Kokine Swimming Pool & Food Pairings

I went for a swim today, which was a lot of fun. There is a pool not far from where I live called Kokine Swimming Club. I took pictures of the two outdoor pools, which you can see below. Unfortunatley “beach wear” is not allowed, so instead of wearing my board shorts, I had to borrow a Speedo from the club (less than ideal!).

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The tropical fruit selection has been fantastic. Here’s a picture of our fruit bowl as of earlier today:

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If you haven’t heard about this before, here is a screenshot of a food pairings guide that is commonly followed by locals here in Yangon — the red text denotes the effects of eating the food combination (I found a screenshot on Reddit). I was warned once about the mangosteen/sugar combination.

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Finally, I was shocked when I recently went to a Chinese food restaurant here in Yangon (called Golden Duck) with some friends and found “Shark Fin Soup” on the menu. I’ve heard about this dish through documentaries and such that describe the horrific practices used to harvest shark fins (we didn’t order the dish). Here is a snapshot of the menu:

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That’s all for now. Hope you’re all well!

New Myanmar Census!

The last comprehensive population and housing census was conducted in 1983, so it’s pretty cool to see the new results that were just recently released.

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Here are the most interesting statistics that caught my eye:

1) 27% of the population (11.2 million people) have no form of identification!

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2) Most houses have corrugated sheet roofs (imagine how loud that must be in the rains of monsoon season), bamboo walls, and wood floors.

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3) Almost 70% of the population uses firewood to cook.

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4) Only ~2% of the population uses flush toilets.

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5) Rhakine State (the region that much of the recent news has focused on) has by far the worst condition for sanitation and safe drinking water. ~70% of the population, 1.5 million people, use a pit, buckets, “other,” or nothing for toilets, and ~60% of the population, 1.3 million people, drink from unprotected wells/springs, ponds/lakes, rivers/streams, waterfalls/rainwater, or “other.”

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Furthermore, it seems that this data does not include some of the people living in potentially rougher conditions.

“In parts of Rakhine State, members of some communities were not counted because they were not allowed to self-identify using a name that is not recognised by the Government. The Government made this decision in the interest of security and to avoid the possibility of violence occurring due to inter- communal tensions.”

“A review of information on the enumeration in Rakhine State shows that not every household or population in the three districts of Maungdaw, Sittway and Myauk U were covered…it was estimated that a population of 1,090,000 was likely not to have been counted during the enumeration.”

Sanctions

Sanctions seem like some sort of faraway tool that has effects in ways that are difficult to see. Well, I saw this today, which was interesting:

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Another interesting data point:

I’ve been brainstorming some business ideas for here in Myanmar. Unfortunately, according to the World Bank’s “Doing Business” rankings, out of 189 countries, Myanmar ranks last (#189) for ease of starting a new business (http://www.doingbusiness.org/rankings). For doing business in general, it’s at 177 out of 189.

Finally, another anecdote. As of late I’ve been trying to learn the intro to “Mexico” by James Taylor on Taiei’s acoustic guitar (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eMaByvEMN84). Hitting the b minor chord has been particularly tough.

KFC Yangon + Life on the Street

The first major U.S. fast food chain is entering Myanmar. This picture is of the first KFC location, which is currently under construction (it is in front of Bogyoke Market).

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On a separate note, next time you run into a nest of cables that you have to untangle, think of this guy (I saw this today while walking Downtown):

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A couple weeks ago I randomly ran into a guy (~20-22 years old) who works at the company where I had my bed made. I soon found out that he is homeless and lives on the street with his mother (who he says is mentally handicapped). I had him over to my apartment to do some carpentry work, which he did one eventing, but he soon after mentioned that his mother is very sick, so he had to put the work on hold. I figured I’d swing by today to see if I could catch up with him in person. I met a guy (~18 years old) who works at the tea shop by where he lives,  and I was told he was working today. I did get to chat with some of the folks at the tea shop for a bit, which was interesting. I feel that I have to exercise some caution, but I also feel that it is important to be a part of the local community and get to know the local people.

That tarp by the wall where that woman is sleeping is his home (I am taking the picture from the nearby tea shop).

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Rohingya / Bengali: Adrift with No Home

Imagine pushing off into the sea (jammed in the hold of a smugglers ship) from the country where you were born and have lived your life. That country refuses to accept you as a citizen, and you are faced with persecution and an uncertain future. Then, drifting at sea on a boat with no captain (your human traffickers having abandoned you), imagine having NOWHERE to go. You can’t go to Thailand, you can’t go to Malaysia, you can’t go to Indonesia; you for sure can’t go back to life in Rakhine State in Myanmar, and you also can’t go to Bangladesh. You are adrift at sea, period.

If you haven’t heard about the refugee/migrant crisis coming from Myanmar and Bangladesh, please read this article from the New York Times: http://nyti.ms/1Fml8rH

Today I read a sentence that saddened me to the core (from Myanmar Times). In the face of this crisis, refugees struggling to survive with nowhere to go, this is what people had to say:

“The prime minister of Thailand warned that if more of the migrants arrive they may take jobs from Thai people, while Indonesia’s military chief said they would cause ‘social issues’ and Malaysia’s deputy home minister said accepting one boat will send a green light to thousands more who cannot ‘be flooding our shores’.”

Here are a couple direct quotes:

“…push back any boat that wants to enter Indonesian waters without permission, including those of boat people like the Rohingya.” – Indonesia’s chief military spokesman [NYTimes]

“We have been very nice to the people who broke into our border. We have treated them humanely, but they cannot be flooding our shores like this. We have to send the right message that they are not welcome here.” – Malaysian Deputy Home Minister [NYTimes]

Please pray for these people, and pray for leaders in in this part of the world to come together and provide help (for those on the boats, for those caught in limbo on the shores of foreign lands, and for those struggling in the places from where these people have fled).

Updates from Radio Silence

Hi everyone,

Sorry for the radio silence. I wanted to share some more pictures with you all.

Here is a Buddhist-style wedding I went to recently. The bride helps run the snack shop by our office, and I stop by quite frequently. Many people came to the reception, which is kind of like a rotating door system. You come in, say hi to the bride and the groom, eat, and then leave. From what I’ve heard, the marriage ceremony is a smaller gathering held earlier in the morning — I wasn’t invited to that segment.

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I’m still eating well! Here is a Japanese-style hot-pot we had at our apartment recently (a broth is added to the pan and you eat it after the food cooks on a burner at the table — the meat isn’t shown in this picture).

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The tropical fruit has been AMAZING. We have entered mango season. As of now they are going for around 40 cents a piece.

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Here is one of our housemates (~5-6 inches long).

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This is one of the strangest insects I have ever seen. It was probably about 2-3 inches long.

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Taiei and I were invited to dinner one night at the apartment of one of our colleagues (mostly meat and cheese from Germany). These nuts were pretty interesting. The pistachios were grown by our colleagues wife in Kyrgyzstan and the walnuts came from Iran (not sure I’d be allows to eat those in the US!).

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If you have yet to see the Thingyan Water Festival movie that I posted, I’d recommend that you have a look! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M5QjoZjKNP0

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Hope you are all well.