Tourism has borne the brunt of an economic slowdown and the international outcry over Rakhine, but one tycoon is feeling bullish about the industry.

By BEN DUNANT | FRONTIER

“TOURISM is low-hanging fruit in any country looking to develop,” says Mr Serge Pun, puffing on a cigar in the headquarters of Memories Group, a company that manages the Myanmar tycoon’s expanding portfolio of tourism assets.

“Those moaning and groaning,” he says, “are missing the bigger picture.”

With an office set amid the golf courses and luxury homes of his 653-acre Pun Hlaing Estate, next to the Hlaing River as it bends towards downtown Yangon, Pun matches a large commercial appetite with a relatively clean image. This has made him a preferred partner for foreign investors with international brands to protect.

His role as the figurehead since early 2018 of the New Yangon City project, involving a Chinese construction company formerly sanctioned by the World Bank, has raised eyebrows, though a steady stream of information via town hall style meetings and an active website has distinguished it from other big infrastructure projects.

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But Pun, known also as U Theim Wai, has been in the news for another reason: Memories Group is rapidly acquiring hotels and tourism services throughout Myanmar. In 2018, the company opened high-end hotels in Yangon, Kayah and Mon states, and Tanintharyi Region’s Myeik Archipelago. Some have wondered why he is so bullish about a sector that has borne the brunt of a general economic slowdown and an international outcry over alleged atrocities in Rakhine State.

“The downturn in tourism is fact,” Pun says, but adds that, at Memories Group, “We’re always playing the long game.”

“We enter into sectors with a view to be players for decades,” he says, before expounding on what he considers to be Myanmar’s chief advantages: “You could go skiing in the Himalayas in the north and in the same day fly down to the Mergui [Myeik] Archipelago and go diving in a tropical setting.”

Skiing in Myanmar, which could only happen in northern Kachin State amid what is largely wilderness, is a remote prospect. However, snorkelling and scuba diving is available – for those prepared to pay a premium – in the more than 800 islands that make up the Myeik Archipelago.

Memories Group’s Awei Pila resort is one of fewer than half a dozen resorts to have opened on the islands, and is nearing the end of its first season. With 24 villas costing US$750-900 a night during high season, the resort is pitched at the wealthy.

Such luxury offerings may sound like a weak bet, given the plunge in Western visitors since 2017. North American arrivals were down 12.66 percent in 2018, while Western European arrivals were hit harder, falling by 23.35pc. Asian arrivals, which rose by 11.85pc and comprise a larger group to begin with, helped make up the shortfall in visitors but not in income.

The reliably big spenders in Myanmar have traditionally come from Western countries, and many of the higher-end hotels and services are geared to their tastes. Mixing “eco” credentials with European dining options, Memories Group hotels appear to be no exception. But Pun expresses impatience with the stereotypes that he says artificially separate Western and Asian tourists and their preferences.  

“Eastern tourists often spend more,” he says, referring to what he claimed was a growing class of affluent Asian tourists who eschew group travel in favour of more individual experiences. This “slice of Eastern tourism”, he says, was easily obscured by “the 100-million-so tourists that go out, all led by a little flag. That’s what everyone thinks of as Eastern tourism.”

“That’s a big distortion,” he says. “There’s a highly educated, highly discerning and demanding traveller crowd in the East that actually demands a great deal more in terms of experience, comfort and safety, and they’re willing to pay the price for it.”

Pun believes it’s a mistake for Myanmar to rely too much on the West for tourists. “The fact that Western visitors are declining is going to be doubly substituted by Eastern visitors,” he says, claiming that the latter were more dependable. For him, this is rooted in what he believes is their more open attitude towards the country. 

“The West sees Myanmar in a simplistic way, saying that Rakhine is Myanmar, Rohingya is Myanmar, and there is nothing else. The East sees us differently,” he says. “The East sees that Rakhine is a problem, but that it is one small part of the country tucked up in a remote northwestern region, and then there is the rest of Myanmar, and we have to engage.”

“Because of the fundamental difference in the lens that they use, the East will definitely substitute the West in all spheres: FDI [Foreign Direct Investment], tourism, cooperation,” he says.

“It’s all very good to talk about uplifting people’s lives and all that high horse talk, while you are doing nothing about it. In due course people will come to judge, who actually has contributed more to the benefit of our country and our people. Is it the West, or is it the East?”

Asked whether tourism in Myanmar presents any ethical pitfalls for investors in terms of social and environmental impacts, Pun seems to take affront at the notion, insisting that the government has largely put the necessary safeguards in place.

“The concern that investments in the tourism sector may not be responsible is actually groundless. I have not seen any evidence [of cases] where irresponsible investments have been made in the tourism sector,” he says.

“Any suggestion that this country or its government is totally irresponsible, or has no concern about environmental conservation, I think is baseless,” he says, referring to efforts to manage tourism’s environmental impact. “I think that we have a relatively strong ministry in MONREC [the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation] that is highly conscious of environmental issues.”

Pun says Myanmar represents “a stark difference from certain places I know where officials don’t care; they only care about making money or getting more revenue, to the detriment of the environment. Then, you are in dangerous territory, but I don’t see that in Myanmar.”

TOP PHOTO: Serge Pun left Burma as a boy, and lived in China and then Hong Kong. He returned to take part in Myanmar’s economic opening in the 1990s. (Thuya Zaw | Frontier)

By AFP

DHAKA — Criminal gangs and militants are increasing their grip on Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, committing killings and abductions with “impunity”, International Crisis Group said in a new report Thursday.

About 740,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar for Bangladesh after a military crackdown in August 2017, joining huge numbers already confined to the camps after earlier violence across the border.

With no prospect in sight of the Rohingya returning to their homes in Myanmar, the international community must also now help Bangladesh to house the refugees for years ahead, ICG said.

The conflict research group called for Bangladesh to toughen its police presence, saying that gangs and extremist groups were now operating openly in the camps.

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Threats from extremists had left Rohingya leaders fearful for their lives and that frequent murders were “rarely” investigated, it added.

“Refugees express serious concerns about their personal security, and militants and gangs are intimidating, kidnapping and killing with impunity,” the ICG report said.

“Murders and other forms of violence are an almost nightly occurrence… and perpetrators have almost never been brought to justice.”

The group said some Rohingya community leaders “had received credible death threats, they believe from ARSA, and fear for their lives,” it said, referring to the the militant Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army.

ARSA has been blamed for deadly attacks on Myanmar security forces in recent years, including the attacks which sparked the 2017 clampdown.

Bangladesh police said the creation of seven new police posts, the deployment of armed police and better intelligence had improved security.

“The report is exaggerated but not baseless. It is true violence in the camps has increased,” Cox’s Bazar district police spokesman Mr Iqbal Hossain told AFP.

About 60 Rohingya have been killed in the camps since the 2017 refugee influx, Hossain said. 

He denied that ARSA had a presence in the camps and said most killings were part of a power struggle among Rohingya groups.

“Intelligence activities have been stepped up to find out whether ARSA is involved in killings,” he said, adding that some 1,000 police and security officers had been deployed in camps.

But ICG said police were “overstretched” and focused on perimeter security and the protection of local Bangladeshis.

When the night comes and “humanitarian workers withdraw to their bases in Cox’s Bazar town, security is in the hands of untrained and unarmed night watchmen appointed from among the refugees,” it said.

By AFP

YANGON — Myanmar police have arrested one American and two locals after photos on Facebook led them to a huge plantation of towering marijuana plants near Mandalay.

Pictures of the fields of weed started circulating on the platform last week — a rare sight online in a country where police photos of seized heroin and methamphetamine are far more common.

Police raided the 20-acre site in Ngunzun Township Monday to find nearly 350,000 marijuana plants — some up to two metres tall — 380 kilograms of seeds and 270 kilograms of marijuana, the Central Committee for Drug Abuse Control (CCDAC) announced Wednesday.

A released photo showed arrested US citizen Mr John Fredric Todoroki, 63, standing alongside Myanmar nationals U Shein Latt, 37, and Ma Shun Le Myat Noe, 23.

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Another man, 49-year-old Mr Alexander Skemp Todoroki, is still “at large”, the CCDAC said.

Police confirmed he is also American.

The detainees have been charged under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Law, though it remains unclear what penalties they will face if found guilty.

“We didn’t know this [marijuana plantation] existed,” one local police officer told AFP, asking not to be named.

“We only found out when we were tipped off about it.” 

Seizures of heroin, pills and crystal meth by authorities are more common in Myanmar, where weak rule of law and conflict-riddled border areas allow for the industrial-scale production of harder drugs. 

Reaction on Facebook was swift, with some offering high praise for the arrests. 

Others questioned how the pot growers had been able to get away with it for so long.

“How could the plants have grown so big without you allowing it?” Facebook user Kg Zoe Law commented at the police.

But not everyone’s nose was put out of joint by the agronomists’ antics.

“Let me know where it’ll be burned so I can get in position,” San Yu Ko Ko pleaded.

Refugees in Bangladesh need access to formal education based on the Myanmar curriculum so they can contribute to society once they return.

By SAWYEDDOLLAH | FRONTIER

EDUCATION provides students with the knowledge they need to face the challenges that life brings. It can also make them more aware of the social and economic situation in their country, enabling them to help in building a better future.

Young Rohingya refugees who have been forced to flee northern Rakhine State want the chance to do just that. We want to continue our education so that we can make a useful contribution to our country, Myanmar, when we return. The right to an education is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and we do not understand why we are being denied this right.

I was born in December 2000. I was a Grade 11 student when violence escalated in August 2017, forcing me and many others to leave our homes in northern Rakhine soon afterwards. With the support of the authorities in Bangladesh, I have served as a leader in my camp since October 2017, so I am familiar with the challenges that the refugee community – particularly its youth – faces.

There are more than one million Rohingya refugees in the camps near Cox’s Bazar, of whom around half are thought to be under the age of 18. That means that there are many, like me, who have had their education interrupted. Our lives are extremely difficult. Education would bring us hope, but the present situation is destroying the lives of school-age refugees, and destroying the future of the Rohingya.

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During the past 19 months donors have given millions of dollars towards the provision of education in the camps, and there have been repeated calls from a range of voices to address the current gap. So far, though, we have seen little sign of improvement.

We are, of course, thankful for the assistance that the international community has provided us, in terms of food, shelter and much else. But the lack of educational support makes us feel that they do not care about providing this fundamental human right. It creates the perception that local and international non-government organisations are mainly interested in ensuring a long-term role for themselves in the camps, rather than helping Rohingya communities.

There are many such NGOs in the camps. Though some of them have experience in providing education, there are no opportunities for middle school and high school students to learn. There are no formal schools in the camps, only child-friendly learning centres where each of the NGOs has their own curriculum.

We worry that the next generation of Rohingya will suffer because of a lack of education. But we don’t need just any education: we need the Myanmar curriculum. There is no future for us in Bangladesh; it is not our country and we have no idea how long we will be allowed to stay. Myanmar is our home.

If Bangladesh is prohibiting international organisations from providing the Myanmar curriculum to Rohingya students, then those organisations have a responsibility to push back against this restriction. Karen refugees in Thailand are able to study the Myanmar curriculum, so why can’t we?

Our future is in jeopardy. Who will give us the education we need for a better future? We see that the international community, who are not family members, are not helping us to receive a formal education. Will the people of our country, the members of the Myanmar family, remain silent? Will they help to ensure we have the opportunity to have a formal education?

အေအက်ဖ်ပီ

လူမှုကွန်ရက်ဖြစ်သည့် Facebook ပေါ်မှ ဓာတ်ပုံများကြောင့် မန္တလေးမြို့အနီးတွင် အကြီးအကျယ်စိုက်ပျိုးထားသည့် ဆေးခြောက်စိုက်ခင်းကြီးကို မြန်မာရဲတပ်ဖွဲ့က တွေ့ရှိခဲ့ပြီးနောက် အမေရိကန်တစ်ဦးနှင့် ဒေသခံနှစ်ဦးကို ဖမ်းဆီးလိုက်သည်။

အဆိုပါစိုက်ခင်း၏ ဓာတ်ပုံများက Facebook ပေါ်တွင် ပြီးခဲ့သည့်ရက်သတ္တပတ်က စတင်ပျံ့နှံ့နေခဲ့သည်။ ဘိန်းဖြူနှင့် စိတ်ကြွဆေးပြားများအား ရဲတပ်ဖွဲ့က ဖမ်းဆီးလိုက်သည့် ဓာတ်ပုံမျာအား မြင်နေကျဖြစ်သည့် မြန်မာနိုင်ငံတွင် ထိုသို့စိုက်ခင်းကြီး၏ မြင်ကွင်းမျိုးကိုမူ တွေ့မြင်ရခဲသည်။

ငါးဇွန်မြို့နယ်ရှိ ဧက ၂၀ ရှိ စိုက်ခင်းသို့ ဧပြီ ၂၂ ရက်နေ့တွင် ရဲတပ်ဖွဲ့က ဝင်ရောက်စစ်ဆေးခဲ့ရာ ဆေးခြောက်ပင် ၃၅၀,၀၀၀ ခန့်အား တွေ့ရှိခဲ့ကြသည်။ အချို့သောအပင်များမှာ ခြောက်ပေခန့်အထိ မြင့်မားနေပြီဖြစ်သည်။ ထို့ပြင် ဆေးခြောက်အစေ့(မျိုးစေ့) ၃၈၀ ကီလိုဂရမ်၊ ဆေးခြောက် ၂၇၀ ကီလိုဂရမ်တို့ကိုလည်း တွေ့ရှိခဲ့သည်ဟု မူးယစ်ဆေးဝါးတားဆီးနှိမ်နင်းရေးရဲတပ်ဖွဲ့က ဧပြီ ၂၄ ရက်နေ့တွင် ပြောကြားသည်။

ဖမ်းဆီးခံထားရသည့် အမေရိကန်နိုင်ငံသား အသက် ၆၃ နှစ်ရှိ Fredric Todoroki နှင့်အတူ မြန်မာနိုင်ငံသားများဖြစ်သည့် အသက် ၃၇ အရွယ် ရှိန်းလတ်နှင့် အသက် ၂၃ နှစ်အရွယ် မရွှန်းလဲ့မြတ်နိုးတို့အား ရဲတပ်ဖွဲ့က ထုတ်ပြန်သည့် ဓာတ်ပုံထဲတွင် တွေ့မြင်ရသည်။

အခြားအမျိုးသားတစ်ဦးဖြစ်သည့် အသက် ၄၉ နှစ်ရှိ Alexander Skemp Todoroki မှာမူ လွတ်မြောက်နေဆဲဖြစ်သည်ဟု မူးယစ်တပ်ဖွဲ့က ပြောကြားသည်။

၎င်းမှာလည်း အမေရိကန်နိုင်ငံသားပင်ဖြစ်သည်ဟုလည်း ရဲတပ်ဖွဲ့က အတည်ပြုခဲ့သည်။

ငါးဇွန်မြို့နယ်ရှိ ဧက ၂၀ ရှိ စိုက်ခင်းသို့ ဧပြီ ၂၂ ရက်နေ့တွင် ရဲတပ်ဖွဲ့က ဝင်ရောက်စစ်ဆေးခဲ့ရာ ဆေးခြောက်ပင် ၃၅၀,၀၀၀ ခန့်အား တွေ့ရှိခဲ့ကြသည်။ ဓာတ်ပုံ-အေအက်ဖ်ပီ

ငါးဇွန်မြို့နယ်ရှိ ဧက ၂၀ ရှိ စိုက်ခင်းသို့ ဧပြီ ၂၂ ရက်နေ့တွင် ရဲတပ်ဖွဲ့က ဝင်ရောက်စစ်ဆေးခဲ့ရာ ဆေးခြောက်ပင် ၃၅၀,၀၀၀ ခန့်အား တွေ့ရှိခဲ့ကြသည်။ ဓာတ်ပုံ-အေအက်ဖ်ပီ

ဖမ်းဆီးထားသူများအား မူးယစ်ဆေးဝါးနှင့် စိတ်ကိုပြောင်းလဲစေသည့် ဆေးဝါးများဆိုင်ရာဥပဒေဖြင့် အရေးယူထားပြီး ၎င်းတို့တွင် အပြစ်ရှိကြောင်းတွေ့ရှိခဲ့ပါက မည်သည့်ပြစ်ဒဏ်ကျခံရမည်ကိုမူ သဲသဲကွဲကွဲမသိရှိရသေးပေ။

“ဒီဟာတွေ (ဆေးခြောက်စိုက်ခင်း)ရှိနေတာ ကျွန်တော်တို့ မသိပါဘူး” ဟု အမည်မဖော်လိုသည့် ဒေသခံရဲအရာရှိတစ်ဦးက အေအက်ဖ်ပီကို ပြောကြားသည်။

“သတင်းရတဲ့အခါမှဘဲ အဲဒါကို တွေ့ရှိခဲ့တာပါ” ဟု ၎င်းကပြောသည်။

ဖမ်းဆီးမှုနှင့် ပတ်သက်ပြီး Facebook ပေါ်တွင် တုန့်ပြန်မှုများ အလျှင်အမြန်ပေါ်ထွက်လာပြီး အချို့ကလည်း ဖမ်းဆီးမှုကို ချီးကျူးခဲ့ကြသည်။

အချို့ကမူ ယခုလို စိုက်ပျိုးသူများအနေဖြင့် ဤမျှကာလကြာသည့်အထိ မည်သို့မည်ပုံ လူမသိလူမသိ ဆောင်ရွက်ကြသနည်းဟုလည်း မေးခွန်းထုတ်ခဲ့ကြသည်။

“မီးရှို့ဖျက်စီးမယ့်နေရာသိရင်ပြောကြပါအုံး၊ လေသင့်ရာအရပ်မှာနေမလို့” ဟုလည်း စန်းယုကိုကိုက ရေးသားထားသည်။