A joint committee of Myanmar’s government and the country’s mega-rich tycoons discussed plans this week to restore a once-hyped and now-scandalous jewel of the world economy to its former glory.
For decades, the Rin Nyan Island in central Myanmar was an area of ostentatious luxury and upscale stilt houses, camel rides, and pre-set tangok (mini-horses) raced around a track. The island was one of the world’s hottest tourist destinations in the 1930s and 40s, when business people and other world-class tourists flocked to Bagan in the east of the country, and Nu Nu Island in the west. But under the New Economic Policy in 1981, President Than Shwe and the country’s wealthy businessmen gutted the government-owned investment company of a giant abode from God and sold off the land. The island was left empty, abandoned, and broke. For decades. In 2018, official statistics put the number of visitors to the island at only about 1,000.
Now, Burma’s new president, Win Myint, has decided to resurrect the island and open it up to tourists again, after being tormented for years by critics.
Speaking in Rangoon this week, Win Myint pledged that tourism would return to the country’s islands, according to Reuters.
“To the satisfaction of the industry we want to guarantee tourism on these islands,” he said. “We want to finish up this project.”
A former police officer, Win Myint made his career in the police force as a top official in Mon State in northeastern Myanmar. He was selected as the country’s First Deputy State Counsellor in May. As minister of state, he was in charge of planning and building military hardware, and driving populist projects to boost the economy, including rice and mango plantations. As recently as May, he toured Rangoon and launched a plan to rebuild the city.
The impact of the opening will be up to the spirit of the country. The plans call for a luxury-style development on the island, featuring guest houses, luxury residences, and even an airstrip, according to CNN. This is by far the biggest investment in the ministry of state yet, and is likely to spur further redevelopment in coastal areas. But the communist Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), who control around 50 percent of the country’s coast, still has to be convinced. The rebel group has bombed the state’s capital, Rangoon, in recent years.
Resuming tourism could bring in badly needed revenue. “There is huge potential for domestic tourism,” he said. “We have so many tourists now.”
Back in 2010, George Mitchell, then-U.S. Ambassador to Thailand, described the island as a beautiful sanctuary with “an irresistible combination of virgin scenery and pristine beaches, along with spectacular fish, bird and reptile nurseries.”
But his memories of the island were tarnished when a small group of Westerners got there with charter boats. “Some isolated desperadoes in white suits visiting Rin Nyan?” he wrote. “In high spirits? Self-injurious students sneaking off from an English day school to skip class? Or was it some angry and defiant [civil] rights demonstrators a decade or two ago? I have no idea, but they arrived in three very different guises. As a visitor, the island hasn’t seemed particularly attractive.”
As news of the proposed development spreads, Yangon still remains a deep-down-to-earth, eccentric, golden city. But a culture of development is being ushered in with unusual speed and ruthlessness, and the economic influx will undoubtedly bring its own rubs of elbows, some of which may be uncomfortable.
Today in Myanmar, only the presence of journalists could bring tourists to front-line areas of this country where these cobbled together troops and other irregular security services preside over the simmering junta of Burma. And government-owned luxury developments are being introduced all over the country, with five-star hotels rising in tin-roofed township communities that bear little resemblance to the spirit of a colonial-era capital.
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