In the United States, discussions of Burma, both in the media and in social justice circles, often refer to economic sanctions against the government and pressure on Western companies to avoid doing business there. In the 1990s, for example, activists successfully pressured dozens of companies, including Best Western, Heineken, and Levi Strauss, to leave the country. In recent years, the value of a country-wide boycott has been more hotly debated, and in recent months this dynamic has begun to change rapidly, at least on the part of governments: for example, Norway has said it will stop discouraging investment in the country, while the European Union just eased restrictions on 87 Burmese officials and is reviewing its sanctions against the country. One person in Burma told us that land prices were rapidly increasing, due to the current and expected influx of Western companies. If these trends continue, the commercial landscape could be very different here in the next decade.
Within the still recent context of pressure to avoid doing business in Burma, however, it is interesting to note what is already on sale in the country. Coca-Cola and Pepsi are easy to find (is there a country where they are not?), and Lipton tea is served in hotels and at tourist restaurants. Andrew found (and ate) Pringles at a bus rest stop halfway between Yangon and Bagan, and I saw Colgate toothpaste in more than one city. Behind the counter of a bakery in the town of Hpa-An, we spied both Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup and two different flavors of Torani syrup. While driving through Yangon, I was startled to see the Starbucks logo on a billboard, an advertisement for a café that sold Starbucks coffee. One of the strangest things, though, was the prevalence of Angry Birds t-shirts: apparently it’s a very popular game at internet cafes, where internet connections are slow and unreliable.
There are also, of course, many Burma-produced goods. Coffee generally comes as “coffeemix,” a packet that includes instant coffee, powdered milk, and sugar, which you mix with hot water. Competition appears to be strong, with billboards advertising different brands of essentially the same packaged powder. Bottles of Myanandar Purified Drinking Water are often available, their green labels promising “Producing with international drinking water production standard and its so pure, clean, fresh and makes joyful to all the customers.”
At our first hotel, we were given a small packet of Misss shampoo, produced by E-Lan Company Limited and Made in Myanmar. On the front: “For Black Shiny Hair with Eclipta Nutrient.” On the back, a list of ingredients, the last of which was formaldehyde. Yes, the chemical they use to preserve dead bodies, and a known carcinogen. At our second hotel, we received another packet of Misss shampoo, this one geared toward the health-conscious. The front of the packet proudly noted “With Bio-Nutrient/ Bio-Vitamin E,” and the back stated that it “Contains Bio-Vitamin E which helps to maintain the balance of your hair’s living processes.” I couldn’t find Vitamin E listed in the ingredients section, but I did note the last ingredient — more formaldehyde.