Myanmar city gets high-tech makeover

Many credit Mandalay Mayor Ye Lwin, a former eye surgeon turned politician, with overseeing a turnaround over the past two years. Shutterstock)
Updated 04 August 2019

Myanmar city gets high-tech makeover

  • Authorities in Mandalay are tapping social media and new technologies such as artificial intelligence software and drones to revamp a lethargic bureaucracy

YANGON: Once a seat of kings, the city of Mandalay in northern Myanmar has seen turbulent chapters in its 162-year history — the fall of Burma’s last royal dynasty and decades of colonial rule. Now, officials are attempting to transform the former royal capital into Myanmar’s first “smart city.”

In a country where officials still largely labor with pen and ink, surrounded by stacks of moldering papers, authorities in Mandalay are tapping social media and new technologies such as artificial intelligence software and drones to revamp a lethargic bureaucracy.

Under the secretive military junta that ruled Myanmar until 2011, people in the country’s second largest city rarely had any contact with those who governed them. Now, they talk to the mayor on Facebook and pay for services with QR codes, something not available in Myanmar’s commercial capital, Yangon. Authorities track garbage disposal with GPS and control traffic flows with remote sensors.

“It is very good that we can communicate with the mayor like this,” said 55-year-old taxi driver Kyi Thein. “Before, we could only see their motorcades.”

Formerly dominated by military-linked men and regarded as a hotbed of graft and mismanagement, the city’s first municipal government with an overwhelmingly civilian background has driven the plan, which is part of a regional initiative.

The pace of change has won plaudits in regional media and from overseas Myanmar nationals — the mayor was given the Citizen of Burma award by a US diaspora organization in May — underscoring opportunities for Myanmar as the country emerges from half a century of isolation into a world dominated by rapidly evolving technology.

But some of the attempts to push through change have met with resistance, not only from corners of the creaky bureaucracy, but from activists concerned that smart technology, deployed without regulating legislation, could allow authorities to more closely surveil them.

In April 2018, Singapore, then the chair of the Association of South East Asian Nations, proposed the creation of a network of 26 “smart cities” that would harness technology to tackle some of the challenges created as the region’s once mostly rural population converges in cities.

Three Myanmar cities were chosen, but it is in Mandalay, in the center of the country, where authorities have done most to embrace the proposal.

Locals there say issues are myriad. The tap water is not drinkable. Congestion is increasing as the number of vehicles has skyrocketed since the liberalization of imports in 2012. The roads are potholed and pavements littered with trash.

Many credit Mayor Ye Lwin, a former eye surgeon turned politician and the first appointed to the post by a civilian government after elections in 2015, with overseeing a turnaround over the past two years. He responds to gripes on his Facebook page daily, tagging subordinates and issuing directives.

He declined an interview request by Reuters, referring questions to officials in his office.

“Our goal is to create a city which doesn’t damage the environment, is liveable for people, with a good economy and friendly environment,” said Ye Myat Thu, an IT expert who created Myanmar’s most popular Burmese-language font and now works alongside the mayor in the Mandalay City Development Committee. “We get there using technology.”

Dubai counts on pent-up demand for tourism return

Updated 11 July 2020

Dubai counts on pent-up demand for tourism return

DUBAI: After a painful four-month tourism shutdown that ended this week, Dubai is betting pent-up demand will see the industry quickly bounce back, billing itself as a safe destination with the resources to ward off coronavirus.

The emirate, which had more than 16.7 million visitors last year, opened its doors to tourists despite global travel restrictions and the onset of the scorching Gulf summer in the hopes the sector will reboot before high season begins in the last quarter of 2020.

Embarking from Emirates flights, where cabin crew work in gowns and face shields, the first visitors arrived on Tuesday to be greeted by temperature checks and nasal swabs, in a city better known for skyscrapers, luxury resorts and over-the-top attractions.

Tourism chief Helal Al-Marri said that people may still be reluctant to travel right now, but that data shows they are already looking at destinations and preparing to come out of their shells.

“When you look at the indicators, and who is trying to buy travel, 10 weeks ago, six weeks ago and today look extremely different,” he said in an interview.

“People were worried (but) people today are really searching heavily for their next holiday and that is a very positive sign and I see a very strong comeback.”

The crisis crushed Dubai’s goal to push arrivals to 20 million this year and forced flag carrier Emirates, the largest airline in the Middle East, to cut its sprawling network and lay off an undisclosed number of staff.

But Al-Marri, director-general of Dubai’s Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing, said that unlike the gloom after the 2008 global financial crisis, the downturn is a one-off “shock event.”

“Once we do get to the other side, as we start to talk about next year and later on, we see very much a quick uptick. Because once things normalize, people will go back to travel again,” he said.

The reopening comes as the UAE battles stubbornly high coronavirus infection rates that have climbed to more than 53,500 with 328 deaths.

And as swathes of the world emerge from lockdown, for many travelers their holiday wish lists have shifted from free breakfasts and room upgrades to more pressing issues like hotel sanitation and hospital capacity.

With its advanced medical facilities and infrastructure, Dubai is betting it will be an attractive option for tourists.

“The first thing I’m thinking is — how is the health-care system, do they have it under control? Do I trust the government there?” Al-Marri said. “Yes they expect the airline to have precautionary measures, they expect it at the airport. But are they going to a city where everything from the taxi, to the restaurant, to the mall, to the beach has these measures in place?”

Tourists arriving in Dubai are required to present a negative test result taken within four days of the flight. If not, they can take the test on arrival, but must self-isolate until they receive the all-clear.

While social distancing and face masks are widely enforced, many restaurants and attractions have reopened with business as usual, even if wait staff wear protective gear and menus have been replaced with QR codes.

“When it comes to Dubai, I think it’s really great to see the fun returning to the city. As you’ve seen, everything’s opened up,” Al-Marri said.