Misadventures in Naypyidaw: Year Three

Year three was perhaps the most surreal and my last. I spent most of it living in relative luxury at the Naypyidaw Hilton. The year was shaped by the Junta’s renewed ethnic cleansing against the Muslims in Rakhine State.

My Canadian friend Lauren, initially a Peace Corps volunteer, talked me into moving in there. I think it took her about 30 seconds. Pathetically, it was cheaper to stay in a luxury hotel than rent Maison Junta. A hotel room was more on the scale I was comfortable in. The shower and the most comfortable bed made by humankind made it a decision I never second guessed.

New Blood

Sharon and Bill didn’t return. Nor did Mark. Claire and Paul did; we were firm friends by now. The Weeper did her best to keep the three of us away from the three new bodies.  She wanted them to stay at her hotel so she could mold and inspire them with right-think. They could all bask in the Presence.

There was Anya, an aging nutcase from South Africa. She fit in with the three of us immediately. She was the sort who’d throw her dessert at you in a restaurant.

Then there was Mike, with his Pinoy wife that didn’t speak a word of English and their young son. He had qualified as a Cognitive Behaviour Therapist and was struggling to find an NHS job. Nice guy, totally inoffensive.

That couldn’t be said of Ponytail Joe: bold on top, grey long hair to the middle of his back. When introduced to me, he blundered in and shouted: ‘Doesn’t anyone here have hair?’

In an attempt to be collegial and avoid the Weeper, Claire and Paul held a dinner party for the new guys. I invited Lauren along.

Lauren was delightful, funny and impossible to dislike.  She liked wine and laughed a good deal. She made friends with a family of labourers, would buy toys and clothes for the children and take them to the hotels so they could go swimming. She was the least fractious person you could meet.

She introduced herself to Ponytail Joe. He replied: ‘Hi, I’m not Lauren.’ She spent the evening violently disagreeing with everything he said. He was the sort of person you wanted to violently beat to death with the nearest blunt object. As the military started its ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya, he took his drone to Cox’s Bazar to video refugees. He was a real charmer.

The hotel the Weeper chose for herself and the new staff turned out to be the military’s brothel. Orgies were a weekend event. The Organisation felt it fine to leave their female staff there. Even the Americans took their people out when it became clear what it was and that it was owned by one of the more notorious war criminals.

Mr Lee, Let Me Service You

My biggest concern was getting back from work in the morning in time for jamón ibérico, olives and a badly cooked omelette. Evenings were a rush to get back for drinks and snacks in the lounge. Monday was the worst: was it snacks or miss the start of Game of Thrones?

The Hilton did well by the locals. They would train local people and then ship them off around the world for a career. One of the more eager of the bar staff regularly offered to ‘service me’. I almost invited him back to my room. Even I was becoming curious as to what sort of servicing he envisioned.

The most noticeable of the hotel’s guests was Big Fat Dave. He was an American, an obnoxious rotund slob. And a Trump supporter. He would blunder his way into the kitchen every morning and instruct the chefs on how best to prepare his breakfast. In his defence, it was a wonder how anybody could claim to be a chef if they couldn’t prepare an omelette. Presumably, the entrance exam was pouring water into a glass. Big Fat Dave made their mornings miserable, yet they were too polite to tell him what to go do with himself.

Anya, keen to move away from the Weeper, and to a lesser extent the orgies, moved into the Hilton. She and I did some real damage to the world supply of strawberry margaritas and poured scorn on the world over breakfast.

This was probably what broke the camels back. I imagine someone in Yangon shouting ‘Who is living where?’ As the pleasures of Naypyidaw became clear, all the Yangon staff suddenly changed their minds about wanting to work there. Complaints of unfairness were made. Management didn’t care, of course, but it was useful ammunition for later.

The University

I was approaching burn out and for reasons I can’t quite explain, Lauren talked me into moonlighting at the ‘university’ that opened in one of the emptier malls. The American owner, I later found out, was a convicted sex offender (consensual, with a minor) who rightly fell from grace very publicly. The story, when it broke stateside, contained the greatest official photograph of respected businessman ever taken – his oversize suit and badly fitting wig scream class. One wonders how anyone, underage or not, was sufficiently short-sighted to enter into any kind of sexual encounter with him willingly.

The Kiwi gentleman who claimed to be co-founder of the same, he was a hireling, was a butch homosexual prone to violence. He was an intimidating presence and claimed to have been an iron-man competitor.  Upon obtaining contracts to teach in one of Naypyitaw’s ministries, he spent the classes telling his students about the moon landing conspiracy.

The school’s receptionist, a good-looking local lad, was openly in Tin Hat’s employ, offering the boyfriend experience. The staff at the hotel they lived in were scandalised. He was a good guy. Everyone has to make a living. 

Their programs attracted some interesting characters, including many of Aung San Suu Kyi’s entourage. One gentleman worked directly in the office responsible for slandering her in the media. After the military started genocide against the Rohingya Muslims, he said the western media had destroyed her reputation in less than two weeks. He and his team hadn’t been able to do that in twenty years.

A second gentleman had some involvement with the secret police and was later jailed for 20 years after brokering an illegal land deal. The oligarch, on whose behalf he acted, got off without a blemish. He gave Tin Hat his personal number and said that, if he (Tin Hat) were ever stopped by the police, he should call and hand the phone to the offending officer. The problem would immediately go away.

The school looked desperately for somewhere to accommodate undergraduate students. They came to agreement with a hotel but realised at the last minute that it too was a brothel, sorry, ‘entertainment hotel’.

Who Wept for the Weeper?

She wept with greater frequency. Between weeping, she chain-smoked and drank coffee. Her mental health declined. The effort of exuding fake niceness was clearly taking a toll. The poor thing was clearly out of her depth.

Eventually, she had the good grace to quit, but not before she whipped up trouble for the rest of us. On the plane to Yangon, she sat behind me. On disembarking, she couldn’t look me in the eye. The gig was up. We guessed she was in Yangon salting the earth on her way out. She told senior management that Paul and I bullied her.

Yangon later admitted to Paul they knew the Weeper was ineffectual. They let her struggle. As with Demi, their strategy became clear: they clearly didn’t kick people out, they waited until they dug holes for themselves and decided to leave.

We were all asked to apply for her job. Paul did, with our encouragement, and they give it to Ponytail Joe. He ticked the toxic personality box perfectly. Strike three! Design. Not accident.

Other Notables

For a place nobody has heard of, Naypyidaw saw a lot of international traffic. Rodrigo Duterte and his military entourage stayed at the hotel opposite the Hilton. The roads up to it were lined with troops for several days. Angelina Jolie paid us a fleeting visit too.

The departure of the Weeper left a management vacuum and the gentleman who filled it was late of the Organisation’s project in North Korea. It had come to an abrupt and very diplomatic end. Comparing our project to his, he preferred the Democratic People’s Republic. More interestingly, he had personally known the idiot ‘supervisor’ Demi that had caused so many problems in the first year. He was amazed anyone would give her a job, let alone one in management. She was, he claimed with experience, ‘a retard’.

An Ending

Some of what motivated the changes that led us to leave the project didn’t become clear until later. The Organisation suddenly started applying standards to itself globally. I suspect the bookkeepers arrived too. They bled money as a registered charity, the profit making kind. Paul had exposed some of their unorthodox accounting when we were discussing money with management earlier in the project.

After the Weeper’s leaving, we knew something was coming. ‘Minor changes’ to terms and conditions were coming. It started as some nonsense about not subsidising our journeys to work. We rented cars given Naypyidaw is a significant size and has no public transport system. Someone in Yangon complained it was unfair. It cost them less than 200 Kyat to get a taxi to work. Or they could walk. It Naypyidaw it cost 60 dollars a day. Four journeys. Our travel allowance was being reduced. The difference was coming out of our salary. Our housing allowance was being cut. The cost of housing and travel combined was considerably higher than our monthly salary. They let us do the maths ourselves – staying was untenable. They clearly wanted us gone. When our rational arguments about costs failed to have impact, what was going on was clear. It was ‘fuck you’ dressed up as policy and equity.

It was a thinly disguised ruse. We were laughing at their bullshit for years and they knew it. The Weeper’s venom was confirmation bias. We clearly didn’t know our place.

For professionals employed for the depth of our knowledge and experience, for autonomy and independence, we were clearly employed to shit-shift and not to think. Whatever qualities we had on paper, our CVs served only to strengthen their bidding for more contracts. That they couldn’t remake us in their own image was our downfall.  We cared about doing the job well and not in their image.

I started these articles as I wanted to take a few moments to write a fleeting account of the woeful failing project I worked on. Yes, the Organisation delivered what it said it would on paper, but only in the most minimal terms. So much potential and opportunity was squandered. We honestly wondered if the main aim of the project was to do it as badly as possible. It can’t have seriously been conceived, not with a straight face, not in the manner it was delivered.

I appreciate the pragmatic definition of ‘professionalism’ these days connotes one’s degree of tolerance and blind-eye attitude to corporate stupidity. If we were in a soviet era planned economy, I could almost forgive the doublethink and the shear waste of talent, forgive the human lack of potential on display and marvel at the creaking weight stupidity of it all. The Organisation’s professionalism is defined by a hermetically sealed mindset and an unthinking acceptance of a discourse one pseudo-scientific idea wide. If seeking demonstrative evidence of the Peter Principle, the Organisation is your crucible.

Let’s not forget the Interactions. Yes, let us not forget that in an organization so lost as to which way reality lies, so staffed by people incapable of normal social behaviour and twisted by the pressure cooker false diplomacy attitude of it all, it has to have a written prescription detailing how people should interact with each other. Yes, it seems teachers, whose basic skillset is predicated on the truly superficial skill of pretending to be nice to people you can’t fucking stand, can’t carry that over to their office work space. You can imagine the tightening of jaws muscles and the grinding of teeth as people remind themselves how Interactions tell them to be nice to people as it’s in their contract.

I suspect their HR is staffed by geologists as turning rocks over must be a vital part of their process. We marvelled as recruitment continuously found so many of the sort of people normal societies quite rightly shun: the sort of circus freak rejects that under normal circumstances are institutionalized for their own (and society’s) safety on night shifts packing cooking sauce and taking strong medication.

Worse still are the performing narcissists drunk on their own methylated spirit personalities. That the Organisation is able to marshal so many failed drama students into one place is utterly amazing. Next time I look for a job I’m going to look in the Situations Vacant section of The Stage. Those that were relatively normal might occasionally got through but are not destined to last. In the colonial reaches of the psychologically blind, the partially sane are heretics.

Anita and I jumped ship. Claire and Paul stayed long enough to make their resignation of maximum inconvenience. Bless them. They took a job behind the Great Firewall. Ponytail Joe stayed, he was on the management fast train to nowhere. He quickly alienated everyone he met. He’d go far.

Sitting in my new office in Kathmandu in mid-2018, I amended my CV. As I typed ‘Naypyidaw, Myanmar (2015-2018) it finally hit that I had closed the bracket on the experience. After all the drama, the excess and the adventure, it had ended with a whimper. Only Andy exited with his head held high.

Much worse was still to come for the locals; the 2021 coup ended the county’s openness to the outside word. The democracy project, the superficial justification for profit-seeking organisations like ours to be there, was done. We saw Myanmar at a time when there was hope and a foreigner could wonder around taking photos with impunity.

I like to think we showed the locals that foreigners were not all the sorts of batshit crazy narcissists that the Organisation forced onto them. Hopefully, enough of them knew we were funny, caring and as human as they. I miss Myanmar greatly, I miss the people, I miss the experience of the country frozen in time. Very few insights into the old world remain; Myanmar was one.

Published by Lee Russell Wilkes

Been bouncing around the world for a while taking photos. Like most people, I have gone to ground during the pandemic. Decided it was time to put some of them out in the world.

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