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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
At the start of year two, the project needed fresh blood. The new staff intake were a mixed bunch. Two couples were recruited to help prevent the fractional personal issues that doomed the Residence experiment.
Bill and Sharon were the classical ‘nice couple’ and more damnigly, dedicated professionals that took it all seriously. Organisation veterans, they were seemingly inured to the madness of it all. Sharon, American, was hilarious in a perfectly-timed eye-roll way and Bill, whilst totally inoffensive, was the dullest Canadian stereotype imaginable. You could imagine him making faithful reconstructions of model trains out of airfix kits of WW2 bombers and painting them the right shade of grey.
Claire and Paul were an English couple. I didn’t take to them immediately: they travelled with cats, which is always a bad sign. Then there was English Mark. He threatened to quit even before the work had officially started. That was entirely the fault of Claire, Paul and I as we demolished his spiritualism over dinner one night and it shook his faith in whatever kept him going. The couple and I were evidently of the same amplitude. A promising sign.
Finally, there was the new manager: the Slim Weeper.
Ah yes, the Woman that Couldn’t Speak at an Audible Volume. Attitudes to the client are, of course, a mirror to the psychology of the individual. Hers was that they needed wrapping in cotton wool, pink baby blankets and were riddled with deepseated emotional trauma.
Her leadership style was the ‘don’t do’ section of elementary management courses and she simultaneously exhibited all the symptoms of stress and all the symptoms of social dysfunction. She was prone to weeping uncontrollably in meetings, ambushing staff in the client’s car parks and lecturing them about how hard she worked.
Imagine someone who could suck the anima from the room just by entering it; a sort of charisma Dracula. Her presence didn’t kill conversation. She eroded its very possibility – a drawback when her job was to promote it.
As the project progressed, it became obvious she was filled with all sorts of delusional views on how her expertise was going to inspire and utterly transform the professional lives of those she managed. She clearly had the revolutionary’s conceit that the world needed her ideas.
She didn’t like being talked to when working in case she ‘was thinking’. Stimuli weren’t her thing. Furthermore, she was the posterchild for the safe-space generation. Feelings! Feelings! Feelings! In retrospect, she was so far along on the spectrum, it explains why her voice was permanently Doppler-shifted into the inaudible.
At one point, we took to minuting meetings in exacting detail as her recollection of events clearly took place in a different reality. She was a complete fantasist. She also had a problem with the women she managed and did her best to undermine their professionalism and destroy their self-esteem. She repeatedly tried it on me but I kept calling out her bullshit. Of the legion useless idiots the Organisation employed, this cretin topped the list. She made passive aggression into an art form. Truly, an awful person.
As the Residence was a failed project, we were given a housing allowance and went searching for accommodation in a city never designed with renters in mind. What houses there were all belonged to officials connected to the ousted Junta party. There was a reluctance to rent to anyone associated with the new order. Claire and Paul’s house had a bar and belong to their Ambassador to Nepal.
I dubbed mine Maison Junta. The house was a cavernous bungalow with 5 bedrooms – one of which housed a Buddhist shrine – 2 en-suite bathrooms and a fitted kitchen bigger than the ground floor of my mum’s house. It had clearly stood unoccupied for a goodly while and the weekend I moved in, it was at thermal equilibrium with the 45 degree heat outside. The limited air-con couldn’t cool it down. I set up home in the smallest room. There was no air-con in the kitchen and I only went in there to turn the kettle on.
And it came with a man included in the price. Claire and Paul’s was a bargain – they got a family. Their job was to maintain and keep out squatters. My Man Friday lived in a shack next to the house and kept himself busy doing something. Every night he would bolt the gate closed, sealing us both in. I paid him the specified wage and I think my shear presence kept him amused.
Immediately behind was a house under construction and a family of four maintained it: two adults and two teenage girls. The girls noticed I had a camera and every time I stepped outside, the neighbourhood appeared in their finery. The younger of the two daughters took to raiding my fridge. She had a thing for cold oranges. I made sure she took the whole bag. One lunch time, I was cooking in the kitchen; I had some music playing through tiny speakers attached to my Ipod. Man Friday looked at it like a man possessed. The small size blew his mind.
I drove Claire to work one afternoon, and then, unusually, returned home myself. The entire neighbourhood where using the shower/outhouse and having water fights on a epic scale. They looked guilty as I drove in. Until then, I had never really understood why the monthly water bill varied so much. Busted. It was so gratifying to know they were taking advantage. Good on them.
Then there was Aphrodite (Weeper: ‘ She’s Greek’). She was coming to grace us all with the divine light and save our professional souls. How she was talked up. We hated her before she had even arrived. There was an endless stream of these people, all coming to light the way and remake the wheel. Most would have struggled to draw one. Total no-marks of zero consequence, they all suffered from no self-awareness and a lack of critical thinking.
The Weeper was obviously a problem and her ‘training’ sessions proved Hell is other employees. Yangon decided to hold staff-training in Naypyidaw and flew several people up and back in the same day. The return on the finances was never considered. Weeper’s total inability to read social cues resulted in tedious presentations longer than the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Claire, Paul and I took to playing cliché bingo to get through the day; working in oblique references to Douglas Adams became the method for keeping the brain alive. The ‘training’ was an exercise in impermanence and lasted about as long in the memory as a snowman would on the road to Mandalay. It proved too much even for hardened professionals like Sharon. I remember her turning to face me, the extent of her eye-roll made her look like a melted candle.
The road to Mandalay is a deserted dual carriageway. No flying fish.
Like all such training, the content was merely a thin medium for fostering ‘relationships’ in the bar afterwards. The Organisation has much in common with how cults organise themselves. Among other things, it is very insular and looks upon itself with an absolutist conviction and as project that wants your soul just as much as your labour. The point of asking people’s opinions was to inform them what it should be. There is an orthodoxy.
The three of us never stayed around long enough to network. Over cathartic cocktails and pizza a short distance away, we laughed away the horrors we had witnessed.
In all, it was a much calmer year. We survived the Weeper by calling out her bullshit on sight and ignoring her the rest of the time. Her antics remained a barometer for our collective sanity. If you removed the need for rationality and logic in corporate decision-making, you came to terms with it all much faster.
Colleagues had fallen like flies. The project was ten weeks old and had already become a ‘what not to do’ example of remote working in developing countries.
1: Don’t put several adults in shared accommodation they are incapable of leaving when the frustrations build.
2: Be sure to recruit sane and emotionally stable people.
3: Don’t filter out the well-balanced, the emotionally mature and psychologically healthy at the early stages of staff selection.
4: Make some attempt to plan the project in advance and anticipate potential problems. Managing by crisis is not a sensible policy.
One wonders if this is how the empire was lost.
The Election Plan
Myanmar’s first democratic election in decades was held on November 8th 2015 – My 39th birthday. The runup to it was full of uncertainties. How would the Junta react? Would there be civil unrest? The organisation, with a long history of leaving people behind during evacuations, formulated what, in theory, we could call a plan. My colleague Beaumont had been left behind during the pull-out of Syria and we greeted the plans with due scepticism.
We all had bags packed; we all kept phones charged. One option was to take refuge at the UNDP compound in Naypyidaw. Except nobody in Yangon could tell us where it was or bothered to contact them. We were sent a link to their social media page. Having met many of the UN people in town, I’d rather have taken my chance at the mercies of the angry mob.
The second plan was to go back to the capital and meet at the Brit Club, adjoining the ambassador’s residence. ‘One more G&T before the Off, boys!’ It all seemed somewhat Carry On Up The Khyber. Put rationally, the plan was then to leave Naypyidaw, a town with a massive military presence – our nominal landlord was a general who often invited us to his house – and about the safest place in the country, to return to the burning capital for a classical dash and evacuation from the airport in a rain of bullets. Given the organisation’s inability to deliver stationery, we decided it safer to make our own plans. One of the latest batch was ex-military – he’d taught his daughter hand-to-hand combat – and so we formulated a dash for the Indian border. It seemed a safer option.
The election was a triumph. The good people of Naypyidaw all queued patiently and voted. The blackened finger, an anti-voter fraud device, was waved aloft as a mark of honour. I’m not a sentimentalist and even I was proud of them all. After decades of military horror and living in a charnel house, they deserved better. The National League for Democracy won a landslide.
The Ongoing Project
New blood arrived in the form of Mary, a morbidly obese depressive from Bristol. Aside from work, she never left the house and spent her entire time eating Pringles on the sofa and watching CSI. She was on first name terms with all of the characters. Rather than laughing at the absurdity we were part of and attempting to explore the place, Mary did her best to bring everybody down.
She had previously been an auditor. She said she could smell when something was off in a organisation and ours stunk to high-heaven. She quit at Christmas, and declined her in-country exit interview, preferring to have it at head office in the UK. There were things she wanted to say. It never happened. Funny that. She went home after paying her way into a get rich quick training scheme which failed within the year.
Aging Gym Woman was forced on us from on high due to the depth of her expertise. What it was in surely wasn’t related to what we were doing in Myanmar. She smoked like a forest fire and consumed strong drink like a dry river bed. She had the stick thin frame of a true addict as she clearly had no remaining appetite for food. She would sit around the office in her lycra and sports bra telling anyone that couldn’t pick up on the laboured visual clues that she went to the gym. She had the skin pallor of a desiccated corpse and a complexion like an aged saddle. She would spend one-to-one meetings with staff discussing which of them looked better for their age. Oh and she was the dictionary definition of incompetent. A rising star within the Organisation.
Thankfully, Demi moved out as she was incapable of dealing with people. A weight lifted.
John, ex-military, arrived on a Friday. After a weekend in the house with Mary, he was ready to quit. The centre manager, a withered shrew of a woman, an alcoholic chain-smoker, did her best to intimidate him into staying. He laughed in her face. On the morning he left, he went to the local mall and bought toys for all the children in the slums near the house.
Emma arrived as several of us left for a break out of the country. Emma had been held captive by Demi, who had insisted she produce all sorts of professional documents to prove her competence. Demi told her she was not welcome at the Residency. The staff there had made their antagonism to her joining them ‘clear’. As we departed, one colleague advised her to get out as quickly as possible as the place was ‘fucking toxic’. Mary arrived just in time to take a 7-day holiday. Good timing.
On the plus side, several months in, we had discovered the delights of Naypyidaw: a handful of luxury hotels with some nice pools and fine menus. Two Italian restaurants with actual Italian chefs. The Obama Soda at the Kempinski (named after the President who had several when he stayed there) was damn fine. The other stresses all seemed manageable on a Friday afternoon, after a nice meal, a round or two of Obamas and a float in the pool.
Clearly, we had been sent to Naypyidaw to have a thoroughly miserable time. The idiot that did the pilot programme had ‘gone mad’ with boredom when she was there. She hadn’t left her accommodation and having met her, I can safely say her mental health worries had a long pre-history she couldn’t blame the location for. When it got back to Yangon we were having fun, suddenly managers took an interest in the project. They always managed to stay in a hotel with a pool and a complimentary breakfast. Resentment started to build. We were suddenly under scrutiny.
Emma and I ploughed on through the end of the project. We both hired motorbikes from locals. Emma was reassured hers was ‘a good one’; it had cosmetic bullet hole stickers all over it and was clearly the private property of an imagination-starved teenage male. The brakes hardly worked.
The local driver had long gone and Demi managed to anger the client by treating the driver they were kind enough to provide as her private chauffer. She eventually ‘resigned’ as her incompetence became impossible for the organisation to deny. After a year of utter chaos and organisational incompetence, it was the one sign that things were improving. I agreed to stay for a second year.
In the final days of that project, I was alone in the Residence. A dozen staff had come and gone. Most cracked and burnt out spectacularly. Of the four of us that started the previous year, I was the only one that stayed the distance. I was never interested in the job; the drama and the personalities amused me. I had little faith in the organisation after meeting the idiots running it. For me, the reason to be there was to explore the country, meet the locals. This blog is full of the result of those experiences. Sure the job was hellish at times, but it was worth it. Myanmar and its people are fabulous.
Year two could only be an improvement, right?