Misadventures in Naypyidaw: Year 1, Part 2

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?

Misadventures in Naypyidaw: Year 1, Part 1

I was so happy to get the job in Naypyitaw. I had seen the city on the Top Gear Burma Special and it was clearly a unique place on the fringes of the modern world. My anthropological curiosity peaked and kept climbing. 

Since I had left Spain, I had not had a good time. The job I had at the time was a nightmare. I was trapped in a boot camp pretending to be a university in Turkey. I was about three months into my contract. My friend walked out at the end of the second month; it was that bad an experience. I said ‘yes’ to the Myanmar job, got a taxi to the airport and was in Yangon before anyone at the university was even aware that I was gone. Walking out felt better than anything I had experienced.

In Yangon, the organisation put us up in a fading colonial hotel called ‘The Alpha’. You could see Shwedagon Pagoda from the rooftop bar. The hotel was uniquely awful but with some charm. There were holes around the bathroom extractor that had been plugged with paper to keep the bugs out. The city is blisteringly hot and everything is covered in mould. A century ago it must have been a beautiful colonial place. Now, everything was broken and everything dripped. The hotel staff were polite beyond imagining.

On day one, as I walked into the office, the centre manager looked me up and down like she’d scrapped me off her shoe. We were introduced around as ‘the Naypyidaw people’. Intakes of breath were audible and people would take noticeable steps back. Mental notes were made. Naypyidaw was ‘up there’ and we were told in no uncertain terms we were recruited as we demonstrated ‘autonomy’ and ‘independence’. Sacrificial victims came to mind. We were obviously kept separate from the regular staff. We were invited to private houses ‘before we leave’ in vague ways that never actually turned into time and date. There was a Saturday house party/office gathering to which we were invited. We were accosted on Monday by a senior manager demanding to know why we hadn’t gone. One colleague we rebuked for only attending for ‘twenty minutes’. Clearly, there was a social accounting. 

The organisation then dumped us in Naypyitaw with no clue as to where we were, no map to help us orientate ourselves or no means of getting around a deserted city with no public transport system. The personality disorder that had been employed to ‘supervise’, she ticked the diversity box, had a hissy fit in the supermarket as she clearly thought she needed to organise our outing for basic provisions and we all ignored her. She then started asking for items in a restaurant that were not on the menu. The poor waiter, struggling with the language barrier and having visible hot sweats as he’d clearly never served a foreigner before, looked on in terrified incomprehensibility.

The four of us were accommodated in a palatial house, given special dispensation through diplomatic connections, that was officially the second home of a general who ran one of the government ministries. He had a wooden leg as he had stood on a landmine during one of the Burmese military’s unending internal conflicts. His son was Field Marshall and he was obviously proud when he joked he had to salute his own child. I dubbed the house ‘The Residence’.

On the first night, I went to the kitchen and discovered a trail of blood that ended in my drunken aged colleague; she was trying to open a wine bottle with a carving knife. Suffice to say, there was no first aid kit. She was a committed alcoholic from Manchester.

The agency arranged a local driver to take us to work everyday and who was generously prepared to shuttle us around if we paid a premium price per journey. My drinker friend and I went in pursuit of a swimming pool on Sunday afternoon and we found a nice one in a luxury hotel. It was fortunate that we did as our driver hadn’t been told what time he had to arrive to take us to work on Monday morning. Minor oversight? Par for the course, as we came to recognise.

Tensions in the house surfaced fairly quickly. There was myself, well-balanced and psychologically sound; our aged Mancunian drunk (Mina), the supervisor (Demi) and a polite aging English gentleman (Andrew). Andy and I got on like a house on fire from the day we met. He had a thing for war zones and had worked in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. His most recent job had been in Burundi. He turned 64 just after he arrived in Naypyidaw. Mina was great company when sober and a nightmare when not. Demi was insufferable and couldn’t talk to anyone without arguing with them.

She and Andy had mutual acquaintances in Africa; as their opinions on people’s character differed, Andy decided to dig. He smelt trouble in her past. The word ‘retarded’ was later used to describe her. She attempt to boss him about over some minor issue and in his own gentlemanly manner, he proceeded to tell to to respect her elders and to mind her mouth as he was old enough to be father.

I had huge respect for Andy from day one; he and I would sit in the car giggling like children on the way to work. It wound Demi up no end. Tensions between the three of us and Demi kept rising. She took to locking herself in her room and cooking very early in the morning to avoid interacting with people during the day.

Mina drank. She was nominally retired but claimed to be bored. When drinking, she would flounce around the house in a white nightie and would sit in various ways that left her underwear in the public domain. She was the first casualty.

Mina had being some work that had been constantly revised and the back and forth with Yangon was creating tensions. After an initial probationary evaluation, Mina stormed out, had a melt down in the offices of a local doctor who immediately prescribed her some anti-psychotics. Medicated, she never left her room, leaving two of us to deal with a basket case with deteriorating mental health. The most senior manager came to observe the situation, promptly dismissed Mina’s conditions and left again. Again, burdening the rest of us with duty of care.

At the same time, Andy stated getting headaches. The doctor suggested he was experiencing age-related contracture of the spine. He returned to the Residence with a lovely x-ray to take home to his wife. As treatment, he was told to go to the local hospital and have therapeutic massage. The masseuse practically fractured several of his ribs. His side went black. More x-rays for the wife. He was the second of us confined to barracks. Poor Andy was also confined with the medicated Ghoul. I frequently had to get him ‘strong beer’ to help him through the ordeal. He repeatedly told me to stop making him laugh as it caused him too much pain.

Andy had been employed on a short-term contract and sat out more than half of it as medically unfit for work. Mina left eventually; replacements were flown in from Yangon. Oddly, the first of these was a former colleague of Andy’s and the pair of them immediately reawakened a long forgotten conflict. This was before breakfast on the replacements first morning.

Eventually Andy and Mina were rotated out. Andy departed in full gentlemanly fashion, attired in a blue blazer. He was the only one to leave the project with any shred of dignity.

His replacement was an American with a hygiene problem. She got very excited when she saw adult nappies for sale. So convenient. She had worked for the state department in Iraq and told tales of how she used to walk across Baghdad alone late at night. On her second or third morning in the Residency, she announced she had to leave. Legal issues back home. She was the third to leave. Her room was so filthy we had to pay the cleaner extra.

The next in was one of the selected few that had the golden light of Yangon smiling on her. A truly odious individual.