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As New ASEAN Chair, Myanmar Braces for Year of 1,000 Meetings

As New ASEAN Chair, Myanmar Braces for Year of 1,000 Meetings

In Brunei on Thursday, Myanmar took its place as the 2014 ASEAN chair, a role it was forced to relinquish in 2006 as its military rulers came under pressure from the U.S. and the European Union for not doing enough to advance democracy. As head of the Southeast Asian bloc, Myanmar will host the 2014 ASEAN summit — an annual event that draws thousands of delegates and journalists, who attend upwards of 1,000 meetings.

But can Myanmar, with its notoriously poor infrastructure, handle the foot traffic?

When the country hosted the World Economic Forum in Naypyidaw this year, its infrastructure problems were embarrassingly visible to all. In the first place, Naypyidaw — a city built just seven years ago to be the new capital — is hours from the national airport. Upon arrival, many guests found their hotels still in the process of  installing ATMs, while a shortage of rooms (Naypyidaw offered just 3,000) forced some attendees to stay two hours away in nearby Yangon (during this year’s ASEAN summit, Brunei’s 2,000 hotel rooms sufficiently housed the delegates and their staff). The forum itself was dampened by frequent power outages and Internet connectivity issues.

Matters may not be much better by the time the next ASEAN summit rolls around. Internet and electricity in Myanmar remain unreliable, which is why many NGOs keep their offices in Yangon’s high-end hotels — seemingly the only venues with relatively consistent Internet service. Until recently, for instance, both the United Nations and the International Labor Organization had their country offices inside Traders Hotel in Yangon. The hotel has since forced them out in order to take advantage of skyrocketing hotel prices and accommodate the growing influx of travelers in the country. The shortage — and fluctuating quality — of lodging could continue to be an issue in spite of efforts to build new hotels quickly. In addition to hosting ASEAN meetings and the 2013 Southeast Asian Games, the government expects to welcome more than one million visitors next year. The Southeast Asian Games, which features 7,000 athletes competing in 33 sports, will be a real test of the country’s tourism capacity. Myanmar’s tourism minister has already called for government regulation of hotel prices during the event — lest inflated pricing deter tomorrow’s tourists.