RANGOON - Down Pyay Road, in the middle of a huge traffic-jam, children walk between old Japanese cars in the stifling heat and humidity.
Like in other cities of emerging Asian countries, the children walk through the busy streets to sell soda cans and jasmine flower bouquets that are supposed to help cool down the inside of cars not equipped with air-conditioning.
Many of the children are now also selling a little yellow pamphlet entitled Foreign Investment Rules in the Republic of the Union of Myanmar. It is 1,000 kyat ($1,1) – non-negotiable. A guaranteed best seller.
Since last spring, foreign businessmen – mostly from Japan, Singapore, the U.S. and Thailand – have been flocking to Rangoon in droves.
In the past 10 months, hotel prices have tripled. It is now $300 for a night at the Strand, where Rudyard Kipling took notes for his Letters from the East (1889). In the rare office buildings that are up to international standards, square-meters have been increasing by at least $5 a month. And the waiting lists for residential housing for foreigners are growing rapidly. “I’m already paying $5,000 a month for 60 square meters. It's more expensive than New York,” says a diplomat, who says he can’t complain for fear of losing out his apartment to a higher-paying foreigner. “It's insane,” says Patrick Robert, a French designer who has been living in the country for 25 years.
This gold rush started last year when the West recognized Burma's efforts to reform and open up. The country had long been considered a pariah state. Since the dissolution – on March 30 2011 – of the military junta that ruled the country for 49 years, the new government has gotten rid of its military uniforms, announced it was a “civilian” government and embarked on a series of reforms.
Burma released hundreds of political prisoners and allowed the election of opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi to Parliament. In April 2012, the European Union hailed the reform process and ended its economic sanctions against Burma. In May, the U.S. lifted some of its investment restrictions. And if that wasn't enough to reassure potential investors, Obama even met with Burmese President Thein Sein, a former general.
Fearing years of stagnation in the West and worried about a slowdown of the Chinese economy, big multinational companies are now turning to Burma, the poorest country in southeast Asia.
The country, which is about the size as Texas, is rich in oil, gas and mineral resources. It is also strategically located between China, India, Thailand and Bangladesh and has a domestic market of more than 62 millions of consumers. In theory, the potential is huge.
“Everything has to be done from scratch,” says Yasuhide Fujii, from KPMG consulting. Only 5% of Burmese have mobile phones and three quarters of them have limited access to electricity. “The country needs roads, railways, a deep water port, airports, electricity, water networks,” lists the Japanese consultant, who opened an office in Burma last October, at the request of his biggest clients.
As opposed to the U.S. or the European Union, Japan never cut its ties with the Burmese government. Japan didn’t want China – against which it leads a war of influence in the region – to remain Burma’s sole economic partner. Many Chinese groups already exploit mines and dams throughout country.
A few Japanese firms – notably the big trading companies – continued to commerce with Burma. In 2011, Japan was the biggest importer of Burmese textiles with $348 million in orders. Japan also buys 90% of its black sesame from Burma, as well as part of its soybean sprouts.
For many years, Toru Hiroe was the sole employee in Rangoon for Japanese company Itochu. He remembers the military controls at night, $3,000 mobile phones, and the difficulty of getting Internet access. “Everything has changed. Now the company has five Japanese employees posted here, and we have more than a dozen Burmese employees,” he says.
As with every other Eldorado, the textile giants are the first to come, to study the feasibility of setting up a local production. There is nothing more the textile sector loves than cheap labor. Until the end of the 1990s, Burma was one of the biggest textile factories in the world. There were about 400 specialized factories shipping clothes to Europe and the U.S. – representing 39.5% of the country’s exports in 2000.
After trade sanctions were applied more than half the textile factories were closed. But now they are reopening again. “So far, there is not enough electricity for textile manufacturing, which requires a lot of energy, but manufacturing clothes is possible here, because wages are still lower than in Cambodia,” explains Yoshihiro Kunii, the vice-president in charge of production at the Japanese clothing giant Fast Retailing, which owns the brand Uniqlo, among others. He isn’t considering outsourcing production in Burma for another three years, when infrastructures have modernized.
In their enthusiasm to benefit from Burma’s riches, companies tend to forget that the country is still facing complex political and social challenges. Much of the country is plagued by ethnic conflicts. Last week, during violent riots between Muslims and Buddhists in central Burma, at least 40 people were killed and 9,000 were displaced.
The democratic transition is far from being finished. The military still has huge interests in the economy. “The reform process was entirely designed, decided and launched by the army. Backpedaling will not happen. It would not profit anyone,” says Romain Cailliaud, an expert with Vriens & Partners, a business consultancy firm long established in the country.
Some frictions could still happen in 2015, during the next presidential elections, which Aung San Suu Kyi is expected to win. “Some of her collaborators could be tempted to exhume old grievances,” says a diplomat, who adds that the opposition icon seems ready to compromise with her former jailers in order to gain access to power. “It should be fine.”
With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.
When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.
And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.
Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan
The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan
According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.
In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.
The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.
Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.
View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA
Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!
The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.
Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.
Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain
Old Belchite, Spain
Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…
That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.
Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.
If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.
Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan
Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan
The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.
The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.
Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."
Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.
Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden
The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden
After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).
Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.
Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia
Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia
During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.
Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.
Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy
Poveglia Island, Italy
Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).
During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.
In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.
Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.
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