In(securing) Frontier Myanmar – Notes from Yangon (Part 1)

Jasnea Sarma explores the contours of an emerging private security and surveillance culture in Yangon in Part 1 of a 2-part series.

This is Part 1 of a 2-part series on surveillance and (in)security in Yangon, Myanmar. Read Part 2 here.

Expo-sing Security in a frontier city

“CCTVs are very boring now! Heat sensors are hot!… people go towards that area in the shop which has the hot, fast selling products! That is how we secure the market, sell what people want.”

Xiao Wang, a newly minted Chinese sales graduate excitedly said, pointing to a string of businessmen in crisp white shirts and dull longyis who were shopping for heat sensors for their shops and new shopping malls.

This was in November, 2015 and he was on his first overseas business trip to Yangon, Myanmar’s commercial capital. Myanmar was then brimming with aspirations for democracy, investments, and new markets. The historic election that would see Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK) and the National League for Democracy (NLD) finally win a landslide victory after decades of military rule was just around the corner. This resource-rich and young democracy was finally fully open for foreign investments. The international media was frenzied with excitement over investment opportunities in ‘Asia’s last frontier’, as many began to call Myanmar.

It was therefore not surprising that Xiao Wang and I were both at a frontier city’s first-ever security expo, organized by Singaporean security funders and Interpol. After all, a frontier market must first and foremost be secured for business. Tens of international and regional security & private intelligence firms rushed to sell ‘security solutions’ to this ‘frontier’ market’s military, government, police and airport officials – whose representatives now populated this little expo in Yangon.

Now, if you, like me, are not a regular security expo attendee, you might feel a little out of place at first, amidst the curious mix of surveillance technologies, industrial venues, stale coffee, bored sales staff, and flashy ‘inaugural’ ceremonies emceed by the sons and daughters of influential military leaders. I was bewildered with the dizzying array of surveillance technologies, ranging from the serious to the mundane – wireless and radar cameras, network video recorders, IP surveillance software, traffic surveillance systems, environmental decontamination one-man suits, pandemic control quarantine units, state of the art border biometrics, and then hundreds of varieties of run of the mill security shop props – scanners, metal detectors, radars, heat scanners, scannable license plates, firefighting drillers, alarms, digital recorders, heat sensors, and a dozen different varieties of CCTVs among other things.

In 2015, Xiao Wang’s Zhejiang based company, one among many Chinese firms at the expo, brought attractive security products and gifts for their Burmese buyers. We rummaged together through what Xiao called his ‘security bling’ – audio/visual aid kits, mini CCTVs and radio units attached on pens, mini wireless spy cameras, pen drives, some with attached mini cameras and futuristic surveillance maps of a futuristic Yangon prepared by their special audio-visual team back in China. We kept in touch during his subsequent visits. He was back with a mini hologram generator in 2016, and then again in 2018 with a facial recognition video game, as if to mirror (and export) China’s surveillance practices as well as tools from back home.

Although attracted by the Chinese gadgets, China is not what the Burmese buyers wanted Yangon to be, at least not yet in 2015. They wanted to be the ‘the safest city in the world, the next Singapore’ – with an interconnected network of CCTVs sprawling through the entire urban fabric. Singaporean security firms jumped at the opportunity. Darren, a Singaporean trader told me that he had been incentivized to tap into the last remaining markets in Asia and even create a market if it did not exist. ‘Especially since we can’t compete in the west’, said another. ‘Of course, with CCTV, they won’t become Singapore, you need governance for that. But Singapore is a good brand name, and it’s good for business to have a reputation!’

A security expo like this is also, perhaps ironically so, a panopticon in itself – with those who sell and buy surveillance now reflected back on the hundreds of sample CCTV screens installed across the stalls. These cameras now also reflected back subtle but simmering casual sexism and discrimination in the security industry. ‘Have you seen our ‘booth babes?’ How could I not? Like many other industry expos, there were row upon row of stalls with hired ‘booth babes’, Burmese models, all-female, now subjected to stares, banter and casual conversation with various security men and itinerant vendors. Then there was a more specific type of ornamental ‘security service’, namely the Gurkhas, Nepal’s famous soldiery, adding to the cosmetic spectacle of selling state of the art security in an emerging market. ‘We just use them for decoration. It’s very easy to keep them happy,’ said a very young, Oxford-educated, private intelligence analyst from a well-known company. I had shared a long chat over tea with the same guards the previous day. They had been quite aware of the unequal treatment they receive, and were resentful about being used as mere props

Awkwardness and political incorrectness notwithstanding, I found these security expos an unlikely but interesting field site to reflect on surveillance cultures. There is much food for thought in the bizarre talk about private security, that was often in violation of some form of a citizen’s actual privacy and cloaked in the systemic details of insipid but earnest business-to-business talk. I watch and listen, as they speak, as if it were completely normal for a private firm to gather intelligence in public spaces, or to identify ethnic conflict and violence, or the presence of IDP (internally displaced people) and settlement camps around the country as lucrative and potential market opportunities to an ‘insecure regime’ (a vendor’s words) like Myanmar, and then package and sell them as security and surveillance products.

Now in this expo – with the military, the new government, the cronies and private security firms with dodgy histories during the Junta era, all under one roof, seemed to me like old panopticon wine in a new ‘frontier’ bottle. Security products on display seemed to be offered and bought without even a cursory reference to the existing problems in Yangon like rising prices, bad roads, gentrification, and minority insecurities. (I explore more about these in Part 2 of this essay.) Consider this Singaporean vendor, Li Ming,

Basically, the truth is that, if you want to do business in Myanmar, stay here, know the people, bribe the people and build connections here. If you want to study the security market, you have to study public policy and health care policy, because all of these are related issues, but remember that security is entirely dominated by the government… healthcare is mostly in the private domain in Yangon but they intersect.

It was interesting to hear him talk about health care and public welfare tied to surveillance. Was the “lack of video cameras” a glaring gap in the healthcare system? Was the average citizen educated enough to use a new access control system? The vendors and their customers were betting that a heavily crowded, traffic-jammed and old colonial capital like Yangon could be transformed into a thriving modern metropolis through the purchase of enough surveillance technology that would render everything and everyone visible, except as Foucault said better in 1975, ‘visibility is a trap.’ Cosmetic surveillance does not secure the anxieties and concerns of the (in)secure. Instead, as is always the case, and our paper, like many other critical works on surveillance on other spaces establishes, it protects the powers of the ruling class – the military, cronies and their new and old allies in the case of Myanmar.

Installing a labyrinthine network of CCTVs and surveillance structures on the city’s heritage and colonial-era buildings seems rudely alien, even implausible to its architectural aesthetic, especially in downtown Yangon. Some more experienced security firms therefore weren’t basing their value proposition on new technology. They planned on selling ears on the ground, marketing older, more time-tested methods harking back to Myanmar’s recent military history – a bit of old school spying.

Tea house spies

Information! Information! Information! Key to security my friend!

This was Harry, a North American ex-special forces operative who had been in Afghanistan, and later decided to sell his talents to the more lucrative private security market. He was from a well-known and international firm, consisting of retired Western (predominantly Commonwealth connections in this expo including Singapore Defence, British and Canadian Armed Forces). These firms who enter the market with ‘international expertise’ from ‘containing’ experiences in ‘conflict zones.’ They usually have pre-existing connections with the Burmese military, ultimately providing comfortable military-to-military transactions disguised as new business terms and deals.

Harry, now working for one such well known and influential company, whispered, pointing to Xiao Wang’s popular stall next store.

You don’t need that stuff in this third world country, you need some good old school spying.”

I was intrigued and unsettled. We were still in a country where the military Junta frequently deployed old-school surveillance, and wide-spread arbitrary politically-motivated arrests, and in many cases, continues to do so. But he went on, unfazed,

“We just employ local guys, you know they need jobs here… there is surplus labour, so they just sit in tea stalls, wander here and there, and you know, they listen to the public mood. These guys are far more effective than these sub trained security guards. Many of our guys come back with very interesting information; I personally analyse that info, compress it, make it palatable and that’s the package”

“What public mood?”

Political stuff you know! You have to do it, elections, business, everyone needs information here, old-style, this country is not ready for more advanced stuff. You’re not going to have a lot of people talking about cybersecurity here, I assure you. You have to do what they (the military regime) have always been doing, and do it better!

“How are you going to do it better?

This led him to say something that we in academia are all too familiar with – ‘critical discourse analysis’ except his was one with a twist, a ‘SCOPE’ he learned in his ‘counterinsurgency’ class in grad school.

“SCOPE means Structures, Communities, Organisations, People, Events. When you have information on these five things, you have control over everything. And we know how to SCOPE it!!”

He went on,

“See there are two different discourses that reappear across the world. Say if I ask you a very personal question in a very public space. You’ll equivocate or avoid the question, not giving a straight answer. But if I know someone well and ask in private, I’ll get a completely different answer. A great example is tea shops, coffee shops, they are the world over. They are great places to share private information that you won’t get in formal interviews. This (information) means something different to the community, to the government, to the other groups in that and understanding the perspectives of all these different groups is key to being able to make your own decisions. That’s semiotics. That’s the secret we want to know. Every problem you encounter locally probably has another source so you can be trapped in treating the symptoms. And this is the best product for the clients in a country like this!”

“Who do you mean by clients? Who buys ‘private information’ like this when there is already Facebook?” Wrong question, obviously.

“We deliver this to multi-level clients. I can’t tell you who exactly, guess you already know,” he smirked.

Well, I didn’t exactly, but what I did learn was that he strove to provide SCOPE packages as private security and political risk assessment products containing ‘discourse analysis’ of the public political mood, which they billed as their recipe for ‘regime security’. The actual practice, as he detailed, is ludicrously simple. First, hire people to eavesdrop at key public spaces – parks, tea stalls, outside ministries, police stations, media offices, etc. Second, get them to report. Third, write it up, package it, then sell it to whoever is willing to pay for that information, be that government, military, or corporates. Indeed, ‘Simple, and dangerous, but not surprising.’, I thought.

After all, employing ‘local spies’ have been the quintessential best practices recommended for states and princes throughout history from Sun Zi, to Kautilya and Machiavelli. CCTV and tea house “intel” are mere tenets of the private sector’s products marketed towards conflict, of whom the most obvious and historic forms are arms sales, and mercenaries. The latter, which Machiavelli himself counselled against using, has its most infamous contemporary manifestation in Blackwater, rebranded later as XE and now Academi. Blackwater founder Erik Prince’s HK based (and fittingly named) Frontier Services Company now works in Myanmar, allegedly helping to secure and provide private intelligence for China’s Belt and Road investments. These security expos have thus served as another addendum to what’s always been happening alongside weapons and mercenaries and the financing that underlies it all.

But for now, Harry seemed quite confident of his success and prospects in selling the SCOPE packages to a ‘wide clientele’ within the country, and he hinted it was always easy doing business with ex-Tatmadaw connections who now monopolized Myanmar’s domestic private security market. But as far as selling was concerned, Xiao Wang, our Chinese sales amateur, attracted more attention with his bewildering array of shiny Chinese surveillance products, while Harry’s discourse analysis seemed to fall on deaf and possibly clueless ears among the Burmese security shoppers.

Of course, since that first expo, much has changed in Myanmar. The ‘frontier’ fever has waned, and Aung San Suu Kyi has fallen from grace over the anti-Rohingya violence, among other things. The international media has pivoted from celebrating the country’s investment opportunities to indicting it over allegations of genocide. As Facebook was implicated through Cambridge Analytica in the 2016 US elections, the Rohingya violence was also influenced by the social media giant, through the amount of fabricated and propagandist material cultivated and circulating in its ecosystem. (In)Security today has moved from tea houses to social media and into one’s urban work desks worldwide, as Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism details. In Myanmar, politics and security is debated online, far away from the insurgencies and ethnic violence of its peripheries and borders. Outside, Yangon continues to be secured as a site of ‘frontier investments’ and new CCTVs and security guards are being installed to safeguard an ever-developing urban core and the flavours of new globalization that comes with it.

In a recent paper, James Sidaway and I explore such connections and imbrications of security and (in)security in Yangon’s urban fabric. We think of Yangon, both as a ‘frontier city, but also a bit like Harry, as the old school security field in a city still soaked in the bitter violence of colonialism, nationalism, militarization, student protest, ethnic revolt and suppression, dictatorship and ongoing unrest. We travel between contemporary Yangon and colonial Rangoon, unpacking how a private security geo-urban culture has emerged with special attention to Yangon’s busy downtown core – the historical port region, and old colonial front, now the administrative capital of the city and the site of many new developments, real estate and otherwise. We explore how a majority of these new urban (re)developments are direct material refurbishments from decades of ill-gotten and crony resource extractions and laundering from the country’s violent borders, now to be ‘secured ‘on the urban front by a new private security industry largely linked to the same military and allied cronies. From 2015 to 2019, we visited Yangon several times, attending security expos, and spoke to private security agencies, businessmen, and residents to ask – what and who was this emerging security market trying to secure, and at whose expense?

More of that in Part 2, but for now, I remember something that happened on one of the evenings of the security expo in 2015 rather vividly. Because that was when I accidentally and embarrassingly stumbled into one of the many potholes on the footpath next to the majestic colonial Strand Hotel (where my own ancestors and local Burmese were not allowed to enter until 1945). That was a rude end to my brand new longyi, but the fault was entirely mine. As an Indian woman ever vigilant of bad roads, drains, a million cars honking, dozens of ‘eve-teasing’ street men and ‘holy cows’ back home, I was perhaps too spoilt after living in ‘safe’ and a fully CCTV’d Singapore. I let my guard down, walking absentmindedly along the lively downtown streets, pondering perhaps the absurdity of plain-clothed private security contractors ‘discourse analysing’ my order of palatha and laphetye posain in one of the many nondescript tea stalls here.

Somehow, my present predicament in that pothole, and state of the art ‘Singapore-style’ surveillance infrastructure in a city like Yangon above my head, didn’t quite add up for me that night. I wondered whether CCTVs would come before the street was repaired. As of writing this, the repairs never came, but the CCTVs, and a lot of private security guards did. In Part 2, I speak to some of these guards, about their jobs in security and their lives of wider insecurities as residents of a ‘frontier’ Yangon.

(Image courtesy of Jasnea Sarma)

1. Conversations /interviews used here were conducted in Yangon by the author in various visits between 2015-2019. Most were recorded, always with the speaker’s consent. When not in English, quotes have been translated to retain the original meaning/tone in the best way possible. All names are pseudonyms.
2. These two-part essays are built on a co-written and recently published article, however, all opinions expressed here are her own. Please email her if you would like to read the paper, or any chit chat on this piece.
3.  She thanks Kim Roberts, Minn Tent Bo, Su Htwe Aung, James Sidaway, and Tea Circle editors Izzy Rhoads and Bobby Anderson for the thoughtful feedback.

 Jasnea Sarma ( is from neighbouring Assam, India, and is a Ph.D. candidate in Comparative Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore. Her research ethnographically and comparatively narrates the contentious politics of building extractive resource and infrastructural  frontiers over Myanmar’s borderlands with India (Mizoram-Chin) and China (Shan-Kachin-Yunnan.)