Chin State has been called Myanmar’s final frontier due to its remote location and underdeveloped infrastructure, but those willing to make the journey will find exceptional opportunities in industries ranging from boutique tourism and textiles to hydropower, mining and cash crops. It is one of the participating states in the Invest Myanmar Summit 2019 with key Chin State government representatives in attendance to speak at the state and region focus sessions.
The founders of ethnographic textile gallery Yoyamay have been selling traditional Chin textiles, woven on backstrap looms from handspun cotton and silk, for over a decade.
From their shop in Yangon’s Bogyoke Market, they sell contemporary Chin fabrics, cushion covers, bags and cardholders and vintage materials that have become increasingly popular with tourists.
But it is only recently that traditional Chin textiles, woven with painstaking care and known for their high quality and intricate designs, have been produced for export.
This is partly because the remote state in northwest Myanmar bordering Bangladesh and India was closed to foreigners until 2015. But now, as the government seeks to attract investment, several high-end companies have started working with Chin weavers to create unique fabrics for sale overseas.
In early 2017, British homeware company Kalinko began working with a group of Chin weavers to create high-quality products that appeal to international consumers.
“This has involved very simple changes, such as having the weavers work side-by-side in order to achieve consistency in the patterns, weaving in a clean environment and combining traditional patterns with colour combinations chosen by Kalinko,” said the company’s founder Ms. Sophia Garnier.
“We provide all the materials the weavers need, upgrade their equipment and workshops, and a constant flow of orders and exposure to buyers in the United Kingdom, Europe, and the United States, which are our biggest markets.”
One of the least developed states in Myanmar, Chin is dependent on agriculture and forestry, and its population is declining due to economic migration. Developing the textile industry helps to keep highly skilled weavers in well-paid work.
UK-based non-government organisation Turquoise Mountain has also started working with weavers in Chin State. It recently held a workshop in Hakha, the state capital, on colour and raw materials, which the organisation believes are critical to opening up higher value markets.
Turquoise Mountain has also established a central ‘cut and sew’ workshop in Yangon that keeps a crucial part of the value chain within Myanmar and focuses on product development and quality control.
The organisation’s work with textiles in Chin State and in other parts of the country is partly funded by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) through its DaNa Facility, which has been instrumental in launching an investment drive in Chin State.
Priority sectors and investment incentives
In November 2017, the DaNa Facility held an investment promotion event in Chin with over 100 representatives from the public and private sectors. It has hailed Chin State as a hidden gem that is overlooked by international and domestic investors and has highlighted four key growth sectors: renewable energy, agribusiness, tourism, and urban development.
The DaNa Facility is also providing funding and technical assistance to small and medium enterprises in the state, including the Myanmar Fruit, Flower and Vegetable Association, to improve the incomes and competitiveness of (among other beneficiaries) small agricultural producers in southern Chin.
It believes the state’s proximity to India presents an opportunity for the cross-border trade in highland cash crops, such as coffee, avocados, and elephant-foot-yam. Trade with India is likely to grow in the coming years as the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transport Project, built with support from the Indian government, improves connectivity with India’s northeastern states.
That’s not all. In June 2018, DaNa and the Directorate of Investment and Company Administration (DICA) organised an investment promotion and facilitation strategy workshop in Hakha, to formulate policies to promote and facilitate foreign investment.
Some initiatives are already in place. Last year, the Chin State Chamber of Commerce and Industry was established and DICA began operations in Hakha. Under the new Myanmar Investment Law, investment in any of Chin State’s nine townships is now exempt from taxation for up to seven years.
The opportunities these present are not just in small and medium industries: the state government has said it welcomes local and foreign investment into hydropower production and has committed to identifying the most suitable locations for large-scale hydropower projects.
Only 30 percent of the state’s population has access to electricity, which means that Chin will need major investment in both power and infrastructure in the coming years.
Companies have also reportedly been invited to invest in mining in the eastern part of the state where there are prospects for exploiting minerals, including copper and chromium. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation is also seeking expressions of interest from foreign and local investors to run a feasibility study for the state’s first cement plant, in Hakha Township.
Chin State is also an emerging tourism destination for those seeking to get off the beaten track – an increase in tourists over the past two years has highlighted the region’s potential. Land tenure is more complex here than elsewhere in the country and this has prevented the development of hotels; Ministry of Hotels and Tourism data from 2017 records just six hotels in the state, five of which are in Kanpetlet in southern Chin, near Mount Victoria.
However, the Chin government intends to grant state-owned land to entrepreneurs and there are plans to build two new airports. U Aung Phyo, deputy director of the Chin Tourism Department said the state had attracted 11,182 domestic visitors by the end of October, already surpassing last year’s total of 11,047 travelers.
Interest among foreign tourists in exploring the state’s wild beauty is growing too. Mr. Bertie Lawson, managing director of Sampan Travel, a company that primarily arranges trips for expatriates living in Yangon, said that over the last 12 months he has received more enquiries about Chin State than about any other part of the country.
“The people making these enquiries have already trekked around Inle Lake and Hsipaw in Shan State and are looking for something different,” he said.
“Chin State offers hard trekking (although softer options are also available) in a cold, rugged and peaceful region that is utterly unlike the rest of the country.”
Sampan works with local providers, some of which are based in Chin and others nearby, to arrange hikes and cultural tours.
Lawson stressed the need for sensitive travel in Chin, because it has seen so little tourism. “That being said, southern Chin, in particular, Mindat and Kanpetlet, has seen more traffic from both foreign and domestic tourists over the last two years,” he said.
Those who want to enjoy the rhododendrons in peace are now looking to northern Chin, he said, to more remote towns such as Hakha and Tidim, which he described as “not for the faint-hearted”.
Photo credit: Kalinko