A MILE NORTH OF the chaotic heart of downtown Rangoon, where electrical wires dangle haphazardly overhead and street vendors hawk roasted pig intestines, sits an upscale complex of 240 luxury residences overlooking the iconic Shwedagon Pagoda and a serene man-made lake. Marketed to wealthy expatriates and foreign businesspeople on extended stays in Burma’s bustling commercial capital, the newly built Shangri-La Serviced Apartments advertise “idyllic luxury in a modern metropolis” and amenities including a swimming pool, 24-hour private security, maids quarters, and a limousine service. Signs in the lobby inform guests that the complex now offers the Cartoon Network and yoga classes.
In 2011, Burma haltingly emerged from decades of oppressive rule by a military junta when a nominally civilian government came to power. The United States eased sanctions against the country the following year, and foreign investors rushed into this resource-rich frontier market. The influx of wealthy expats formed a ready-made clientele for the Shangri-La, where apartments rent for as much as $7,000 a month. In a country where about half the population lacks electricity and there are just six physicians for every 10,000 people, Shangri-La residents enjoy luxuries that are unfathomable to the surrounding populace, including an on-call private doctor and high-speed wifi.