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Could a bottle of wine help explain Burma’s steps towards democracy?

The track to the Red Mountain Estate winery was now too steep to cycle up, so I walked the rest of the way, made difficult by the extreme heat of the Myanmar midday sun.

The reception building sat directly over a wide vineyard and had panoramic views of the popular tourist destination of Lake Inle. In the words of the Beautiful South ‘we could be anywhere’. It made a strange sight, French or Spanish yes, but Burmese?

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I had arranged to meet with the Estate’s French wine technician, Francois Raynal, with the hope writing a travel article. Waiting for Francois, I picked up a leaflet and read that the Red Mountain Estate’s first harvest was in 2010.

Not only was 2010 clearly a monumental year for wine in Burma, it was an important and historic year because it witnessed elections that broke the country free from military dictatorship – the inception of a limited civilian government. The actual impact that this has had and how much this has really changed Burma is questionable and at best . Nonetheless, little did I know that these two events in 2010 were so linked together.

Standing outside in between two rows of vines, I began with a few technical questions relating to the climate, soil and grapes, or anything that gave the impression I had any knowledge about the scientific procedure for making wine. I then asked Francois who owned the winery?

‘U Nay Win Tun. My boss is very close to power, to the people in charge, what we called the dictators before. There was a plan since 2002 from the government to change. There was what we call a “Road Map to Democracy”. Nobody believed it before’.

He went onto explain how many other “tycoons” did the same, buying land, hotels and in this case building a winery (also in 2002) to pre-empt the opening up of the country and the boom in the tourism industry.

U Nay Win Tun was close to the leadership of the Pa’O National Army, a separatist movement that came to a ceasefire agreement with the Burma National Army in 1991. He now owns Ruby Dragon, the largest gems company in the country. He also officially represents the Pa’O people in Parliament. He is one of Myanmar’s richest men.

“We are lucky, we have good climate and lots of tourist”, Monsieur Raynal happily concluded, as we stood in a cool wine cellar.

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One million tourists visited Myanmar last year. Red Mountain exports none of its wine, selling all of it to hotels and restaurants and to tourists keen to try a local drop of quirky wine. Only this wine is good (or at least it will be in time), owing to the unique climate at Lake Inle and the vast amount of money invested in the project. The winery has already sold 200,000 bottles of its 2013 harvest that ended in March with not many still to sell. It has been a huge success. For the discerning tourist, not only is the mere presence of Burmese wine a surprise, the fact that it is drinkable hits the jackpot.

So a glass of 2010 Red Mountain Shiraz gets you thinking. 2010 wasn’t just a year for the Burmese people to celebrate political change, for the rich minority, it was the coming together of a near infallible business plan. It puts nearly everything about Burma’s recent history sharply into focus.

Some might say we should boycott the new government, despite democratic reform. Or, realistically, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised, or critical. Economy liberalisation will always make the rich richer, but hopefully that new wealth will trickle all the way down.

Jack Goodman

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