A record 192 countries are represented at this year’s postponed Expo – up from 139 at the previous Universal Exposition in Milan – among them, of course, the poorest, war-torn and unstable in the world.
Helped by funding from the UAE government, all are using Expo 2020 to present a polished image that could attract investment or tourists, but the conflicts at home lurk just below the surface.
Tucked away from the main pedestrian walkway, the modest Myanmar Pavilion is filled with photos, clothing and cultural artifacts native to the South Asian nation, in an effort to represent the majority regional and religious diversity of the country. Buddhist.
Levi Sap Nei Thang, deputy director of the pavilion, says she was appointed by the previous democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. “Deputy” was added to Thang’s title after the Burmese military took control of the country in February, arrested Suu Kyi and quelled nationwide protests. Technically, they are now in charge of the pavilion as well.
Back in Dubai, Thang told CNN that she has been preparing the Expo exhibit for years, with the aim of promoting trade and attracting visitors to Myanmar, but admitted that “it is maybe not the right time now [for tourists]. ”
The Expo runs until March 2022 and Thang says she expects that at some point Myanmar’s military junta will “send a new team” to take over the pavilion, just as it took over. country control. She said she recently turned down an appeal with a minister seeking to discuss flag control. If she is pushed out, however, Thang has said that she will not stay.
“I’m doing this for my people, not for any political party,” she told CNN. Myanmar’s military government did not respond to CNN’s requests for comment.
The Myanmar flag is not the only one caught in a government overthrow. The Afghanistan pavilion sat empty for days at the start of the Expo on October 1, after the Taliban takeover left a void in its management. Today, a collector of Afghan antiques from Austria, Mohammed Omer Rahimy, opened the pavilion after being called in by Expo organizers and struggling with customs delays.
Rahimy told CNN that he did not represent the previous government or the Taliban and that he had taken over for the Afghan people. Indeed, there is no sign of the hustle and bustle of Afghanistan in the displays of colorful traditional clothing, ornate ancient jewelry, and elegant brassware, including a 12th century mortar and pestle.
Rahimy is very careful to make it clear that he is not partisan – in fact, he says he has curated articles for the Afghan pavilion on behalf of several regimes since the 1970s in more than a dozen exhibitions – and said he only wanted peace. for his country, it doesn’t matter who is in charge. Rahimy said his aim was to showcase Afghanistan’s rich cultural history and promote investment and buyers for the country’s exports, such as saffron, which is for sale in small vials at the pavilion.
“Any regime comes to Afghanistan, then five years, four years later, the next regime comes. To me, my people are what’s important,” he told CNN.
Many national pavilions at Expo 2020 are being built with funding from the UAE government, though organizers declined to detail cost-sharing agreements. Private sponsorship is also a major source of funding, but individual governments are ultimately supposed to be responsible.
In the Syrian pavilion, there is no doubt that President Bashar al-Assad, accused of having used chemical weapons on his own people, is in command. Her portrait hangs amid 1,500 Syrian-made wooden paintings believed to collectively represent the country’s national unity, despite being torn apart by a decade of civil war. A historical timeline of Syria makes no mention of this conflict.
The pavilion was funded by the UAE government and Syrian businessmen, according to designer and director Khaled Alshamaa. Syrian Minister of Economy Mohammad al-Khalil was there to open the pavilion and Alshamaa is encouraging tourists to return to the country.
“It’s totally safe,” Alshamaa insisted. “Now we are trying to rebuild our economy. The war is over in 99% [of Syria]However, airstrikes and terrorist attacks are still frequent in the country and civilian casualties remain frequent.
Likewise, the Yemeni pavilion features a 330-year-old manuscript and some of the Gulf’s rarest swords, but makes no mention of the brutal war and humanitarian crisis in Yemen over the past seven years.
Perhaps the strangest contradiction is the Lebanese flag. A striking solid gray structure with minimalist black statues on the outside standing guard, on the inside the presentation bears no resemblance to the current economic state of the country. Lebanon is still recovering from the explosion in the port of Beirut that left hundreds dead and thousands injured, as well as a worsening economic crisis that wiped out the value of the Lebanese pound, and with it , the life savings of ordinary people. According to a recent United Nations report, severe shortages of food, fuel and medicine have helped push nearly three-quarters of the population into poverty.
Yet inside the pavilion, visitors are greeted with an immersive video experience that could easily serve as an advertisement for the Lebanese Ministry of Tourism, with panoramic aerial shots showcasing the country’s natural beauty.
“The news will cover the non-sanitized version of Lebanon,” explained Nathalie Habchi Harfouche, the director of the pavilion. Harfouche does not work for the Lebanese state. When the country’s dysfunctional government, plagued by corruption allegations, abandoned its plan to operate the pavilion in 2019, a coalition of private sponsors led by the Lebanese Chamber of Commerce and the Diaspora in Dubai stepped in to save the project, said the organizers – helped by funding from the United Arab Emirates. The logo of the Lebanese Ministry of Economy adorns the wall, but Harfouche said it was out of necessity more than anything, because technically the pavilions must be supported by the government.
“We are not carrying water for the government, we are not doing their job, we are doing it for the people. If they are not willing to do it, then we will. If it means our survival, then “So be it. We want to survive and we are going to survive as a people,” she told CNN.
After the gift shop filled with soaps and jewelry, there’s an attractive bar with a selection of Lebanese wines. Harfouche said the pavilion’s display will evolve and change over the next six months – including content that “portrays reality, yet in an artistic way.” Yet she does not intend to make the pavilion overtly political.
“Why should I do this?” she asked. “I don’t want to think of the government. It is an apolitical entity here.”
Harfouche said his goal was to encourage much-needed tourism and investment to help rebuild Lebanon’s struggling economy and ultimately help its people.
“It would have been easy not to be here, but it would have been totally a waste of opportunity for people, not for anyone else,” she added.
Expo 2020 has shelled out large sums of money to ensure that as many countries as possible are represented here. Spokesman Sconaid McGeachin declined to go into details of the costs, but told CNN that: “This [financial support] allows each country to tell its story about its culture and heritage and to focus on the future. ”
Every nation represented here presents a narrative, of sorts, but many of them are far from the full story.