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Corporate advisory and consultancy in Australia, South East Asia and India.
Myanmar, the country which spent 50 years under a repressive authoritarian rule moved out just over 5 years ago, and it is attempting to take its rightful place in the global economy. This piece looks at the recent history and a prognosis for the future.
Of considerable interest to foreigners is the investment climate.
Glen Robinson has spent the last 25+ years focussing on the establishment and development of cross border alliances, joint ventures, mergers and acquisitions, particularly in the manufacturing, processing and distribution areas, and particularly targeted to Asia. These corporate advisory activities are based on many years’ experience in management consultancy, and he has worked with a wide range of industries from agriculture, government through to manufacturing, distribution and service industries. He initially gained his Asian experience as chief executive officer for the Asian subsidiaries and joint ventures of a major international manufacturing and marketing organisation.
Glen sits on the board of many Asian related business organisations and has for many years advised a number of Foreign Investment Boards in the Asian region.
Introduction; There has been an increasing amount of column inches devoted to the changes which have occurred in Myanmar, and as one who has had a commercial contact with the country since 1994 when we opened our first office in Yangon, and in 1998 when we first produced the Myanmar Business Guide, the changes which have occurred over the last several years are breathtaking in their scope and speed. This particular article addresses some of the issues which may be of general interest and also to those who wish to evaluate the commercial opportunities in the country.
History; For a country which is so physically beautiful, and people who are so gentle, accommodating and pleasant, the history of the country is quite chaotic and violent. It was after the Second World War that Myanmar, then known as Burma, gained its independence. For almost 20 years the country enjoyed significant economic growth; however the military coup in 1962 marked the transition to military leadership in a form which was called the “Burmese way to Socialism”. It was a period of intense repression and violence, and the potential unrest as several ethnic groups sought independence from the control of the central government. This added to the violence in the country.
In 2008 the long promised new constitution was implemented by way of a referendum, A bicameral parliament of, the lower house [Pyithu Hluttaw] and the Upper House [Amyotha Hluttaw] in which 75% of each were to be democratically elected and 25% of the seats were reserved for military appointments. This is probably a useful transition process as it had been successfully applied in other countries in Asia, particularly Indonesia and Thailand, and the previous colonial ruler The United Kingdom still retains a fully elected lower house of 650 members, and a fully appointed upper house of approx 800 members
The national election in 2010 was the first visible sign of democracy in Myanmar, and while the party led by Aung San Suu Kyi boycotted them, and there were severe and probably deserved criticisms of the process, the country did hold the elections, and since then, they have begun the task of an accelerated opening of the economy and reconciliation with dissident groups and the wider global community
The by-election conducted on April 1, 2012 to fill the vacancies created by ministerial appointments was regarded as the most promising exhibit for real change as the ruling SPDC party were soundly beaten by Aung San Suu Kyi’s party the NLD. The election was overseen by 150 invited foreign observers, who reported that the election was clean.
In the 2015 election, the NLD won a sweeping victory, taking 86 percent of the seats in the Assembly of the Union (235 in the House of Representatives and 135 in the House of Nationalities)–well more than the 67 percent supermajority needed to ensure that its preferred candidates will be elected president and first vice president. We await the transition of power with some interest. The ministerial list has been released in March of this year.
Myanmar’s Place in the World.
Most of the western world had implemented some form of sanctions, which made business challenging, however as a direct result of the relatively clean elections and bi-elections, most countries have now moved to soften or extinguish the sanctions. Australia was one of the first to do so. The move to acceptance is evidenced by the visit by Hilary Clinton and the surprise visit by the Prime Minister of UK in April 2012, the visit to many countries, including the USA by the President, U Thein Sein
Myanmar hosted the 2013 South East Asian Games [SEA Games] which were under the regulation of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Olympic Council of Asia. This brought the country and its administration very much under the spotlight. The 22nd World Economic Forum on East Asia was conducted in the capital during June 2013. About 900 delegates from more than 50 countries were in Naypyidaw for the three-day forum, as Myanmar wooed foreign investors. Myanmar held the position of Chairman of Asean from 2014.
The country is being almost overrun by trade missions, investment visits and fact finding missions by business people, investors and politicians. The tourism sector is struggling to keep up with demand.
Commercial Changes Made.
The rate of change at the policy level has been quite phenomenal both in the speed and range. The most sweeping was the Presidential appointment of 6 advisors who were selected on the basis of merit, to create a “think tank” to oversee and advise policy changes to the President. This has been an incredibly bold, but sound move as these advisors have promoted policies which would never be formulated within a traditional and somewhat hidebound bureaucratic process. Some of the actions taken include: –
There are many other changes under discussion, some of them significant, others which are more subtle, and of course there are the enabling changes which are made in order for other changes to be made. The actual legislation and regulations need to be enacted through the bureaucracy and the other institutions and the speed at which changes have been enacted has been breathtaking, and even those which required significant technical input were not delayed.
Sustainability of Changes Made.
It is always difficult to predict the future, however, several points are worthy of mention.
The change in attitude of many people is by far the biggest change. There is now a real air of confidence for the future, enthusiasm, and a preparedness to get on and make things happen. This attitude has not been evident in the past, and it is definitely the most significant change which is discernible in the country.
The attitudes of the various political groups is paramount, as it will take a high level of cooperation, negotiation, compromise, and vision by all political groupings to allow all the issues to be resolved. The indications are that the future is assured, as this cooperation is being demonstrated, and these challenges are being managed.
With such significant changes to be implemented it is expected that the bureaucracy and other institutions within the country may well have difficulty keeping up with change.
The infrastructure is in a poor, perhaps even in a parlous state. Power outages are regular; the telecommunications don’t work in some areas at all, and is frequently unavailable in others; the roads are well overdue for a major makeover; and, other transport facilities within the country are decayed. All of this can have a detrimental and inhibiting effect on investment, and the potential investor will have to look very carefully at the availability and sustainability of the facilities.
Similarly, the services are in need of major overhaul and upgrade. Education, health, tourism, insurances, most normal services which are generally supplied by both government and private sector are in need of a technology upgrade, and must be seen as prospective projects.
Because there are so many changes being slated, and more being called for and placed on the agenda, particularly in the regulatory framework of the country, that means that changes are going to be occurring on an ongoing basis, and the investor must be prepared to accept that changes will continue, and that there may be a time lag before the implementation process becomes clear.. Those organisations that are used to dealing with ambiguity will have no difficulty, but those organisations which seek a rigid framework in which to work, may find some difficulties.
In The Pipeline
In the streets and marketplaces, the massive changes are evident. Sure the infrastructure is crumbling, but the foreign investors are falling over themselves to obtain a share of this newly opened market. There are those who recognise that Myanmar has 40% of the world’s population on its borders, is a member of the APEC free trade area, so it cannot be ignored.
It was only 5 years ago that a visitor had a wide choice of hotels, but such is the increase in both tourist and business visitors that accommodation may be difficult to obtain. The tourist arrivals are as follows:
2014 3,081,412 persons
Interestingly, Australians make up less than 2% in the last 2 years.
Similarly, 5 years ago the foreign investment was all but zero, but with hordes of investment hungry business people the climate is very rosy. The new laws clarify the position, the newly developed industrial parks encourage inward investment, the requirement for infrastructure has seen the inwards FDI increase as follows: –
Y/E March 2014 $US 4,107 Billion
2015 $US 8,010 Billion
2016 $US 7,500 Billion [Expected]
Myanmar presents a prospective opportunity for investments, but the research must be undertaken to ensure the economic and commercial viability of the project, the management style must be sufficiently flexible to adapt to a changing environment, and also the investor must be prepared to contribute to the development of the country and its people.
AFG Venture Group
Mobile: +61 412 229 664