Mar 6, 2012

Myanmar gets ready for business

"It doesn't happen every day that a country of 60 million people in the most dynamic region of the world is suddenly open for business," argues Hans Vriens, a consultant in Singapore.
He is describing the prospects in Myanmar, as the once-isolated country moves from a military dictatorship to something less ghastly.

Rich in teak, minerals, oil, gas and much else, half a century ago Myanmar (formerly Burma) was one of the more prosperous countries in the region. Decades of state socialism, oppression and sanctions put an end to that. But now Myanmar seems to be rejoining the real world. The army has relaxed its grip somewhat, and the government is angling for foreign investment. Will the economy regain its former luster?

Myanmar's reforms may win diplomatic rewards. America and the European Union imposed sweeping economic sanctions in the 1990s to punish the regime for stealing elections and jailing opponents. These may be lifted. That would allow foreign firms, and particularly Western ones, to pour in.

Some countries are moving already. America is allowing IMF and World Bank teams to visit the country in part to help the government modernize its sclerotic financial system. The E.U. has abolished visa restrictions on leading government members and is expected to announce further relaxations in April.

Western firms are excited by the country's big population, abundant natural resources and palpable demand for modern products and services. Myanmar's clocks stopped some time in the early 1960s, after the generals took over, so its citizens are hungry for just about everything. Few people own cars and the gleaming malls and supermarkets that infest much of Asia are largely absent. Vriens says investors see opportunities everywhere, from finance to hotels to food processing.

Myanmar's new government is embracing Western investors. During the years of sanctions, the main large investors were Chinese firms keen to extract oil, timber and other natural resources. Few of these firms did much for local workers, or paid much heed to the environment. Now Myanmar has other options.

To make the country more attractive to foreign investors, the government is trying to rush through broad reforms of its legal and economic system in just a year. New land and investment laws are being drafted, special economic zones created and advice solicited from all quarters. Officials are painting the country as the "strategic nexus" between China, India and Southeast Asia, with easy access to the three fastest-growing markets in the world.

However, it will still be a hard place in which to do business. First, the exchange rate is rigged. The official rate is 6 kyat to the dollar; the more realistic black-market rate is about 800. The country lacks a proper banking system. In the new spirit of openness, officials concede that corruption is endemic. That is putting it mildly: Transparency International, a watchdog, ranks it 180th out of 183 countries. Building a functioning legal system could take a long time.

A few firms have done well in Myanmar for years, despite sanctions. Total, a French oil firm, is used to doing business in nasty places. DHL, a German delivery company, has profited from the absence of a reliable postal service. But these are exceptions. If Myanmar wants to join the broad-based Asian boom, it will have to keep reforming for years to come.

Source: StarTribune