Burma opens for business

With a pro-business government in charge, Burma is opening up. But western companies have a lot to learn before they can reap the rewards of Asia's largest untapped market.

by Jonathan Head
Last Updated: 23 Mar 2015

Picture a country with no ATMs, no mobile phones, mostly no internet, no shopping malls, hardly any cars and no traffic jams, except on the narrow, upcountry roads that pass as highways, which are sometimes blocked by convoys of ox carts.

You now have an idea what Burma, or Myanmar as it is officially called these days, was like a decade ago.

Back then, the country saw fewer tourists in a year than neighbouring Thailand got in a week, and sanctions stopped what little business investment had once come from Europe and the US. Even those companies unbound by sanctions found it hard going.

Only China, with its eye on the long-term strategic prize of a friendly, resource-rich country offering access to the Indian Ocean, invested on a large scale.

Then change came, and not many people saw it coming. The first election in 20 years took place in 2010, under a military-drafted constitution that barred Aung San Suu Kyi, by far the most popular political leader in the country, from becoming president.

The man who got the job, Thein Sein, was a veteran army officer with a track record of uncritical loyalty to the old military regime.

It turned out that Thein Sein and several other senior officers were far keener to end their pariah status than expected. Once Suu Kyi accepted their good faith and agreed to bring her party into parliament in April 2012, the promises of sweeping reform suddenly looked credible. The world rushed in, eager to sustain the momentum, and to profit from it.

Occasionally, when I am stuck in what can be a two-hour crawl from the airport to downtown Rangoon (Yangon), I miss the old days. Affordable cars, mostly second-hand Japanese models, are one of the most visible signs of a re-engagement with the global economy.

So much is changing that just a couple of months between visits requires adjustment to new conditions. Do I still need to exchange large amounts of dollars for bags full of local kyats, or are the ATMs working? Can you buy a local SIM card, or do you still need to rent from the pricey booths at the airport?

For potential investors, there are even bigger questions. Can I find affordable office space, with reliable power and water? What are the rules under the new and rather vague Foreign Investment Law? Who really runs Myanmar? Who will run it after the 2015 election? Where are the most lucrative markets in what is still a very poor country? Where will I find suitable workers?

None of these imponderables has yet quelled the frothy excitement about a 'new frontier' in Asia, the last untapped market outside North Korea.

Bordering India, China, Thailand and Bangladesh, with a population of 55 million people who are hungry for just about everything, Myanmar is attracting the kind of investor interest not seen since China opened up two decades ago.

Busloads of Japanese businessmen arrive every week at the small collection of international hotels - whose rates have quadrupled in two years. Smaller numbers come from Europe, the US and Myanmar's Asian neighbours.

The Lord Mayor of London led a delegation to Myanmar last October. (The name was changed in 1989, but not all nations recognise it.) Lord Green, the trade and investment minister - who as Stephen Green headed HSBC - led another in June.

The reality they confront after they land is a sobering one. The lack of suitable office space has pushed rents to stratospheric levels. At the Sakura Tower, one of the first modern tower blocks to be built in Rangoon, rents have reached £600 a square metre, closer to Singapore or New York than next-door Bangkok.

Electricity supplies are so erratic everyone depends on expensive diesel generators in the dry season, when the dams Myanmar uses for 70% of its power are low. After 50 years of isolation, the rules for commerce are opaque or non-existent. In its 2013 report on ease of doing business, the World Bank ranked Myanmar 182 out of 189 countries.

Lack of suitable office space has pushed rents to stratospheric levels. Image credit: Jonathan Head

Luc de Waegh, a Belgian national who has lived in Myanmar longer than just about any other expatriate, and runs a consultancy that advises incoming investors, takes a wearily unsentimental view of the 'Burma boom'.

'Many people got carried away by press reports of a "last frontier", a "new Eldorado" - they expected a gold rush, to find low-hanging fruit. There's nothing of that. The reality is that this is still a very small economy - around $50bn - and it is a very difficult place in which to operate.

So, over the past two years, what we have seen is a process of filtration, from the curious investors to the more serious ones who can afford to have a long-term vision.'

So who's still coming? 'Everybody's looking at real estate,' says Thura Soe Paing, a young British-educated Burmese who came back three years ago to establish an investment advisory firm. 'People need housing, hotels.'

Thura Soe PaingAll Myanmar Investment has set up its own private equity fund to seek out lucrative opportunities. 'The problem with that is land is now so incredibly expensive,' Thura Soe Paing says.

'Tourism is another obvious market. We are sector-agnostic - more focused on the right kind of company and management. We like areas such as logistics, distribution, some elements of infrastructure, some services.'

And yet there are some intrepid pioneers who are finding what they came for. Up on the seventh floor of a renovated apartment block overlooking Rangoon docks, Rita Nguyen, an energetic Vietnamese-Canadian, is running a social networking start-up called Squar and, she says, doing far better than she expected.

'It actually has been so much easier and more rewarding than I expected. I came into the country hearing all the same stories you've probably heard, about how difficult it is. But everyone is here to do business; the government really wants this to happen. We have had no problems. Things like getting the licence, that's been easier than in other countries where I've worked.'

She was able to raise $500,000 of funding in just a few weeks, got a well-located office at a remarkably modest rent, and has started generating revenue quickly through partnerships with corporations such as Coca-Cola, because of the appeal of the tens of thousands of younger Burmese now using her website.

For UK companies, the obvious niches would appear to be oil, gas and ancillary services, banking, insurance, legal advice, and construction. Most months, more than a dozen British firms send people to scout out the investment landscape, but they are not committing yet. British exports to Myanmar are rising quickly, but from a minimal level - last year they totalled only £8m.

During his visit in June, Lord Green listed a formidable array of deterrents holding back major commitments: corruption, lack of transparency, lack of infrastructure, lack of banking services, lack of skilled workers.

The Anglo-Dutch conglomerate Unilever is one of the first to plant itself in this uncertain terrain, with a new factory and promised investment of £400m over 10 years.

Unilever is renowned for its effective sales strategy in emerging markets, even at their earliest stages of development, with long experience in similar countries, such as Vietnam and Indonesia. So its prospects for success look good.

All the same, it is being cautious. The new factory is for now producing only one brand of food seasoning, using Burmese workers brought back from Unilever's operations in Thailand. Most of the products it sells in Myanmar will for the moment be sourced elsewhere.

Over at the small and chaotic office of Japan's export promotion organisation, Jetro, country manager Masaki Takahara has to handle investor interest that dwarfs anything coming from Britain. Japan Inc has been pushing to get through the Burmese door from the moment the generals started opening it, desperate to make up the ground lost to arch-rival China during the days of sanctions in a region Japan has long considered its natural trading ground.

Japanese businesses are getting the kind of encouragement from their government that British companies can only dream of; pledges of around £1bn in soft loans, summit meetings, and an agreement to build a modern industrial park on a 2,400-hectare site outside Rangoon, which will offer Japanese manufacturers the kind of infrastructure - reliable power, water and port facilities - unavailable elsewhere.

Japan is offering help to modernise Myanmar's dilapidated railways, to upgrade its woefully inadequate electricity grid, to transform its urban planning. Tokyo's ambitions in Myanmar seem limitless.

Yet total investment this year by Japanese companies was actually only £175m up to July, leaving Japan in 11th place as an investor.

'The Burmese call us NATO,' laughs Takahara. 'No Action, Talk Only. Or the four "L"s - Look, Listen, Learn and then Leave.'

Japan is offering help to modernise Myanmar's dilapidated railways. Image credit: Jonathan Head

Of around 120 members of the local Japan-Myanmar Chamber of Commerce, he says, only seven are involved in manufacturing. The rest have small liaison offices, there to make contacts and gather information, but not yet ready to bring in large amounts of cash.

Like everyone else, the Japanese are waiting. Waiting for infrastructure that makes large-scale operations viable, and waiting to see how the politics plays out. Much the same is true of British companies, says Ambassador Andrew Patrick. The date they are all focused on is the next election, due at the end of 2015.

Few people doubt President Thein Sein's sincerity. He has pushed for changes that would have been unthinkable under the old regime he once served: the release of political prisoners, albeit at a slower pace than human rights groups would like, greater media freedom, opening up Myanmar's economy to foreign investment, and pursuing peace agreements with the various ethnic insurgent armies with which the Burmese military has been fighting on and off since independence in 1948.

Now in his late 60s, he is unlikely to run for president again. He has surrounded himself with a cabal of reformist military officers who are carrying out his agenda much faster than either the still-powerful armed forces or the bureaucracy would like.

As this has brought about a transformation of Myanmar's international standing, the military high command has so far gone along with the president's plan, but its real sentiments are hard to gauge.

But the rapid improvement in relations with Europe and the US would not have happened without the approval of Suu Kyi. She decided back in 2011, at the time of her release from house arrest, that Thein Sein was a man she could work with. She has also formed a close working relationship with another reformist general, Shwe Mann, the speaker of the new Burmese parliament and a man with presidential ambitions of his own.

Suddenly, the woman who spent the best part of two decades hidden from view, under house arrest in her family's lakeside house in Rangoon, is everywhere, dazzling with her charisma and, at times, confounding with her eccentricities.

She has devoted time and effort to making parliament function, and to improving the rundown legal system. She is an unrivalled celebrity in Myanmar, whose presence is constantly sought, but whose amateurish personal staff cannot cope with the demands on her diary.

In 2015, her party, the National League for Democracy, will be competing on a national level for the first time, and because of her popularity it's very likely to win. However, the 2008 constitution contains a clause that bars her from the presidency because of her marriage to a British man and having two British children.

She is open about wanting to be the next president and campaigns constantly for the constitution to be amended. Her failure to speak out on issues like sectarian attacks on the Muslim minority and the army's abuse of civilians is presumed to be intended to maximise support for her.

So, while most of the big UK corporate names hesitate, the honour of being the first private UK company to open an office in Myanmar has fallen to a small logistics outfit based in Stanford-le-Hope, Essex.

'We have always sought challenging regions, and businesses that are difficult and complex to manage,' says managing director Chris Scott, who founded Claridon Logistics 25 years ago. 'These challenges bring greater long-term reward and there is often less competition. It was absolutely paramount that we were the first privately owned British company to set up in Myanmar.'

Scott believes that as a well-established logistics provider - Claridon's clients include Nato, the Saudi National Guard and Harley-Davidson - the company should be able to generate revenue quickly from the needs of all the other businesses setting up in Myanmar, which has only rudimentary transport and port facilities.

Still, he does not expect to make much money from European companies for at least two to three years. Nor does he have any illusions about the difficulties of operating in a country that has been largely cut off from the global economy for half a century. 'More often than not, we are sending our staff out to collect large amounts of cash so we can pay our suppliers,' he says, reflecting the banking difficulties confronting every business in Myanmar.

The reluctance of most foreign companies to do more than dip their toes into Burmese waters right now may prove a blessing for local entrepreneurs.

Under military rule, the only indigenous businesses that thrived were those owned by so-called 'cronies' - tycoons who became very wealthy by allying themselves with the ruling generals, getting preferential access to resources and markets in return for helping to finance the regime. Those conglomerates are still best placed to win infrastructure contracts, although the government is opening up sectors such as telecoms and natural resources to foreign bids.

But smaller Burmese companies are rushing in with a fizzing entrepreneurial zeal to fill the many gaps in the rickety economy. What they lack most of all, they say, is capital.

Foreign companies are unwilling to do more than dip their toes in the water. Image credit: Jonathan Head

Wai Thit Lwin is a Berkeley graduate, mother-of-two and self-proclaimed fashion addict. She also runs Myanmar's first chain of convenience stores, ABC, as well as managing two other companies involved in everything from hotels and hospitals to distributing major brands of clothing and electronic appliances, all at the age of 27. She is not lacking in self-confidence.

However, she worries about plans to bring the convenience store juggernaut 7-Eleven to Myanmar. The US-based chain already has more than 7,000 stores in Thailand, dwarfing the 50-plus that ABC has opened.

The unavailability of domestic loans at reasonable interest rates in Myanmar puts Wai Thit Lwin at a big disadvantage in competing with overseas companies, quite apart from their superior supply chains.

I have not yet met anyone in Myanmar who does not think the changes of the past three years are a good thing. There is, though, a multitude of lingering grievances over the injustices piled up across 50 years by the military's incompetent and often brutal rule, in particular over the way land had been expropriated, often for development by crony businesses. There are also growing voices calling for better protection from foreign competition.

Burmese people know two things about their new era: that they can speak out now, without risking years in jail, and that they can vote. Their concerns will inevitably be amplified in the build-up to what will be the first freely contested election since 1960, as parties compete to show they are the better champion of local interests. So here is another piece of advice from Luc de Waegh for those planning to set up shop in Myanmar.

'Find a local partner. Even though the Foreign Investment Law allows many sectors to go 100% foreign-owned, my strong advice is you align your interests with a local party because people have been doing business in a very different way for the past 50 years, and there are habits that we foreigners don't understand. It is better to leave that to your local partner and focus on the areas you know.'

- Jonathan Head is the BBC's south-east Asia correspondent.


Burma and Thailand are neighbours with similar populations but very different trajectories. Thailand's economy is more than seven times larger than Burma's, and Burma languishes well below Thailand in ease of doing business and corruption indices. However, with Thai political protests stymying growth and Burma booming through new foreign investment, the former pariah state may soon be catching up with its middle-income neighbour.

Population 2012 GDP - 2013 est GDP per capita 2013 est GDP growth 2013 est Ease of doing business index 2013 (out of 189) Corruption perceptions index 2013
BURMA 52.8m $55.3bn $868 6.3% 182nd 157
THAILAND 66.8m $400.9bn $5,879 3.8% 18th 88

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