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Myanmar: a goldmine with frontier risks

Myanmar: a goldmine with frontier risks

As Myanmar prepares for an economic resurgence following the end of decades of military rule, wide-eyed firms from all over Asia are competing for a piece of the potentially lucrative pie.

By Agence France-Presse

Wednesday 9 May 2012, 04:52PM

With largely untapped natural resources, including minerals, metals and fossil fuels, and a tourism sector left in ruins by sanctions, Myanmar sparkles with opportunity.

But businessmen with experience inside the formerly military-ruled state say making money in a country where education levels are low, the rule of law is weakly enforced and electricity supplies are haphazard, can be a challenge.

Since one-time general Thein Sein came to power in early 2011 at the head of a nominally civilian government, Myanmar's march in from the diplomatic cold has been rapid.

International sanctions aimed at punishing the repressive regime are being relaxed as political dissidents are given their freedom.

Democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, who has spent much of the last two decades under house arrest, this month took her seat in parliament in an historic moment that cemented the astonishing reforms.

As the sanctions loosen, a rush of firms are looking to tap a potential 62 million consumers and a young workforce in an economy that the IMF says is set to grow 5.5 percent this year.

"The reality is that no one can afford to ignore Myanmar's potential," said Jeremy Kloiser-Jones, head of Hong Kong-based investment and advisory firm Bagan Capital.

"Japanese corporations are showing particularly strong interest," he said.

Tokyo announced last month it would forgive about $3.7 billion of Myanmar's debt and resume suspended aid.

"Now the government has waived debts and yen-denominated loans will resume, huge business chances are ahead for us," said a spokeswoman for trading house Marubeni.

Marubeni, which has just opened an office in the capital Naypyidaw to add to the one it operates in the nation's main city of Yangon, is looking at infrastructure projects involving electricity and transport, she said.

The firm's rival, Itochu, is on the lookout for "information on mining rare metals such as molybdenum and tungsten," a spokesman said, describing the country as the region's "last frontier".

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak visited Myanmar in March, looking to boost a trade relationship that jumped by a third in 2011 to be worth an annual $792.7 million.

Khoo Kay Peng, a director of Malaysian marketing company GFW Urban Youth, said he and his partners are aiming to raise $2.0 million to open a business hotel in Yangon which he estimates has only around 3,000 usable rooms.

He warned many issues still need to be ironed out, such as property leases, which are currently available only for one year, and curbs on private ownership by foreigners, but that he remained optimistic.


"We are not going to rush into it," he told AFP. "But it's good to go in and build some capacity. It's a country that can do very well."

International Enterprise Singapore, the city-state's trade promotion body, is running a business mission to Myanmar this week to build on $1.3 billion in annual trade.

Neighbouring Thailand and China are ahead of the pack, doing a combined $9.4 billion of business with Myanmar in 2010, according to EU figures.

Beijing, long immune to the international opprobrium of dealing with distasteful regimes, has bought up vast amounts of oil, gas and timber.

South Korean companies have also been active in Myanmar for many years, notably in the energy field, with Daewoo International and the Korea Gas Corporation inking deals while Suu Kyi was still a prisoner in her own home.

"There had been news about democratisation for quite a long time but this time there is a rather visible change," said Lee Hae-In, a manager at the state-run Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency.

However, getting a return on investment is not always easy.

The IMF said this month that Myanmar's complex exchange rate system remains a problem, increasing transaction costs, discouraging foreign direct investment and trade and putting appreciation pressure on the local currency.

Reforms to the currency market, which last month saw the nation begin moving towards a managed floating regime, may help ease some of those concerns, the world body said.

Yoshihiro Araki, research director at Japan External Trade Organization, said day-to-day issues were also a concern.

"I would say only companies that are capable of generating electricity in-house and who are ready to educate their workers should go ahead," said Araki, who worked in Yangon for three years.

Shigeto Inami, the head of Myanmar Securities Exchange Centre in Yangon which is readying for the 2015 opening of Myanmar's first official bourse, said business life in Myanmar can be challenging.

"The two biggest risks in Myanmar are its fiscal deficit and the issue of restive ethnic minorities" who live in resource-rich northern areas, he said.

"(Also) it's frustrating to do business here... blackouts are common and making international calls can be difficult."

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