Myanmar's age of Aquarius.

Author:Mitchell, Mark
Position:Foreign investments in Myanmar

As part of its ambitious - if somewhat eccentric - campaign to lure investment, Myanmar's military government publishes a monthly horoscope for visiting representatives of foreign companies. According to a recent issue, Aquarius investors in Myanmar "will meet sudden and unexpected success [from] risky ventures in quarries and mines." For those lucky enough to be born under the Virgo sign, "hotel enterprises and sales of foodstuffs will earn good income."

That many of these astrological predictions come true is no surprise to foreigners already operating in Myanmar (formerly Burma). Myanmar offers an impressive average annual GDP growth rate of 6 percent, the lowest labor costs in Asia (unskilled wages average $16 per month), and a sizable market in booming Southeast Asia.

Most Westerners know Myanmar only from reports of the regime's sometimes brutal oppression of a political opposition movement led by Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize. Oxford-educated Suu Kyi called on foreign firms to "jolly well wait" to do business in Myanmar until the government honors 1990 elections she won. Western human rights groups took up her cause, grumbling loudly enough to drive multinationals like Levi Strauss, Motorola, and Phillips Electronics to pull out.

But many companies chose to stay put rather than let politics interfere with profits. Experienced firms quietly point out that the autocratic regime, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), is what they find most appealing about the country.

Unlike many Asian countries, where executives in search of business approvals are bounced from one grim-faced bureaucrat to another, decision-making in Myanmar is limited to a small group of officials. Foreign companies can easily identify who is in charge and, once a deal is signed, it can be implemented quickly.

It took only one trip to Myanmar, for example, for representatives of an American construction equipment manufacturer to seal a $30 million supply contract with the Ministry of Defense. The ministry handled the approval process, and payment was made in a matter of weeks. Similarly, Singapore's Kuok Group, a major property developer, gained speedy approvals for a project after selling their plan to the SLORC's close-knit clique of ruling generals. Cooperation was encouraging enough for the company to divert resources to Myanmar from Vietnam, where its projects have been held up by red tape and a confusing licensing process.


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