Thursday, March 22, 2012
NASDAQ – Myanmar: the coming investor paradise?
After decades of ruthless and oppressive leadership, Myanmar’s (Burma’s) ruling military junta is all of a sudden increasingly willing to modernize and liberalize its laws governing both its people and its economy.
In the past year, President Thein Sein’s government has undertaken a serious commitment to reform , including the release of hundreds of political prisoners and ending high profile democracy-advocate Aung San Suu Kyi’s 30-year house arrest.
These reforms are not confined to the political sphere; newly proposed economic reforms by Thein Sein’s administration will attempt to catalyze Myanmar’s stunted growth. As outlined by the Financial Times , new economic initiatives include:
“provisions for foreign businesses to set up in Myanmar without local partners, as previously required; government guarantees against nationalisation; easing of restrictions on private land use and repatriation of profits; and a five-year tax exemption for foreign companies.”
Further, the government will start a “managed float” of the nation’s currency – the kyat, starting April 1, in order to both gain control over the troubled currency and instill confidence for potential foreign investors.
Unlike previous, disingenuous reform rhetoric that went nowhere, these attempts to change Myanmar for the better are proving to be legit. The international diplomatic community has strongly approved of President Thein Sein’s liberalization, evidenced by Secretary of State Clinton’s late-fall visit to Myanmar , the first by an American Secretary of State in over 50 years.
Diplomatic approval is important for American investors in order to gain access to Burma; the U.S. government first has to repeal the sanctions that prevent American investors from putting new capital into Myanmar. With Norway removing its investment restrictions in January, and the European Union strongly considering repealing their economic sanctions , it’s reasonable to assume the American government is strongly mulling the possibility too.
In terms of development, due to the aforementioned sanctions, the nation has fallen far behind neighbors India, China, and Thailand. However, because it sits at a crossroads of major 21st century powers, its potential for growth is enormous.
With its abundant natural resources and unspoilt landscapes, Myanmar could become a hub for oil and gas, transportation, and tourism – and a boon for investors.
Because of the embargo, no Burmese stocks trade on U.S. exchanges.
Investors looking for exposure to neighboring countries in southeast Asia that will benefit from Myanmar’s liberalization can look to country-specific ETFs such as those for Vietnam ( VNM , quote ) and Thailand ( THD , quote ).
Myanmar Hearing Calls to Reform Telecom Market
By : Patrick Barta
Myanmar is considering plans to open its under-developed telecommunications market to large-scale foreign investment, a senior regulator said.
Khin Maung Thet, director-general of Myanmar’s Post & Telecommunications Department, said in an interview that a new communications law is being studied to create four new telecommunications licenses in the country, with the licenses available both to local and foreign investors. Currently, foreigners are not allowed to hold telecom licenses in Myanmar, he said.
The new law was sent to Myanmar’s attorney general last month, he said, and is awaiting his approval now. Once that is obtained, Mr. Khin Maung Thet said, the law will then be sent to Myanmar’s cabinet and then on to Parliament for approval. Mr. Khin Maung Thet said he was not sure when the attorney general would finish reviewing the law.
“The AG is very busy looking at so many other laws” right now, he said. But if the law is changed, the new licenses would “be open to both local and foreign investors,” he added.
The Post & Telecommunications Department is a division of Myanmar’s Ministry of Communications, Posts and Telegraphs, and regulates communications in the resource-rich Southeast Asian country. The plans to revise Myanmar’s telecom laws were also highlighted recently in a research report by analysts at Nomura Securities issued last week.
Efforts to revise Myanmar’s telecommunications laws come amid a flurry of other reforms designed to bolster the country’s under-developed economy and bring in more outside capital, even though the country remains subject to Western economic sanctions. U.S. and European officials have signaled they may be willing to start lifting some of the key sanctions as early as next month, following a year of major changes in Myanmar – including the release of hundreds of political prisoners – after it held its first election in 20 years in 2010.
Among other steps, Myanmar’s government is working to unify the country’s unwieldy multiple exchange rate system, which pegs the Myanmar kyat at about six kyat for every U.S. dollar despite unofficial street rates of about 800 kyat per dollar. People familiar with the situation say officials may float the kyat as early as April – a move that would greatly reduce the complexity of operating in the country.
The government has also just implemented a new law giving workers the right to form unions and it continues to develop other investment rules that could make it easier for foreigners to start businesses there.
Revising the telecoms law, though, could open a huge new field of investment in a country that’s better known for other opportunities, especially its massive natural resources, including natural gas and gems.
Despite having a population of about 60 million people, Myanmar only has around two to three million mobile phone subscribers, according to the recent report from Nomura. Some other sources, such as the U.S. CIA World Factbook, put the number even lower at about 600,000 as of 2010 – fewer than Somalia.
The number of Internet users is also still tiny at about 110,000, according to both sources. Visitors coming from other countries generally aren’t able to use blackberries or other roaming devices, while local residents in recent years have had to pay as much as $1,800 for mobile phones, though prices have come down considerably over the past two years.
The Myanmar government has set a target of having 50% wireless penetration by 2015, Nomura said. Myanmar officials have made clear in conversations with regional diplomats that they hope to make significant progress in developing the local communications industry – including possibly having blackberry service – by as early as 2014, when the country is scheduled to host a regional summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
If the market does develop, it could begin to look more like Thailand, which has about 65 to 70 million people, though incomes there are much higher. By Nomura’s estimates, the three main phone operators in neighboring Thailand have a combined market capitalization of US$23 billion, though they note that Myanmar’s gross domestic product per capita is just US$1,300, compared to US$9,700 in Thailand.
Myanmar’s government has historically dominated the sector, leaving foreign players largely out of luck. The harsh military regime that dominated Myanmar for decades after taking over in 1962 was suspicious of foreign involvement in sensitive sectors such as communications, and largely insisted on running phone services itself, though foreign companies at times sold equipment there and local companies have begun providing some services.
To be sure, it would be difficult for major Asian or global telecom companies to rush into Myanmar soon, even if a new telecom law is passed. Shareholders of major foreign companies remain wary of Myanmar’s unpredictable legal system as well as its inadequate electricity, transport and other infrastructure. Many companies would like more time to gauge the government’s track record on reforms before deciding to commit large sums.
Still, the country remains a tantalizing market in the long run in a region where many other countries have already seen widespread adoption of mobile devices. By Nomura’s estimation, expansion in Myanmar would fit several regional companies’ business plans, including Singapore Telecommunications Ltd. and Axiata Group Bhd. in Malaysia.
A statement from the Axiata Group said that the company “does continuously consider opportunities which may arise,” with the caveat that any potential business opportunity would have to meet their “strategic criteria and strict financial hurdles.”
A SingTel spokesperson said the company had no comment.
Myanmar invites international election observers
By Hla Hla Htay | AFP
Myanmar has invited US, European and other observers for by-elections next month, an official said Wednesday, allowing international scrutiny of polls seen as a major test of its reform credentials.
The vote, which will see Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi stand for a seat in parliament for the first time, comes a year after a quasi-civilian government took power following the end of decades of outright military rule.
“We welcome the invitation of observers,” said a spokesman for Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party, Nyan Win. “They should be allowed to watch and assess freely.”
Observers from the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have been invited for the April 1 polls, said a Myanmar government official who did not want to be named.
“It will be up to the countries whether they send people from overseas or inside Myanmar,” he told AFP, without specifying how many monitors would be allowed.
The US embassy in Yangon described the move as “encouraging”.
“Clearly we feel the elections are important for this country’s reform process,” said embassy spokesman Mike Quinlan.
But he said reports of irregularities in the voting process and cases of alleged intimidation also needed to be addressed.
“Having observers is one step, but to have a free and fair election there really should be no violence and intimidation as well,” he said.
There was no official reaction from the European Union, but an EU official in Bangkok who did not want to be named said that at least six months of preparations were usually needed for an observation mission.
A 2010 election in Myanmar which swept the army’s political allies to power was marred by widespread complaints of cheating and intimidation.
Foreign election observers and international media were not allowed into the country for that vote, which was denounced by Suu Kyi’s opposition party and Western powers as a
Since then the regime has surprised observers with reforms including welcoming the opposition back into mainstream politics, signing ceasefire deals with ethnic minority rebels and releasing hundreds of political prisoners.
Suu Kyi’s party cannot threaten the ruling party’s majority even with a strong result in next month’s vote to fill 48 parliamentary seats.
But experts believe the regime wants the pro-democracy leader to win a place in parliament to give its reform drive legitimacy and encourage the West to ease sanctions.
“It is in the interest of the government that the election is free and fair, so it is only logical that there are some observers,” said Myanmar expert Aung Naing Oo with the Thailand based think-tank Vahu Development Institute.
“It is important for a country like Myanmar to get used to complaints in the election, to get used to cheats, to get used to monitors coming in, and to get used to the election commission doing its job,” he added.
Suu Kyi’s political party on Monday decried what it described as “unfair treatment” by the authorities ahead of the by-elections, saying voters in one village had been forced to attend a meeting of the ruling party.
Her National League for Democracy (NLD) also said that in the constituency of Kawhmu near Yangon, where Suu Kyi is standing, the names of hundreds of dead people were found on the voter list.
The NLD won a landslide victory in an election in 1990, but the then ruling junta never allowed the party to take power, and instead kept Suu Kyi under house arrest for most of the time since then.
She was released from her latest stretch in detention just days after the 2010 vote.
By Hla Hla Htay | AFP
Public anger is rising in Myanmar over a planned deep-sea port set to displace thousands of villagers, as recent political reforms galvanise grassroots opposition to industrial mega-projects.
The multi-billion-dollar Dawei development is a key part of the impoverished country’s plans to transform its economy, giving wealthier neighbours such as Thailand an outlet to the Indian Ocean and markets to the West.
But with a new government pursuing a series of dramatic reforms in the country formerly known as Burma, villagers living near the sleepy stretch of southern coastline are daring to speak out in opposition.
“We don’t want to move. Our region has coconuts, betel nuts, cashew nuts, tamarinds. We have everything we need,” San Nyein, a 53-year-old farmer in the village of Mayingyi, told AFP.
Up to about 20,000 people are set to be relocated in the verdant stretch of land along the Andaman coast near the border with Thailand, according to an official estimate.
The authorities have promised to resettle the villagers in new homes with access to schools, hospitals and shops, as well as running water and electricity.
The Dawei plan includes a 250 square kilometre (100 square mile) industrial area with a steel mill, petrochemical plant and oil refinery.
It is among a number of ambitious foreign-funded projects which started before the long-ruling junta handed over power last year to a new quasi-civilian government whose ranks are filled with former generals.
Locals initially felt powerless to refuse to move for the development — led by Thai industrial giant Ital-Thai — in a country where the junta was for decades able to snatch land at will.
But people are now testing the new government’s vow to listen to public opinion.
“We do not want to go anywhere,” said Tin Hlaing, a 56-year-old fisherman from the village of Ngapitet. “The sea has fed us since we were young. Where should we go to fish if we have to move to a new town?”
Last September environmentalists won a rare victory as President Thein Sein suspended construction of a $3.6 billion Chinese-backed hydropower project in the northern state of Kachin in a rare response to public opposition.
The government has also announced that it is blocking a 4,000-megawatt coal-fired plant that was to be built at Dawei.
The villagers living near the port site now hope their homes and land will be spared from the bulldozers. And their cause may be helped by apparent funding troubles at the developer.
There is little evidence of construction yet apart from access roads, and villagers said the amount of money they were initially offered had been drastically reduced.
Ital-Thai is “having trouble raising the funds and that is of no surprise at all because the numbers that they are talking about are absolutely vast”, said Sean Turnell, a Myanmar expert at Macquarie University in Sydney.
“There’s been a real turnaround of investor sentiment in the project and I think that’s the thing which is really slowing it.”
The developer insists all is going to plan, with negotiations under way to raise investment of $4.5 billion for the first phase of development, which it says will be followed by a second phase requiring an additional $8.5 billion.
It also says the final project could eventually be worth up to $50 billion.
“The funds are coming in,” said Somchet Thinaphong, who oversees the project for the Thai industrial giant.
The Myanmar authorities “have actually urged us to accelerate the plan and supported us with globally competitive laws and regulations. There’s nothing to be worried about”, he added.
But locals fear their way of life will change forever, and are anxious about being relocated to an urban setting.
“I was born here. I want to stay here,” said 64-year-old farm owner Than Myint. “We do not understand cities — they are all the same.”
Washington - The Burmese government has invited the United States to send observers for the country's April 1 parliamentary by-election, the State Department said Wednesday.