Aung San Suu Kyi

Heady times

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 April, 2012, 12:00am

For anyone with experience of Vietnam's historic opening to the world in 1994, the atmosphere in Yangon now carries a sense of deja vu as Myanmar becomes the region's 'next big thing'.

The few hotels are jammed with all manner of carpetbaggers, from thrusting New York private equity types to trend-chasing aid workers and Eastern Europeans eyeing gems while flogging second-hand machinery. The air in the hotel lobbies and coffee shops crackles with hot talk and high expectations.

Then there are the envoys and statesmen beating a path to the doors of senior government officials they would have shunned just a couple of years ago, each trying to secure a little glory for their capitals - and future deals for their traders.

Of course, there are differences. Vietnam is Communist Party-run and was then emerging from decades of war, isolation and a crippling US economic embargo far beyond the sanctions imposed on Myanmar. It also had an extensive reservoir of goodwill and was opening up at the height of the East Asian economic boom.

Myanmar has been run into the ground by an inept- and brutal- military junta and is now nominally civilian-led with an elected parliament. It carries little of the ideological or historical baggage of Vietnam. And it also has Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

But the similarities- at the time of opening, at least - provide lessons. Both are roughly the same size with a young population that is desperately poor. Both are plagued by hidebound bureaucracies prone to corruption and lacking a technocratic class, a transparent legal system or even a reliable banking set-up. Capacity - or lack thereof - is the buzzword.

Bradley Babson, a former World Bank official and UN consultant with long experience of both Myanmar and Vietnam, said a key issue for Myanmar was engineering reform while it grows. 'Like Vietnam, Myanmar faces the prospect of attracting high levels of foreign aid and foreign direct investment,' he wrote recently. 'Getting the right sequence of economic reforms and investing in capacity building in the civil administration, legal... and financial system will also be key ingredients.'

His commentary also carried a warning for any foreign investor or aid donor expecting swift results. 'Because the absorptive capacity of the Myanmar civil service and private sector is still very weak and transparency poor, rapid infusion of funds without careful preparation could result in delays in projects or misuse of funds,' he wrote.

Veteran regional investors are blunter. 'I just couldn't believe what I was hearing from the foreigners in the hotel bars,' said one veteran regional banker after a recent trip to Yangon. 'It was Hanoi early 1990s all over again - the guys looking to dump millions into the consumer market overnight, of setting up hi-tech manufacturing plants ... some people are really going to get burnt.'

Instead, he quotes a mantra of keeping things simple- play long term, find good partners and constantly consider what is achievable and what is needed. Make any deal too tricky, too complex or too ambitious, and 'you're on the road to Hell'.

Greg Torode is the Post's chief Asia correspondent.