Myanmar investors need to be watchful

C.P. Ho says investors who cheer the opening up have cause to be wary

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 August, 2012, 4:53am

The rains in Myanmar do not fall softly on the plains. At this time of the year, the skies are tinted royally blue in the morning in Yangon. But more often than not, dark menacing clouds loom in the afternoon. They hover lower and, without further warning, unleash a veritable downpour.

The local populace are used to such splashings. It is the Burmese way of life. They take the rough with the smooth in what is essentially a Buddhist culture, clearly manifested by the towering presence of two of the world's most famous pagodas, the Shwedagon and the Sule.

The visitors get caught in the downpours. They have come unprepared, unlike the gents in the city of London with their brollies. Sheepishly, they get wetter than wet and hastily hail taxis or run to their tour coaches.

And that, says a local businessman friend of mine, is what is going to happen to many who now come to Myanmar for a piece of the action that seems so enticing in the wake of the country's own version of China's "opening up and reform".

The ruling military junta is to all intents and purposes retired and the new president, Thein Sein, himself a military man and a member of the junta, appears to be working out well the details of a new governing structure with Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and the leader of the opposition.

That bodes well for foreign investors, for Myanmar is rich in natural resources. Land and labour are easy to come by and there is a foundation for the rule of law as laid down by the British during their time in power. There is a building boom. Serviced apartments in the better parts of town are in great demand.

Granted, there needs to be some fine-tuning but the question really boils down to whether the two major players have time to finish their game. And whether they act on their own, or as proxies.

The president and Suu Kyi are both 67. How good is their rapport? There are conflicting reports. Regardless, changes that have been made have been welcomed, locally and by the international community.

But there are two unanswered questions vital to understanding the current situation. Why did the generals bow out so suddenly and so submissively? Is there a hidden agenda somewhere by the powerful military - a Plan A or a Plan B?

For the present, visitor numbers are growing by leaps and bounds, so much so that some of the better hotels are fully booked. And for the first time in my visits, there are traffic jams, fuelled by a relaxation in the laws regarding ownership, and purchase and import, of vehicles.

Press censorship has been officially lifted but the limits have yet to be tested.

The sense of euphoria is evident on the faces of people in the streets. The morning promises a sunny day, but will the rains come in the afternoon? Nobody knows yet.

The poignancy of this dilemma is highlighted by the plight of three mustachioed brothers in the nearby fabled city of Mandalay. The trio - two are brothers and one is a cousin - are a Burmese institution, entertaining locals and tourists alike with their double entendres and cross-talk.

There is no shortage of material for their comedy act, which more often than not involves poking fun at the foibles of the junta. The Moustache Brothers, as they are professionally known, have time and again found themselves on the wrong side of government and two have served jail sentences. The problem is they are getting old and have no sons to carry on the act. It is an issue that is similar to what the new government is facing today: time and successors.

For the people of Myanmar and the business world at large, it is no laughing matter, particularly for businessmen thinking about investing in Myanmar and putting their money where their mouths are.

C.P. Ho is a newsman turned businessman