With the end of socialist rule in 1988, Myanmar has made solid gains in developing its overall infrastructure. As the country today celebrates the 55th anniversary of its independence, the government is addressing infrastructure challenges by building bridges, highways, colleges, universities and hospitals, says Myanmar's Consul-General in Hong Kong, U Myo Chit. 'Before 1988, there were only about 32 universities in the country. By last year, there were 151 universities and colleges,' he says. Public education is provided free through the high school years of grades nine and 10, but the government does not subsidise university or college. Last year the literacy rate was 91.4 per cent of the adult population. In response to global developments in the use of information technology, the government has introduced e-education programmes and established broadband connections for some schools and universities. The study of English in school is compulsory, says the Consul-General. Student exchange programmes have seen bilateral visits to educational institutions in Asean countries, including China and Japan. Since 1988, some 156 bridges and 140 dams have been built. The country's largest dam to date is under construction in Paung Laung, in the central area of the country, and is expected to be completed in 2005-2006. China is providing some of the technical know-how. Myanmar covers more than 677,000 square kilometres, and has a population of about 52 million. There are two international airports. One is near the capital, Yangon; the other, opened in September 2000, is near Mandalay. A third is under construction. The government is also looking at port development. Surveying has begun for a major deep sea port, but foreign investment is still required, U Myo Chit says. Providing electricity to all towns and provinces is high on the government's agenda. At present, according to visitors, breaks in power supply are not uncommon, even in Yangon. Myanmar is rich in natural resources. These include natural gas, forest products (especially teak), zinc, tungsten, copper, some coal, silver and gemstones. Natural gas is exported to Thailand, and Malaysian companies are exploring for offshore gas deposits. Petroleum majors Total and Unocal have drilled wells in the Gulf of Mottama. Myanmar gemstones have a strong presence in Hong Kong. About 80 per cent of the jade sold here comes from the Myanmar. Meanwhile, the government is encouraging joint ventures that will bring in the latest mining technology to replace dated and inefficient systems. Sustainable forestry is advocated. Replanting is practised in cut areas to ensure a continuing yield, says U Myo Chit. According to the Consul-General, there are about 5,000 Myanmar nationals in the SAR, and many more, about 30,000, in Macau. Myanmar exports fish, prawns and other seafood as well as hardwood timber and gemstones to the SAR. In turn, the country imports electrical goods, toys and finished clothing from Hong Kong. The SAR's total exports to Myanmar in 2001 equalled HK$497 million, while for the period January to October last year the figure was HK$397 million. In 2001, the SAR imported HK$216 million worth of products from Myanmar. For the first 10 months of last year the figure was HK$159 million. There has been an increase in mutual co-operation in customs and narcotics control, says U Myo Chit. Officials from Myanmar have visited the SAR to attend related seminars. SAR residents wishing to visit Myanmar can obtain a tourist visa for HK$150, and a visa for business travellers is HK$250. Visas are valid for three months, while multiple-entry visas, at HK$1,250, are valid for six months, and for a year upon first renewal. Processing can take as little as half a day. While there are no direct flights from the SAR to Myanmar, visitors can fly in from Bangkok with Myanmar Airways International. The airline is considering starting twice-weekly flights between Hong Kong and Yangon from March. The government of Myanmar encourages investment in eight major sectors, and ministries are also courting foreign business. Heavy industry, rice and saw mills, textiles and agriculture are some of the areas of investment. Others include mining, marine products, energy, manufacturing, transportation and tourism. Foreign concerns can apply for the right to cultivate land, manufacture farm machinery and produce fertilisers. Production of fertiliser is about 438,000 tonnes a year, while demand is for about 600,000 tonnes. Myanmar also lacks processing facilities, ice plants and cold storage for seafood products. Cane and bamboo products, along with mining, also present investment opportunities. Hydroelectric power is another area that holds vast potential investment opportunities. The government estimates that only 1 per cent of the potential is being exploited. Foreign firms are encouraged to form joint ventures. Companies such as Petronas and Nippon Oil have discovered significant deposits of natural gas in the Andaman Sea region. In manufacturing, factories that produce textiles, pharmaceuticals, paper, chemicals and ceramics are in need of modernisation and investment to increase productivity. Myanmar is expected to benefit from increased commercial links with the implementation of the Association of Southeast Asia's free-trade region, set for 2010, says U Myo Chit. At present, Singapore is the largest foreign investor, followed by Britain. Major sectors of foreign investment include manufacturing, oil and gas, hotels and tourism and mining. Leading trading partners include China, Singapore, Japan and Thailand. Hong Kong's foreign investment at the end of October was US$149.84 million, according to the Myanmar Investment Commission. The SAR ranks 11th as a trading partner.