In 2018, the clock kept ticking for economic reforms as businesses in Myanmar started to lose their cool.
Foreign law firms pulled the plug, the liberalisation of insurance was delayed, restrictions for foreign investment lingered and business confidence plummeted. Above all, the ongoing Rakhine crisis, in the words of a business group, is “certainly one issue that hangs over Myanmar like a sword of Damocles.” Europeans complained that trade promotion abroad for the country had become “mission impossible”. These all painted a grim picture for the economy in the year.
Yet, it would be wrong to say Myanmar saw no progress in 2018. Two landmark pieces of legislation – the Companies Law and Investment Law – were in force, spelling significant changes for the private sector. Meanwhile, the government scaled up anti-corruption efforts, empowering the anti-graft body, and changed its top economic team, creating a new ministry and appointing a new finance minister.
The same year also saw the government moving forward on the proposed Kyaukphyu port, which is key to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. The question of whether Daw Suu would follow through her promise of implementing a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) for the project remains unclear. China is only part of the government’s latest “Look East” policy, which seeks to drum up investments and tourism from East Asian and Southeast Asian economies.
The country’s commercial capital, meanwhile, relaunched an ambitious new city project, to create two million local jobs. But its so-called “Swiss challenge” model in awarding the contract to a Chinese state-owned company, which was sanctioned by the World Bank, drew widespread criticisms.
In reverse order, below are the top 10 business stories of 2018 selected by The Myanmar Times.
10. Retail, Wholesale Liberalisation Kicks Off
Apart from liberalising the education sector, Myanmar in 2018 opened up the retail and wholesale market for foreign investments. The liberalisation since then attracted investor interest from Europe, Japan, South Korea and beyond. The implementation of the policy, however, encountered various hiccups. Many prospective investors were left confused about investment requirements and the practical details.
9. Second Law Firm Bids Farewell
Following New York-based Herzfeld & Rubin PC leaving Myanmar, another major law firm, British Berwin Leighton Paisner (BLP) decided to close its Yangon office owing to low flow of local work. The firm criticised the delay of the implementation of the key Companies Law as a mistake. It also said that the government has a mentality that, if something has to be done, “all you need to do is to pass a new law and that’s going to solve the problem.” Businesses urged the authorities to focus on communications with the private sector and actual implementation.
8. Business Confidence Drops to Three-year Low
The European Chamber of Commerce in Myanmar (EuroCham)’s December survey showed that a majority of firms (81 percent) were not happy with Myanmar’s business environment, compared with 76pc in 2017 and 67pc in 2016. Protectionism and economic nationalism remained one of the greatest obstacles for further progress.
7. Veteran Businessman Replaces Disgraced Minister
Veteran businessman U Soe Win, 80-year-old, was appointed to replace disgraced U Kyaw Win as the planning and finance minister. He was immediately faced with challenges to shore up confidence in the administration among the private sector. He had the heavy responsibility of implementing the government’s 12-point economic plan, which aimed to support competition and a robust private sector based on a market-oriented system by cutting down unnecessary red tape and expanding access to credit. His key challenges would include liberalisation of the insurance sector and the revamp of tax structure.
6. New Ministry Created to Reboot Economic Policy
The government created the Ministry for Investment and Foreign Economic Relations, combining the existing Directorate of Investment and Company Administration (DICA) and Foreign Economic Relations Department. Career diplomat U Thaung Tun, the new minister, vowed to “reduce red tapes” and attract more investments. To that end, The Myanmar Times offered four suggestions: establishing a one-stop service centre, delivering liberalisation, giving the minister the authority to improve intra-ministry management and making sure business-related draft laws were properly consulted on.
5. Myanmar Seeks Asian Investments
Branding Myanmar as “Southeast Asia’s final frontier market with innumerable investment opportunities”, State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi pitched her country’s potential to a regional audience during the 2018 ASEAN Business and Investment Summit in Singapore. In light of the plummeting business confidence and the international backlash following the northern Rakhine crisis, Nay Pyi Taw has devised its “Look East” policy, hoping to drum up investments and tourists from Japan, Korea, Greater China, India and Southeast Asia.
4. Yangon Relaunches Ambitious New City Scheme
Yangon’s regional government launched an ambitious new city project via a government-owned New Yangon Development Co (NYDC). The scheme covers an area twice the size of Singapore with a target of US$1.5 billion (K2.83 trillion) investment for the first phase. Subsequently, the authorities signed an agreement with Chinese state-owned China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) to prepare a detailed infrastructure proposal and was criticised for doing so without calling a tender. NYDC said they would undertake a “Swiss challenge”.
3. A Step Forward For China’s Kyaukphyu Port
Myanmar made a bold step in preliminarily moving forward a controversial Chinese-led port project in central Rakhine. After more than two years of negotiations, Nay Pyi Taw and China’s state-owned CITIC Group signed the “framework agreement” for the proposed US$1.3 billion deep-sea port on November 8. Being part of China’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative, the port is the essential component of the proposed SEZ. Civil society and the general public are paying close attention to whether Kofi Annan’s suggestion on undertaking a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) will be enforced. Despite the fact that State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi pledged to implement all of his recommendations, it was unclear if the government would do so.
2. Anti-corruption Gathers Steam
Anti-corruption was among the government’s key priorities this year. The fourth amendment was made to the 2013 Anti-Corruption Law, entailing more power for the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC). Yet, there is still no criminal liability for offering bribes and no effective regulations on political donations. The anti-corruption code of ethics announcement governing organisations doing business in Myanmar from the Directorate of Investment and Company Administration (DICA) also raised more questions than it answered.
1. Economy Not Working As Govt Passed Midterm
As the National League for Democracy-led government reached half of its five-year term in October, policy chaos, empty hotel rooms and falling confidence painted a bleak economic picture. The Myanmar Times covered what went wrong with the economy, as well as the progress made under this government, such as the Myanmar Sustainable Development Plan (MSDP).