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'Suukyinomics' taking hold

Myanmar's leader stamps her authority on campaign to develop a 21st century economy but many obstacles remain. By Larry Jagan in Nay Pyi Taw

Myanmar's civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi has relaunched the government's drive for economic development based on attracting foreign investment, streamlining bureaucratic procedures, improving infrastructure and utilising the enthusiasm and skills of the country's youth.

"I stand here to reaffirm our commitment to continue our reform and to build an investment-friendly environment," the State Counsellor told an audience of international investors and local business leaders attending the Invest Myanmar Summit last week in the capital Nay Pyi Taw. The event was co-hosted by the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (UMFCCI).

Her address represented an important attempt to reboot the country's economic policy, according to Naing Ko Ko, an independent political analyst.

"This summit was very significant for the success of 'Suukyinomics' and the transformation of the economy amid global uncertainty," he told Asia Focus. "Suukyinomics introduces both rules-based and market-based economic competition."

Other analysts were more cautious in their praise, but there was a consensus that the meeting marked a watershed in the approach to the economy and efforts to break away from the past. "The government's policies are pro-business, allowing competition and the free market to flourish," Sean Turnell, chief economic adviser to the State Counsellor, told Asia Focus.

Aung San Suu Kyi stressed the importance of the reforms undertaken by the government so far: "All are primarily focused on updating the regulatory and legal environment aimed at developing a market-based economy which targets inclusive economic growth," she said. "Necessary structural reforms have also been made to boost Myanmar's development through greater integration with the global economy."

The recently published Myanmar Strategic Development Plan (MSDP) sets out the vision in detail. "Here the government's approach is clearly based on a level playing field and a rules-based economic order," said Naing Ko Ko.

"The previous [system of] cronyism and cronies cannot work with Suukyinomics' rules-based market mechanism, efficiency and competition. They will just have to adapt, rather than complain behind the scenes," he stressed.

The State Counsellor's remarks also underlined a change in direction, showing the government's two top priorities now are development and peace for the next two years before the 2020 elections.

The business community has complained bitterly that the National League for Democracy-led government has been too preoccupied with ending armed conflicts and ignoring the need to push development.

The Invest Myanmar Summit was the brainchild of a group of young entrepreneurs in the new UMFCCI leadership, who want to strengthen the relationship between private enterprise and government.

"It's trying to establish a new benchmark for Myanmar by encouraging the government to involve the local business community in determining policy and creating a business-friendly environment, using the energy and initiative of the private sector," Aung Kyi Soe, a UMFFCI vice-president, told Asia Focus.

"Hopefully this is the start of a new era of cooperation between the government and the country's business community," said Wai Phyo, the chief organiser of the summit. One element that made the forum unique, he added, was the active participation of regional governments.

Ten states and regions participated in the event: Karen, Chin, Mon, Rakhine, Shan, Yangon, Sagaing, Mandalay, Irrawaddy and Tanintharyi. Among the businesses targeting investors were manufacturing, garments, electricity and energy, tourism, education, food processing and fisheries, health care, infrastructure and property.

Many who attended the conference also noticed a change in attitude among government officials. "The summit was a compelling experience, with unfettered access to government officials and state ministers, who were friendly and relaxed and eager to hear the interests and needs of businessmen," said the entrepreneur and business consultant Charles Steber, director of Great Golden Empire.

"Projects and business opportunities were presented in an accessible manner, whereby investors could easily talk to state ministers about the implementation of projects," he told Asia Focus. "But Myanmar has a lot more to do if it's to attract investors: clear, efficient and quick project implementation is still needed."

But even some speakers at the summit threw cold water on the government's key message that Myanmar is "open for business", as repeated by all government representatives, from Aung San Suu Kyi down.

Many local and foreign businesspeople complained privately about the bureaucracy's intransigence and hostility. They are the greatest obstacle to economic reform and liberalisation, a prominent local executive complained, declining to be identified in case it affected relations with the public servants he has to deal with daily.

"We've heard it all before," complained Tony Picon, director of the Hong Kong-based New Asia Property Consultants. "Myanmar loves having summits. Lots of talk and little action. All sizzle and no steak," he told Asia Focus.

"However, for investors, Myanmar is not really interesting at the moment. In part due to its political problems in northern Rakhine but also the endless delays in reforming its economy and approving projects."

But not everyone is as pessimistic about the current investment climate in Myanmar. A newly formed investment fund, Ascent Capital Partners, is very enthusiastic about the future potential and profitability of Myanmar. It is based in Myanmar and has already raised more than US$50 million from partners to invest in the country.

"We believe in the Myanmar story," Lim Chong Chong, the Singaporean founder and managing partner of Ascent, told Asia Focus. "We are positive and optimistic about the longer-term prospects and potential of Myanmar, although we all know the challenges that investors face."

"The potential is not always recognised in the early stages," he mused. "But there is a change of energy in the current leadership … a change of tone, and a recognition of the importance of the economy, and a lot more understanding of what is needed."

Given Myanmar's strategic location between India and China and its access to the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea, Aung San Suu Kyi told investors, the country can help connect regional markets to international trade routes.

"I hope it is now obvious that Myanmar is committed to creating not only a favourable, but also a predictable, facilitative and friendly, investment environment," she added. "We only ask our investors to ensure that their investments are responsible, by incorporating environmental, social and governance factors into their investment and business undertakings."

But western investors in particular remain wary of being involved in Myanmar because of the troubles in Rakhine. On top of that, the European Union is considering stripping the country of tariff-free access because of the government's failure to rein in the excesses of the military in Rakhine. The measures could include Myanmar's lucrative textile industry and potentially put thousands of jobs at risk.

So out of necessity Myanmar is looking East for investment. Over the last year China, Singapore, Thailand and Japan have been the leading investors. And economic tsar Thaung Tun -- the minister for investment and foreign economic relations and chairman of the Myanmar Investment Commission -- told Asia Focus he expected those countries to continue to be key investors for the foreseeable future.

But he stressed that the current administration is only interested in investment that will benefit the country, create employment and help reduce poverty, especially in the rural areas.

Coincidentally, to underline the importance of Asian investment, Great Wall Foodstuff and Hong Kong International Sugar Engineering signed a memorandum of understanding for a $200-million investment in a sugar mill and biomass plant in Katha Township in Sagaing Region on the first day of the summit. The plan calls for the mill to produce 10,000 tonnes of sugar a day and for the plant to churn out 60 megawatts of electricity.

Lim Chong Chong remains upbeat and is confident that Myanmar's future prospects for investors is bright. "It's the last frontier country in continental Asia with huge potential economic fundamentals," he said. "Whereas Asean may be at the heart of Asia, Myanmar is at the heart of Southeast Asia."

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