September 13, 2012

Foreign Investment Law Closer to Reality in Myanmar

Suu Kyi instrumental in killing $5 million crony clause

Myanmar moved a step closer to clearing the way for foreign companies to invest in the long-cut-off authoritarian country, after Nobel Prize-winning opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi threw her support behind lawmakers who challenged a clause in the law that would have protected businessmen who had virtually a clear field under the country’s former regime.

Reuters reported Wednesday that the clause required an investment or startup capital of at least $5 million, the largest such requirement in Southeast Asia, from foreign companies seeking to do business in the country, whose military-backed leadership has instituted a number of pro-democracy reforms in the past year. Such a requirement would not only have served as a serious impediment to small businesses hoping to enter markets there, it would have cut foreign participation drastically and preserved favorable conditions for a group of businessmen who thrived under the regime.

While in June Suu Kyi stayed away from the investment law, warning corporate executives to avoid "reckless optimism" and investors that "even the best investment laws would be of no use whatsoever if there are no courts that are clean enough and independent enough to be able to administer those laws justly," she has now changed tactics and backed the removal of the provision, according to Soe Thein, a minister in the president’s office.

In the report, Thein was quoted saying, "She took part in talking about the new foreign investment law and supported dropping stuff like the $5 million requirement." Thein is a former naval commander-in-chief and senior member of the ruling military-backed party. Pro-democracy activist Suu Kyi spent 15 years under house arrest.

Myanmar business leaders who thrived under the old regime now face competition as outside interests enter the country after 49 years of sanctions and limited access. While numerous companies have expressed interest in exploring the Myanmar market, their executives have said they want regulatory clarity to ensure a more level playing field against the entrenched business interests.

Among the broad opportunities beckoning outside companies is telecommunications. While Myanmar is far behind other Asian countries, even the poorest, in its access to digital networks and data downloads, the sector has become the target for major reforms and a new plan to boost the industry could be introduced as early as this week, according to inside sources.

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