As I mentioned in my recent post, I’m just back from Myanmar and Singapore. I’m working on a book on doing business in Burma.
It’s an exciting new market, having been essentially closed to Western firms since the early 1990s, when political repression drew sanctions from the US, the UK, and a bunch of other countries. Now, with political liberalization, sanctions are being lifted or suspended, and companies are eager to go in.
I’d written about Burma for my clients back in the 1980s, when there were the first glimmerings of what proved to be a false dawn. Those days, I was at Business International, the company later acquired by and merged into The Economist. Burma was part of my South Asia responsibilities. (These days, it’s included with South East Asia, and looks more to Thailand as a model; back then, we included it with India and Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh.)
MY MOTHER’S GOLDEN LAND
Besides the business connection, I have a personal one: My mother grew up in Burma in the British era. Her father was a doctor in Rangoon. Then came World War II, and the family moved to India as Japan bombed the city. For her, it was always the golden land of wonderful people and fond childhood memories, and my own childhood was full of her stories. When I went there for the first time in the early 1980s, I found her descriptions precise enough that I could locate the house they’d lived in, between the Zoo and a graveyard that her brothers visited at night on a dare…
So I was fascinated by the country on multiple levels, and very pleased to visit it again and see what had changed meanwhile. A lot and a little, I’d say. I think if my mother was around to visit it now, she’d still have known the place and found it familiar. In another ten years, that may not be true. There’s been a building boom, and another is in the offing.
THE BOOK ON BUSINESS IN BURMA?
I’m hoping to have the book out by year-end or so.
Meanwhile, IMA Asia published my preliminary draft for private circulation to their clients.
After visiting Myanmar, I went to Singapore and made a presentation to around 80 of IMA Asia’s clients. It was really interesting – the companies present represented a very broad range of industries and services. Shipping and perfumery, consulting and telecoms, food and human resource management.
Some companies are already jumping in. Both Coke and Pepsi are in, Western Union is working out an arrangement with a local bank, many airlines are flying to Yangon (Rangoon) again. Others are more wary, fearing the new liberalization may not prove durable.
A few Indian companies already operate there – Dr Reddy’s Laboratories, Ranbaxy, Essar. India imposed no sanctions, so they were not forced out. Likewise, China didn’t sanction Myanmar and is a major investor and trade partner.
Still, the sanctions limited Myanmar’s ability to engage with the world, and with the changes that have occurred and others that are anticipated, new opportunities are likely to open up.
(By the way: Myanmar or Burma? Like India, Burma decided to change many of its place names back to their pre-British versions. But in this case, it became a political issue, because the revised names became associated with the military dictatorship. The US still calls the country Burma; the UN calls it Myanmar. I use both. I think it’s rather nice for a country to have multiple names. Maybe I’m biased, coming from Bharat that is India.)