“This is Burma”, wrote Rudyard Kipling. “It is quite unlike any place you know about.” How right Kipling is. More than a century after Kipling’s famous words, I arrived for the first time in Burma, accompanied by a trade delegation led by Lord Marland, Chairman of UK Trade & Investment’s Business Ambassador Group, and 25 British companies.
Previously described as the rice-bowl of Asia and rich in teak, minerals, oil, gas and much else, half a century ago Burma was one of the most prosperous countries in the region. However, decades of state oppression and economic mismanagement put paid to that and have left Burma in desperate poverty. Although the country remains blessed in natural resources, it is the 10th largest exporter of natural gas, the IMF ranks Burma as the 73rd poorest country in world by GDP, below Sudan and Ethiopia.
For many years, successive British Governments have taken a tough stance against the oppressive regime of previous Burmese military-led governments via EU sanctions and a long-term policy of discouraging trade and investment. But, as a result of encouraging signs of political reform there, sanctions have been partially suspended and in April the UK Government lifted its policy of discouraging trade and investment.
Over the last few months, many EU and American companies have travelled to Burma to take a look at the opportunities. A few weeks ago, Aung San Suu Kyi, in her remarkable address to both houses of the British Parliament made it clear that she would welcome responsible and ethical investment. That is what the companies that came with us were offering. Investment to add value to their energy and natural resource industries, education to provide a workable infrastructure to support economic development.
During our three days in Burma we met Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s democratic opposition leader, as well as Government Ministers and other leading figures, business leaders, diplomats and human rights activists. These meetings were invaluable in gaining a better understanding of Burma’s business environment.
This is undoubtedly a challenging market. At present mobile and internet connections are unreliable, there are no ATMs or a modern banking system, no legal framework to ensure fair business practices, manufacturing remains conspicuously absent and the gleaming retail malls and supermarkets that are present in much of Asia are largely absent. Investment is also urgently required to upgrade Burma’s neglected infrastructure. For example, over 75% of Burma’s population live without electricity.
In Rangoon, I was also delighted to open the first ever UKTI office in Burma (see the news report below) which will provide advice and support to British firms wishing to do business in this complex environment. UKTI already provides a Business Guide to Burma at which is a good starting point for any prospective business interested in Burma. But the very fact that so much needs to be done to give the Burmese people the economic prosperity they deserve means that there are real opportunities for British investors. Much will rest on what happens over the next 6-12 months but if the Burmese government can continue on the path to reform, there is a historic opportunity for Burma to jump-start its development and potentially become a new Asian tiger.