Business hopes to ride out election waves

Business hopes to ride out election waves

The streets are teeming with businessmen, cranes are adding skyscrapers to the skyline, and expatriates throng at cafes and restaurants and exercise in the streets

Burma’s last elections in 2010 brought the country out of decades of isolation and put a semi-civilian, semi-military government at its helm which encouraged trade and investment.

It opened the floodgates to business, and companies and investors eager to tap into the country’s vast natural resources and the economic opportunities of a country trying to catch up with the world, rushed in.

But some of the lustre has worn off for businessmen, who say there is much more that needs to be done to promote a stable economic environment.

As the 8 November elections approach, businessmen say it’s not just the result of the polls they are interested in.

They are also keen to see how the government handles the elections which have been dogged by allegations of fraud, discrimination against ethnic groups, political parties and Muslims.

“We are hoping that through the election results, Myanmar [Burma] will be able to send a message to Japanese investors that it is in a very stable state and that there will not be problems. There are a lot of Japanese investors who are preparing to invest in the country, so we hope that the results will not effect these preparations,” said Hirokazu Yamaoka, the managing director of the Japanese External Trade Organisation office in Rangoon.

According to Japanese government data, Japanese investments only accounted for less than one percent of total foreign investment in Burma between 1989 to 2014. China on the other hand, was responsible for 29 percent, Thailand 20 and Singapore 14.

The World Bank recently revised its economic growth prospect for Burma to 6.5 percent from an earlier projection of eight percent, citing the devastating floods in recent months and also slowing investment.

The Bank ranks Burma as the 117th most difficult country to do business in.

Companies trying to set up shop in Burma have had to grapple with unclear investment laws, rigid banking regulations, and a lack of infrastructure.

Concerns over flare-ups of sectarian violence and clashes between the government and ethnic groups have also made committing to the country difficult.

However, despite the short-term setbacks, Burma experts say foreign interest in the country is not going to abate. Investment data collated by Chatham House shows foreign investment rose tenfold to $4.1 billion in 2013/14 from 2009/10, and the trend is likely to continue in the mid to long term.

“I think investors will go into Burma no matter what happens because the benefit is very high. The conflict and political dispute that happened are not in the big cities. It is mostly in Shan, and Rakhine [Arakan] State. Natural resources and cheap labour are huge factors that invite foreign investors,” said Lalita Hanwong, Burma expert and lecturer at Mahasarakham University in Bangkok.

In the upcoming election, President Thein Sein’s Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which has headed the country since 2011, will go head-to-head with democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) in most constituencies.

The NLD boycotted the previous elections and the USDP won by a landslide, but the NLD made a comeback in by-elections.

This time around, the NLD holds the best possibility of winning a majority, helped by the popularity of its Nobel laureate leader.

If neither party clinch a majority, the parties will have to forge alliances to form a government.

However, rather than the potential chaos this may cause, Burma watchers are more concerned about the risk of voting irregularities and the anger it may stoke, or if the military is unsatisfied with the result and decides to step in to intervene further in politics.

Local businessmen are keen for a change.

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“If the current party wins the election, the economy will be worse than it is now because the government controls everything, economy, all areas. The situation will be worse,” said Aung Naing, 30, a jewellery salesman at a local market in Rangoon.

“Our best hope is to hope for a better business. We have some natural resources but we are a poor country. We need a better economic system so we can have a better life,” said shop owner Nu Nu Tin, 40.

About 30 million of Burma’s 51 million people are eligible to vote for three quarters of the 664 seats in the two houses of the legislature. The remainder of seats are reserved for military-backed candidates.

The new legislature will choose the new president, sometime early next year from three candidates put forth by the two chambers of parliament and the military.

 

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