Finance chief to target Burma trade

Burma’s new commerce minister has said that boosting trade will be made a priority of the new government as it looks to stem the tide of economic stagnation that has made it one of the world’s poorest countries.

Speaking to DVB yesterday shortly after power was officially handed over from the junta, Win Myint said that the revamped ministry will “do our best to increase commerce values, [and push] for faster and smoother commerce flows”.

Overseas investment in Burma is on an uphill trend thanks largely to China’s energy-hungry population, although it maintains significant trade relations with Thailand and Singapore. But rampant corruption and favouritism means that Burma remains Southeast Asia’s least developed country, despite boasting a spectacular bounty of natural resources.

Whether the transfer of power to what the junta claims is a civilian government will improve prospects there remains to be seen. Asked whether business should be hopeful of more freedom to trade in the new era, Win Myint’s answer was typical of the stonewalling epitomised by the previous junta:

“Thank you. I am a businessman and trader myself. I will get back to you when convenient.”

Prior to elections last year, swathes of industry nationalised by the former Ne Win regime were sold to private business, nearly all of which were headed by powerful cronies of the junta.

Like Win Myint, many of the former top-ranking generals who are now MPs in the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) oversaw the sale of properties such as banks and ports to well-connected tycoons, making the prospect of any change in the economic landscape slim.

One businessman in Rangoon said however that he hoped Win Myint’s experience and “connection with real business people” would engender the transition that traders are hungrily eyeing.

Prior to his recent appointment, Win Myint was president of the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (UMFCCI), Burma’s largest business federation which represents nearly 11,000 Burmese and 770 foreign companies in the military-ruled country

Proposals in parliament yesterday to reduce tax by 10 percent were reportedly snubbed, despite widespread protestations about the new government budget which allocates 24 percent of annual spending to the maligned military.

Rangoon-based Burmese economist Maw Than said that more factory jobs may open for Burma’s working class population if greater foreign investment arrives, and that it should use this opportunity to bring an end to international sanctions.

It was Win Myint who last year stressed the importance of increased trade between China and Burma, particularly in the agricultural sector which accounts for some 60 percent of the Burmese labour force’s income. Back then, border trade dominated Burma’s economic ties with China, but that is rapidly changing with the increased focus on the energy sector.

China’s total investments in its southern neighbour last year are thought to have topped $US10 billion, boosting total contracted foreign investment in Burma since 1988 by more than 50 percent.

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