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Myanmar: a land of opportunity and inequality

Inisde the vast Nay Pyi Taw airport, which was just opened early this year.

Inisde the vast Nay Pyi Taw airport, which was just opened early this year.

Yangon is bustling with new cars running on its eight-lane main roads - a legacy of British rule.

Top restaurants welcome frequent local clients. Hotels mushroom, with exorbitant room rates for an influx of visitors.

In other parts of the city and elsewhere in Myanmar, people are living in extremely poor conditions. In Yangon, visitors are frequently stopped on the street, as locals ask for money. Poorly maintained buildings are everywhere: clothes hang here and there, suggest a number of people living in small rooms.

Yet, some locals are seen with mobile phones, though a SIM card costs US$250 against average monthly wage of 15,000 kyat (about $20 or Bt600). In the country where the telephone penetration rate is only 5.8 per cent, visitors must rent SIM cards at the airport on arrival, while many Burmese can only afford one-time SIMs with a number that expires after a few days when credit runs out. SIM cards are made prohibitively pricey to prevent the tiny network from becoming overloaded, while e-mailing and web-surfing is rare.

While Nay Pyi Taw, the new capital, is supplied with 24-hour power, most offices of foreign companies in Yangon rely on power generators as public supply is frequently cut off. Yangon's domestic airport is in extremely poor condition, lined with rows of chairs showing the Thai Airways logo (which reminded me of chairs at Don Muang Airport). The international terminal at Nay Pyi Taw is brand-new, big and properly air-conditioned, looking much like international airports elsewhere, though it caters to only a few airlines and a few daily flights.

A three-hour delay is usual, though. That is considered lucky. One local man told me that years ago he waited a whole day for a domestic flight, only to learn that it was cancelled. "Cancellation is rare now, with the number of foreigners visiting the country. At worst, flights are just delayed."

Along the expressway to Nay Pyi Taw, lampposts stand with just a few thin electric wires. In some places the single wire is cut off and the post is covered with weeds. Elsewhere in the world, lampposts are lined up in straight lines; here, they veer right and left across vast green fields.

Despite the poor condition of infrastructure, Yangon is a magnet drawing foreign investors from all over the world, including Thais. Compared to 15 years ago when I first visited the city, Yangon is today busier and promises to get even busier as the country lifts an iron curtain in place for over 50 years.

Over 600 participants attended the "Euromoney Conference on Myanmar Global Investment Forum" in the capital last week. Discussed at the recently-completed Myanmar Convention Centre was the progress of reform, as well as Myanmar's potential and promise. Enthusiasm was apparent among the foreigners who attended the sessions.

If you plan investment in the country, here is some basic info from Bangkok Bank:

Myanmar still has limited trade with the international community, with Thailand accounting for 37 per cent, followed by Hong Kong and China.

Myanmar now reaps 32 per cent of its export income from natural gas.

The country is attractive for investment in mining, construction (particularly with massive financing from the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and International Monetary Fund expected), fisheries (ahead of the much-anticipated Generalised System of Preferences from the US), as well as industrial parks and serviced apartments.

A visit will be valuable with a good local guide. Titbits, underlining local sentiment towards the government and the future, are there to be shared. Here are some:

Myanmar's government is believed to have built the new capital on the order of China, which has played an influential role in the country for years. Against the traditional concept that a capital city needs a port, Nay Pyi Daw is inland, just like Beijing.

Myanmar is actually a rich country, with huge gold reserves confiscated during military rule, which will be returned when the country is truly democratic. Natural resources are abundant (trucks at Yangon port can be seen loaded with teak).

Myanmar now possesses a more open political climate. Over the past three decades, locals couldn't talk politics; you could be whisked away to police stations and disappear for days, months or years.

Myanmar, with abundant resources, will soon narrow the economic gap with Thailand. It lags 35 years behind, and the gap will widen without reforms.

President Thein Sein is considered the least corrupt general. His commitment to reform for the sake of the country makes it a good time to invest in Myanmar.

Myanmar's future president is expected to be Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of independence hero General Aung San. How long she can be in power is uncertain, given her age of 67. Still, all Myanmar people hope that "as long as she lives, she will remain in parliament, to speak for the people".

Myanmar is not expected to reverse the reforms, but the possibility is there. Still, the general feeling is that the government will not undo the reforms so far, "or Myanmar could become another Syria".

Go and see for yourself. But plan well, as flights are busy. Rates at a decent hotel can be over $300 per night while a one-bedroom serviced apartment costs $3,500 a month. Notably, in this cash-based society, bring enough folding money.


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