Burma's opening up: The winners and losers
- 21 October 2013
- From the section Business
The economy of Burma, officially called Myanmar, is open for business. That's the message the reformist government of President Thein Sein is sending out, and it has got an overwhelmingly positive response from investors.
But behind the impressive headline figures of planned ventures and promised aid, who is actually doing well in the new Burma?
There have been some high-profile announcements - Nissan and Suzuki want to manufacture cars, Ford has opened a dealership, Coca-Cola already has a local bottling plant.
But many foreign investors are waiting both for infrastructure to improve and for greater political certainty before jumping in.
The indigenous Burmese business community, on the other hand, has been a hive of activity.
Inevitably, the companies best placed to profit from the new opportunities are the so-called cronies - those who built up their businesses through close co-operation with the old military regime.
Despite still being listed on US sanctions lists, with their resources and experience, they are winning many of the new infrastructure contracts.
Challenges to growth
Smaller companies, though, are cashing in on booming demand for property, consumer goods and services.
Wai Thit Lwin, a graduate from Berkeley in her 20s, juggles looking after her two young daughters, expanding a local chain of 50 convenience stores, and helping manage a company that operates hospitals, hotels, and markets brands such as Sony and LG in Burma.
Everything she is involved in is growing fast.
Her main concerns? The inadequacy of Burma's banking system - local companies have to pay punishing interest rates for capital - and the threat of competition from the convenience store giant 7-11.
Then there was Cho Thet Nwe, who left school to help bring up her brothers, but is now the brand manager for the French cosmetics company L'Oreal.
"When we started selling European products here in 1996, it was so difficult," she recalls.
"Back then the whole family would use the same soap, from head to toe. We were trying to sell facial foams and shampoo - we had to start educating them from zero. But now lifestyles have changed tremendously."
One of the most conspicuous improvements in consumer choice is the availability of mobile phones. When I first reported from Burma 12 years ago only a tiny elite were allowed to buy mobiles.
The phones themselves were heavy, ancient, first generation models.
Today Sim cards are available, although still in limited numbers and for a much higher price than in neighbouring countries. And you can buy pretty much any model of phone, from the numerous, glaringly lit shops in Rangoon (also known as Yangon).
Myat Thiri Khaing studied Chinese at university, intending to work as a translator. Instead she joined one of Burma's first phone retailers, Lu Gyi Min, excited by the possibilities of technology.
Today she is the manager of the busy Latha Street branch, doing evening classes in management to improve her chances of promotion.
The business is growing quickly, she told me, especially outside Rangoon, where they have plans to open more branches.
But amid these positive stories, the majority of Burmese have yet to feel any material benefits from the reforms. And there are some who feel they are losing out in this new and unpredictable environment.
A few kilometres from downtown Rangoon is south Dagon, designated an industrial zone back in the days of military rule.
Part of it is given over to rows of small iron foundries, operating the most primitive technology.
Sweat-grimed workers pull glowing strips of metal from open furnaces, and toss them expertly to others who catch them with tongs, and run them through clattering presses.
I met U Mitthya, who assembles small pick-up trucks, his workers welding them by hand. In the days of military rule, when car imports were tightly restricted, it was a good business.
Now as inexpensive vehicle imports flood in, it is no longer a viable business. He said the three trucks in his workshop were probably the last he would make.
Price of success
The big plans to expand Burma's industrial base have caused casualties too.
The most ambitious project is a planned industrial estate next to the port of Thilawa, south of Rangoon, to provide an area of reliable power and suitable infrastructure for Japanese manufacturers.
But this requires moving the people who have been living on the land for many years.
Daw Htay Htay and a few of her neighbours say that under military rule they had been forced to give up their land for paltry compensation. But as the planned project never took off, they simply carried on cultivating it.
Now the government wants to start construction of Thilawa, as early as the end of this year. It has offered the value of six years' rice harvests, and an alternative plot of land.
Daw Htay Htay says she is being put under pressure by officials to accept, but feels the compensation is not enough.
In this time of change, she told me: "I feel it is only we who are losing."
But it is not only her. Land disputes have erupted all over the country, as new economic opportunities make previously worthless land valuable again.
This is an emotional issue, with the potential to overshadow much of the good news that is coming out of Burma these days.