For Zaw Naing, 40, who sells satellite imagery to Myanmar’s government, teeing off on the golf course with any of the former generals running the country is essential to sealing deals. Sometimes, he has to do more.
Naing, managing director of Credent Technology in Yangon, says he puts aside a “small percentage” to buy goodwill and “pay back not to individuals, but to the community, the society or the organization.”
“We have to look at all the culture, all the history; Those organizations want something back,” Naing said in a May 2 interview in his office. “How can you eradicate a culture overnight?”
Such business practices pose a hurdle for U.S. companies that may be looking to enter the Myanmar market after President Barack Obama yesterday eased an American investment ban. The U.S. continues to bar doing business with companies linked to the military, which ran the country for five decades, and is watching to see how political and economic reforms develop in the nation also known as Burma.
Perhaps more than anywhere else, golf in Myanmar separates the elite from rest. A legacy from British colonial rule, knowing how to wield a golf club and who to share a cart with is key to doing business in the long-isolated country that ranks among the poorest and most corrupt in the world.
“It’s all about personal relationships; they are still very important,” said Naing, who displays golfing trophies and a framed certificate from Michigan State University, where he studied international development on a U.S.-funded Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship.
American companies in oil and gas, mining and financial services -- now free to hunt for investment opportunities --will need to bear in mind that personal relationships in Myanmar may involve more than golf.
Only two nations -- Somalia and North Korea -- are more corrupt than Myanmar, according to Berlin-based Transparency International, which ranks 183 countries based on surveys of entrepreneurs and analysts on their perception of corruption. “We do have such things: bribery, corruption, nepotism, kickbacks,” said Naing.
Still, he said, the practice of “giving back” is something of a way of life. “Maybe I am working with the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation. I give back to the ministry so that they know that Zaw Naing gives back, but not to a person, not the minister,” he explained. “Sometimes the government budgets are not enough to keep the offices alive to have some paper for the copiers.”
One of the biggest challenges to Myanmar’s year-old elected civilian government is how to free commerce from the former military-regime insiders who’ve had a lock on the country’s resources, such as oil, timber and gems.
President Thein Sein, 67, the general-turned-civilian who began opening Myanmar to the West after he took office 14 months ago, is aware of the corruption that’s blighting efforts to develop a country that aspires to be the next Asian Tiger. Still, his economic team sees no quick fixes.
“We don’t expect this problem can be eradicated immediately, but we try our best to control, to medicate this problem,” his top political adviser, Ko Ko Hlaing, said in a May 2 interview in Yangon.
No Water, No Electricity
Myanmar is drawing interest as a resource-rich country with enormous potential now that it is embracing reform. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the US-ASEAN Business Council, and the National Foreign Trade Council applauded the Obama administration’s action.
“Myanmar’s leadership has made it clear that it welcomes American investment, and in many ways sees it as preferable to that of some of our competitors” because of U.S. standards for corporate responsibility, the three groups said in a statement yesterday.
In 1962, the start of military rule, Myanmar “was the single richest country in Asia,” investor Jim Rogers, the chairman of Rogers Holdings, said at a conference in Singapore Feb. 22. “Now it’s the poorest because it’s been so badly managed in the past 50 years. But they are changing that now.”
“If I could put all of my money into Myanmar, I would,” said Rogers, who predicted a global commodities rally in 1999.
For overseas businessmen trying to establish a presence in Myanmar, potential bribery isn’t the only obstacle. Investors are required by the government to bring at least $500,000, half of it in cash and the rest in assets, according to Thura Swiss Ltd., a Myanmar-based consultancy.
The lack of modern infrastructure and financial systems also present a barrier. The U.S. move to ease sanctions was also criticized by New York-based Human Rights Watch, citing the prevalence of cronyism and ethnic strife.
“In a country such as Myanmar, with little or no infrastructure, everything from water to electricity is an issue in terms of just setting up shop,” said Howard Kuan, 29, from Hong Kong, the manager of a Chinese garment factory on the outskirts of Yangon. “Everything is quite challenging.”
Only about a quarter of the population has access to electricity, the Asian Development Bank said in a report last month. One in 30 people has a mobile phone, and less than 1 percent of the population has an Internet connection, Tokyo-based Nomura Holdings Inc. (8604) said in a March 14 report.
The fresh coat of white paint on Kuan’s new clothing factory is a contrast to the poverty just outside the gates, where stray dogs sniff garbage along muddy roads with open sewers and a line of aspiring workers stares up at a board with job postings. They peek inside at rows of sewing machines in a well-aired room.
To operate his machines, Kuan had to get generators to cope with power outages that can last six hours a day. He also had to find a way to pump and filter water. When he arrived to face all these problems, he couldn’t make calls or send an e-mail.
“When we first came, we couldn’t buy SIM cards for cell phones,” he said in a May 2 interview. “As people here without any friends, at first we were left without communication with the outside world. Going online was even more impossible.”
Making the right friends was necessary to navigate a series of unwritten rules in a country with no code of law.
Over a cigarette and a can of Coke, Kuan recalled that two weeks after the factory opened, some “local government types started knocking on doors” and asked him for licenses that neither he nor his lawyer, a former judge, thought were needed. He paid them what they asked to obtain the paper document.
“Now whether they took that money we don’t know, but the bottom line is as business people, these are expenditures we have to make,” Kuan said. “And there really is no receipt or anything official. We are here to stay, so we pay the sums just to make sure that what is due is due, and that in the end we are not going to be illegal here.”
To reward Myanmar for beginning the transition from dictatorship toward democracy, the U.S. eased sanctions with some reservations.
“We continue to have concerns, including remaining political prisoners, ongoing conflict and serious human rights abuses in ethnic areas,” the administration said in a statement. The European Union has suspended most of its sanctions for a year.
Still, for the Burmese it’s the Americans that count.
Even days before the U.S. action, Zaw Naing says his phone was ringing off the hook with American companies such as GeoEye Inc., a Herndon, Virginia-based satellite-image provider, interested in partnering with him.
“American sanctions are very important, very influential,” he said. “I have been telling Americans since 2008 that this government is serious about change. You believe me?”
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