Doing Public Affairs in Myanmar


Edward Parker explores the Myanmar public affairs landscape, and finds it not without some key challenges

For public affairs practitioners Myanmar offers enormous professional challenges. A key reason is that so public actors particularly in the NLD-led civilian government (which shares power with the military) are new to their roles.

In sector after sector—public or private—and at every level, there is a paucity of people with the expertise and experience in leading and operating in the multi-level, multi-tasking ways of a dynamic and developing economy. New policies, new laws and new regulations designed to modernize and open up the country and economy are appearing. But in practice and in implementation they can be vague or unclear especially when one gets down to the nitty gritty, such as dealing with local tax officials who may or may not understand or be adopting some new rules.

Understanding and navigating the landscape needs expertise and connection. International law firms and consultants have responded by offering foreign clients ways to make sense of policies, laws and regulations that are coming through as well as the byzantine legislation that still lays on the books from colonial times. For example, in spite of a blizzard of new laws, a Companies Act dating back to 1914 is still in effect—and it offers surprising flexiblity.

KEY STATS
Population 56,890,418
Urban Population 34%
Size Largest country in mainland Southeast Asia
Majority Religion Buddhist
 Capital Naypyidaw
Language Burmese
 GDP (PPP) $307.3 billion
GDP (Per Capita) $6,000
 Annual GDP Growth  6.9% (2017)
Industries agricultural processing; wood and wood products; copper, tin, tungsten, iron; cement, construction materials; pharmaceuticals; fertilizer; oil and natural gas; garments; jade and gems
Access to information or communication devices 1/3 population
Mobile Users 33 million
Smartphone Use 80%

The high expectations about Myanmar as “the last frontier” market in Asia have dimmed recently. The NLD-led government has been slower than some expected in rolling out changes. The country’s image has come under further fire over the humanitarian issues in northern Rakhine and on the border with Bangladesh.

Yet the country is on the move. The economy has opened up: growing at a breakneck 8.5 percent in 2013 though now expected to expand at a still-respectable 7 percent this year.

The World Bank predicts that Myanmar will see higher economic growth rates over the next few years. New fundamentals are slowly being put in place. Foreign and local firms are supposed to be on a level playing field following the combining of foreign and domestic investment laws. More sectors are being opened up to foreign investment. That ancient Companies Act is in the process of being redrafted to bring it up to international standards. Financial reform is moving ahead, encouraging the growth of capital markets. Myanmar now even has a fledgling stock exchange. All this, of course, is on top of the most important reform of all; that sanctions on Myanmar by the US and EU have largely been lifted, giving foreign multinationals the ability to do business in the country and Myanmar access to the international financial system and capital – after decades of isolation. There are still multiple opportunities in Myanmar.

 LEGISLATURE
 

The Assembly of the Union of Myanmar is the bicameral national legislature.

The Pyidaungsu Hluttaw is made up of two houses:

1.     Amyotha Hluttaw (House of Nationalities), a 224-seat upper house

2.     Pyithu Hluttaw, a 440-seat lower house (House of Representatives).

Myanmar’s fourteen major administrative regions and states also have their own Region Hluttaw (Region Assembly) or State Hluttaw (State Assembly).

For public affairs practitioners in Myanmar, there is a growing demand for stakeholder mapping – understanding and mapping out the key stakeholders in specific industries or those that can influence specific projects. Whereas in other markets in Asia, regulations and key influencers are clearer and more stable, in Myanmar things more fluid. The basics are often sparse: public information and data bases are lacking. It takes time to discover connections in a country where families may not share surnames. As discussed, the fast pace of regulatory reform also puts pressure on companies to keep up with these changes – especially as they move into invest, and in most cases, wait for further licenses and protectionist barriers to be brought down. For example, international insurance companies are watching and waiting for the liberalization of the insurance market, a regulatory change which is soon to take place.

Mapping out appropriate business partners and those who to do business with, is also a key need among businesses right now, as they choose investment partners. Ensuring their credibility and checking ties to the military is of key concern to multinationals who must choose their local partners carefully.

Another area is industry overviews, where investors want to get an understanding of the lay of the land in specific industry sectors – which again is no easy feat in a fast-changing market – from energy to insurance to finance. Sectors are undergoing rapid changes and understanding the risk and opportunities is a key need.

For those businesses that have made the leap, it is the combination of a strong corporate communication market entry strategy and the public affairs stakeholder work behind it which has led to greatest success. The communication side is equally important in both educating and demonstrating the benefits that a new investment or business will bring to Myanmar people and the government – be it jobs, opportunities or access to new services. Offering a ‘value add’ is a crucial part of market entry in Myanmar.

For businesses wanting to take advantage of Asia’s last frontier market, there are rich rewards and opportunities to be had in a largely open and new economy – with a huge demand for services and industries that can support the growing economy, but treading carefully and having a strong corporate and public affairs strategy in place is crucial for any business making the move.

Edward Parker is an Associate Director at Zagar Communications