Post-Election Myanmar: Asia’s Rainbow Nation

Commuters in Yangon, Myanmar.
Commuters in Yangon, Myanmar.

By Sean Crowley

It’s time for the country to take advantage of the growing international goodwill spawned by the historic 2015 election to create jobs, attract investment, and spur economic growth.

Walking around Yangon and Mandalay just before Myanmar’s historic 2015 election last November, chatting to owners of businesses large and small I was struck by the near universal support for Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy. The party's landslide victory is a clear mandate for change that should usher in a new era of stability in the country.

And stability is just what foreign investors like. Many have been hanging back waiting to see how the country’s first free poll in a quarter of a century played out. Foreign direct investment that stood at $8 billion in fiscal year 2014/15—more than five times the flows recorded just two years earlier—should now increase rapidly as confidence in the country’s fledgling economy grows.  

More multinationals are likely to take the plunge and join the handful that have already set up in the country.

“The Lady [Suu Kyi], of course she’s good for business, she has international respect and Western companies know about her. We hope they will come to our country in large numbers when she wins,” the owner of a small garment factory in Yangon’s northern suburbs told me above the clatter of machinery a week before the poll.

The other thing that was impressed upon me by investors was a realization that there’s no quick buck to be made in Myanmar, and being around for the long haul means respecting land rights and labor laws, and accepting corporate accountability to the media and civil society.

“NGOs are really active here, particularly in the extractive sectors, so businesses have to be more open and transparent than before,” one CEO told me.

Despite the optimism and post-election euphoria, there’s no getting away from the fact that this land of frontier capitalism is not for the faint-hearted. Virtually everyone involved in business decries the skills shortage due to decades of underinvestment in education, and the flip side of lower labor costs is that the country is hemorrhaging workers in all sectors to neighboring countries. ADB is working with the government to roll out a comprehensive vocational training network that will match skills with the needs of the economy, but it will take decades.

Legal uncertainty is another area of concern for businesses. Although the previous government made considerable headway in laying down the building blocks of a market economy by drafting new commercial laws and establishing regulatory bodies, there’s a long way to go in implementation and enforcement. This is another area where ADB has been particularly active, supporting a new company law, a new business registry, and an enabling framework for public–private partnerships. The World Bank has played a major role in helping the telecommunications sector grow by working with the government on the legal framework for competitive, transparent contracts.

Finally, the transport and energy infrastructure needs massive investment. Unreliable and costly electricity eats into profits – most small to medium businesses are forced to invest in generators to keep running. ADB is supporting public–private partnerships as well as sovereign loan projects to improve power generation across Myanmar.

So no easy pickings to be had here, but look how many countries in Asia have gone from where Myanmar is right now to relative prosperity in a generation. Archbishop Desmond Tutu's description of multiethnic South Africa as a rainbow nation after its historic all-race elections in 1994 is equally applicable to Myanmar. It’s time for the country to take advantage of the growing international goodwill that the election has spawned.

In a gesture of support for the incoming government, the United States has just removed a ban on trade through ports and airports for six months. ADB has been working to boost trade financing by supporting local banks. These moves are critical for the jobs, investment, and growth Asia’s new rainbow nation so badly needs.