Myanmar’s Investment Rules: Hazy?

Courtesy of The Economist, an article on Myanmar’s new laws on foreign investment:

KEEN Western investors call Myanmar the final frontier. That neatly captures the excitement of placing a bet on the last big country in booming Asia to open up to the outside world. After the ending of most economic sanctions against a country that was a byword for repression they are ready to embrace the opportunities in a land of 60m people, tucked handily between India and China.

Yet despite an ongoing transition to democracy, risks abound. The judiciary is as rickety as the ancient British bangers that still lurch around downtown Yangon. The financial system is just as archaic. A big hope has been that new investment legislation will bring some clarity and order.

The law was at last ratified by President Thein Sein on November 2nd after months of wrangling between the cabinet and a newly emboldened parliament. A final verdict on the legislation must await the government’s official English translation, which could take months to appear. Unofficial translations suggest that this law is only a modest step forwards. It sends the important message that the government is committed to welcoming foreign investors. But the regulatory environment will stay almost as murky as before.

The new law is at least a victory for the reformers in government. Diehard army officers and their cronies in parliament had been trying to use the legislation to protect their privileged positions in the economy. In the end they lost most of the battles. Under the new law any investment in Myanmar can be up to 100% foreign-owned. Foreign investors will also get a five-year tax holiday and 50-year land leases, extendable by another 20 years, giving them a degree of long-term security.

Certainty and clarity to would-be punters is, nevertheless, still in short supply. Robert San Pe, an Anglo-Burmese lawyer, argues that the Myanmar Investment Commission will have “too much discretion” to rule on whether investments comply with hazily worded guidelines. Its members will be chosen by the government, and the commission may operate with little oversight, democratic or otherwise. It will have to report to parliament only twice a year. This could be a recipe for corruption and arbitrary decision-making.

Mr Pe also frets there is “still no confidence on resolving disputes in the Burmese courts and outside.” The judiciary has lots of problems, such as too few well-trained lawyers. But fears about a legal quagmire for investors could easily be allayed if, for instance, Myanmar acceded to international arbitration agreements. It has not yet done so.

The new law is an advance but foreign cash is unlikely to gush into the country. Too much of Myanmar’s legal and financial landscape is still shrouded in fog. And then there is the possibility of a radical change of government—whether through a coup by anti-reformers or through a victory by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in the general election planned in 2015.

This entry was posted on Thursday, November 8th, 2012 at 11:42 am and is filed under Burma.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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