Thu 21 Jun 2012
Filed under: Business / Trade
Myanmar – the country formerly known as Burma – is going through a time of political transformation and is slowly opening up for foreign investment. Investors from Germany hope to get their foot in the door. A group of Germans stands looking at the parliament building in Myanmar with open mouths. Some might describe the building as extravagant, maybe even a bit too extravagant. In any case, it is huge – larger than Britain’s Buckingham Palace and France’s Palace of Versailles put together. Or so they say. And it is in the middle of nowhere.
The government moved the capital city a few years ago from Yangon to a far-off place in the countryside, a few hundred kilometers away from the former capital. It is said that astrologists had advised the government on the location. The new capital was named Naypyidaw – the city of kings.
Our trip continues by bus. Driving down the wide streets, which in parts are eight lanes in one direction, seems surreal. It seems as though there are hardly any cars – at least we don’t see any while on the bus. On either side of the streets there is nothing but greenery – as far as the eye can see. It feels like the German delegation is alone here. The group consists of around 40 businesspeople, bankers, engineers, and consultants. They all are here to explore investment options and business opportunities and will also be visiting a few ministries.
Myanmar’s new parliament building in Naypyidaw
Long line of investors
At the ministry of industry it becomes clear that the Germans are not the only foreigners exploring their business opportunities; the ministry is teeming with representatives from abroad. The Germans wait and wait. Ministry staff apologize for keeping them and explain that this is the fourth visiting delegation of the day. And then they say what the delegation has heard frequently lately: that investors – especially German ones – are very welcome in Myanmar. They explain that a new law is in the making that would give foreign investors more rights and security. These words seem to have become a kind of mantra over the past few days.
A man sells fruit on the streets of Yangon
The bus trip continues back to Yangon, which is still the country’s number one city. During the ride down the freeway, it becomes clear just how much room there is for development in this once very isolated country. The roads – where there are any – are old and full of potholes and cracks.
The poor condition of the streets slows us down considerably. But that gives us more time to chat – for example with Werner Zimmermann. He produces paint and coatings in the western German state of Rheinland-Palatinate and is interested in entering Myanmar’s market. Most houses are, after all, in bitter need of a coat of paint, he says. And giving the buildings a makeover would “be one way of showing the people here that times are changing,” he says.
Another way to show that would be to fix the streets, he continues, laughing, as the bus runs over a bump on the street and nearly causes him to hit his head on the roof.
Myanmar is one of the poorest countries in the world. Investors are rushing in to secure opportunities, but the boom hasn’t even begun yet. Later on in the hotel, U Tin Oo, the deputy head of the political opposition, speaks with the German delegation. He warns of the consequences of knee-jerk and blind investment. Such investments would only benefit the wrong people – the old junta, and not the people. He also asks the German delegation for coaching on democracy, human rights and good governance.
Yangon is no less bustling than any other Eastern metropolis, though it is lacking in glass and steel skyscrapers that can be seen all over Asia. But that could all change soon and Werner Zimmermann hopes to be a part of it. He will soon return to Myanmar to strengthen the contacts he made on this trip.