Myanmar has investors waiting

Foreign companies ready to come in once nation finalizes business rules

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NAYPYITAW, Myanmar — Once feared for its obstructionism, the Myanmar Investment Commission has put on a fresh, investor-friendly face, and its bureaucrats are scrambling to deal with a deluge of interest even as a proposed investment law creates considerable uncertainty about how foreign companies will be treated in this long-closed Southeast Asian nation.

The new foreign investment law envisions broad powers for the already overworked investment commission, restricts foreign investment in 11 poorly defined areas and requires local hiring, according to a copy of the widely misunderstood legislation obtained by the Associated Press.

Investors have criticized the legislation, which has been approved by parliament and awaits the president’s signature, as too vague.

Some fear it contains measures that will scare off much-needed foreign business.

Top officials from the investment commission have said the president is likely to send the law back to parliament for amendment, rather than sign it in its current form.

Myanmar’s main business lobbying group, the Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry, met over the weekend to debate the law, an indication that its terms remain up for discussion.

Reinventing itself

The Myanmar Investment Commission is housed in a pink concrete building down a narrow lane flanked by thick flowering bushes in the country’s outsized capital Naypyitaw that former military rulers ordered purpose built.

Tucked into dim offices on the ground floor, the commission is reinventing itself, as the country emerges from decades of isolation that plunged one of Asia’s most fertile and resource-rich countries into grinding poverty.

“We do not have enough staff,” said Kyaw Zaw Maung, a thin, smiling man who took over as director of the commission seven months ago.

He said his department is looking to hire 30 more people. Behind his desk a whiteboard scrawled with appointments – Coca-Cola, Daewoo – testifies to Myanmar’s rising star status among global investors.

The commission’s 20 employees sit at rows of wooden desks that face a large television snowy with static.

There are papers everywhere, in plastic baskets on desks, in cardboard boxes, and clamped in folders in bookshelves. There is one shared computer in the director’s office.

From April through August, the commission approved 21 foreign investments, up from 13 during all of last fiscal year. The increase in investor interest is likely to intensify, if the contentious new foreign investment law is passed in a form that is palatable to companies overseas.

The legislation is a cornerstone of the economic reforms Myanmar is rushing to enact in the wake of sweeping political change.

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