Myanmar Business Leaders Fear Election Will Slow Key Reforms

Myanmar’s ministers are trying to reassure foreign businesses that political uncertainty during the election period, which will probably last until March 2016, will not disrupt their investment plans there. So far, businesses remain unconvinced.

Many key ministers have stepped down from their posts to contest the country’s November 8 election, which will be the most competitive vote the country has seen in decades and will define the depth of reform in the country, ruled by the military till a nominally-civilian government took over in 2011.

Though many in the international community are welcoming the elections, seeing their relative inclusivity as a sign that Myanmar really is on the path to democracy, business leaders are concerned that the prolonged political uncertainty will stop reforms in their tracks—and deny them access to their key contacts in government ministries as the politicians travel the country on the campaign trail.

These ministers include Soe Thane, the minister in charge of economic affairs in President Thein Sein’s office, and Myat Hein, the minister for communications and information technology who oversaw the entry of Myanmar’s first ever foreign telecommunications operators, Ooredoo and Telenor TEL.OS -1.38%, and helped usher in dramatic changes to the telecoms sector, one of the country’s most lucrative.

“I know that businessmen are worried about gaps in the ministries, after we stepped down to join the party,” said Myat Hein in an interview during a campaign visit to his constituency, Zabuthiri, in the capital of Naypyidaw. “But we have trained our deputy ministers and handed over the responsibilities to them. They have been gearing up to do their job well.”

Despite such assurances from Myat Hein and others, businesses have complained that they are having a hard time getting approvals for their projects, since control of the reform process has been concentrated in the hands of few key ministers.

The election period in Myanmar is a protracted one, with campaigning starting two months before the November 8 vote. That election will determine only the composition of Myanmar’s new parliament. Lawmakers elected in November will then have to pick the president, a process that does not have to happen until March of next year. The president will then pick the members of the cabinet, which will form the composition of crucial ministries.

Foreign businesses are also worried that the ministers, who are being challenged in their constituencies by Aung San Suu Kyi’s overwhelmingly popular National League for Democracy, which boycotted the 2010 elections, will not be re-elected. Their fear is that the momentum built up in the past few years will be lost.

Ministers are clearly concerned, too, and have been showcasing their economic contributions on the campaign trail, presenting their party as the only one that can quicken the pace of economic reforms.

“In the past, very few people had SIM cards,” Myat Hein told rural villagers in his constituency as they took photos of him on their smartphones. “But gradually, as you can see, many people are now able to afford SIM cards. The penetration of mobile phones has gone up and SIM cards are now very cheap—we did this at the president’s instruction.”

Mobile penetration in Myanmar is now around 50%, according to government statistics, with over 28 million SIM cards in the country of 51 million people. The numbers, analysts say, could be a bit overstated as many have multiple SIMs, but is still a huge jump from 4% just five years ago.

“If you vote us in, we can bring you more development,” Myat Hein added.

Source: WSJ

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