To find souvenir key-rings, calendars and T-shirts in an airport gift shop is not surprising.
But to see those items bearing portraits of Aung Sang Suu Kyi and slogans for the opposition National League for Democracy on display - albeit discreetly - at Mingaladon International Airport in Yangon was certainly unexpected. Just thirteen months ago, the NLD was still a banned organisation and, a year earlier, ‘Daw Suu’ was still under house arrest.
So little changed in Burma / Myanmar during 50 years under military and quasi-socialist rule and 25 years as a pariah state under international sanctions that the pace of recent reforms is breathtaking: former General U Thien Sien established a semi-civilian government in 2011; an NLD landslide in 2012’s by-election established Daw Suu as leader of the official opposition; international sanctions have been suspended; there has been a new foreign investment law, market liberalisation, new press freedoms, the (conditional) release of political prisoners, a lifting of the ban on public demonstrations, and visits by President Obama, David Cameron and William Hague.
Businesses, investors and tourists alike are pouring in and risk overwhelming institutions and infrastructure. Hotel accommodation, transport, bureaucratic capacity, even electricity are all in short supply and can’t keep pace with demand. But with national elections planned for 2015, the pace of change is unlikely to ease. In the new capital Naypyidaw, President U Sien and his inner cabinet calculate that rapid reform and economic development can secure their political futures.
The level of pent-up consumer demand and the government’s need for rapid and demonstrable progress is palpable. The ending of import tariffs on cars has brought in a flood of used Japanese cars that gridlock Yangon at rush hour. Due to speculation, land values in some streets are now higher than in Manhattan. In all of the city’s hotels, bars and restaurants, huddles of Chinese, Russian and European businessmen are brokering deals with their Burmese counterparts, while the government mouthpiece “The New Light of Myanmar” publishes daily tenders for power generation, road building, oil and gas exploration, logging, telecoms and other infrastructure projects.
Despite the gold-rush atmosphere, entrants to the market must exercise caution. Capable Burmese partners will be, almost without exception, former enablers of the military regime and will struggle to shed the label of “crony”. US and European trade sanctions remain suspended, not lifted. Human rights abuse, political repression, ethnic conflict, smuggling and corruption continue to present serious reputational and ethical concerns and the country’s legislative and regulatory framework is either outdated or absent. Proper due diligence is essential but challenging. Rumour is rife and little reliable public information is available - all corporate records, for example, have recently been moved to Naypyidaw for ‘review’, a process which some suspect aims to conceal the ultimate beneficial ownership of key industries.
But, just like the souvenir stall at Yangon airport, companies that can skilfully cope with the political uncertainty may find there is an eager market for their products.