Looking Back on Myanmar

The twelve days I spent exploring Myanmar earlier this spring are some of the most fascinating and memorable days I have had during my MBA experience at Columbia Business School. I spent the first two days roaming through the ancient pagoda city of Bagan before heading southeast for a few more days to experience the floating villages on Inle Lake. While both of these destinations were absolutely striking from a tourism perspective, the seven days our class spent in Yangon learning about the challenges of doing business in Myanmar were extremely thought-provoking. While I travel often, I had not previously had an opportunity to travel to a country that is on the brink of major economic growth, which is why this particular business school trip was so rewarding for me.

A typical street in Yangon, Myanmar
A typical street in Yangon, Myanmar

One of the most challenging aspects of doing business in Myanmar are the many regulations which remain from the period of military rule. For example, foreign citizens are not allowed to directly invest in Myanmar, but must instead do so only in a joint venture with a local citizen. This means that before conducting business it is imperative that you find a trustworthy, local partner. Also, many aspects of the country’s infrastructure are extremely antiquated making road, air and boat travel slow and sometimes dangerous. The banking systems are also outdated with no mortgage or debt markets and a high reliance on cash transactions. The highest bank notes issued are the equivalent of a $10 bill due to the huge fear that people will print counterfeit currency, however this does not stop landlords from often asking for rent in cash. In fact, when we visited a local bank we saw giant stacks of bills sitting out waiting to be counted and distributed, with very low security.

Stacks of cash at a local bank
Stacks of cash at a local bank

Due to the historically Buddhist culture, there is a low rate of crime and this leads people to feel comfortable carrying around large, clear bags of cash with no fear of robbery. While there are many aspects of the country holding Myanmar back from becoming an economic leader in Southeast Asia, many of the companies we met with are extremely positive on Myanmar’s chances and are eagerly awaiting the upcoming governmental elections which could launch Myanmar successfully into the future.

Myanmar is often called the last frontier of Southeast Asia for growth and investment due to its abundance of natural resources, prime location between India and China and booming population of over 50 million. The advice we heard numerous times was that if we were interested in successfully beginning business in Myanmar, we should relocate to Yangon to really understand the peculiarities of doing business in a country fresh out from under its military-rule. Only after experiencing the city with our own two feet will we have the ability to make invaluable partnerships and connections to take our ventures off the ground. I am so pleased for the opportunity I was given to visit Yangon to start understanding some of the country’s idiosyncrasies myself and I am eager to watch its economic strides over the coming years.

– Sabrina Stucka, MBA ’15

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