Yangon: A Cross Section

Kate Canfield ’17

The majority of our trip centers in Yangon, the country’s commercial hub. We returned from Bagan for four days of meetings, during which we gained a full and diverse picture of the country’s political and business environment as well as the country’s recent history and its lasting effects.

Myanmar gained independence from the British in 1948, an achievement often credited to General Aung San, at which point the country entered a period of incredible prosperity. Burma was, during the 1950s, the crown jewel of the ASEAN, far ahead of neighbors like Singapore and Thailand and generally well-positioned as a resource-rich and strategically located land. Students traveled from all over the region to attend the University of Rangoon. In 1962, however, a military coup established a socialist military regime that isolated the country for nearly 50 years and completely destroyed the progress that had been made in Myanmar, from education and business to medicine and infrastructure. The country disintegrated under this rule: the University of Rangoon closed—there was no university-level education available in the country—and trade sanctions and incredibly high import tariffs isolated the country from the rest of the world. Up until a few years ago, no one outside the military and their cronies could afford to purchase a car, let alone a smartphone.

A sign outside the World Bank

In 2011, for a variety of complex reasons that can be speculated upon, the military government began to open the country up to democracy and reform, and in 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi won the general election and began the country’s transition into a free, democratic system. ASSK and the National League for Democracy (NLD) has been in power nearly a year, meaning the country is still very much in transition. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton worked for years to lift U.S. sanctions on Myanmar, and all sanctions were officially removed as of a few months ago, in October 2016.

The group after a meeting at the U.S. Embassy

Meeting with a diverse array of companies in Yangon was fascinating: while each offered a different perspective and opinion on the implications of Burma’s history on Myanmar’s future, many had faced the same challenges in their work in this frontier market. From development finance institutions like the International Finance Corporation to private equity firms like Delta Capital Management, we learned about the difficulty businesses here have securing financing in an uncertain political environment and within a capital market that is not fully formed. Startups operating on the ground level, like wifi network company Frontiir, energy development company Puma, and the Phandeeyar Innovation Lab, shared their thoughts on the unique opportunity for business in Myanmar to “leapfrog” over other countries and build completely new, modern infrastructure that will surpass those of already developed countries. The International Growth Centre (IGC) and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce offered a broader perspective on the economic state of the country overall and the types of businesses and sectors that are seeing the most immediate growth in Myanmar.

Overall, the business meetings offered a tremendous cross-sectional view, and it’s difficult to imagine a more fascinating, exciting, yet frustrating place to be in business in the year 2017 than here in Myanmar.

Members of the Social Enterprise Club at the Phandeeyar offices

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