Myanmar: Growing Pains in Government and Industry

Sule Pagoda in Yangon next to the Supreme Court building and the Yangon City Hall

“Doing Business in Myanmar” is the title of our course for the upcoming Global Immersion Program (GIP) where almost 30 Columbia Business School students will throw themselves into the cultural aspects and businesses in Yangon, the country’s largest city.

Really Professor Khandelwal? You stuck with the generic title for the course? (Pretty sure the default for all GIPs is “Doing Business in —“) You couldn’t come up with anything better like “Leadership Expedition to Patagonia” or “Philippines: Asia’s Rising Tiger?” There aren’t even tigers in the Philippines! See above for a better title for next year’s trip.

All jokes aside, Doing Business in Myanmar seems like an appropriate title. Everything we have learned thus far about the country is how far it has fallen behind its neighbors and the struggle it has faced trying to move from an authoritarian military regime to a democracy that would eventually stimulate growth in their businesses and the rights of their citizens. So maybe a simple title for the course is appropriate. Focusing on the fundamentals of what is necessary to move from a broken country to a competitor within Southeast Asia.

What to Expect When You’re Expecting…Traveling to Myanmar?

Over the last four weeks, I have been traveling the region and keeping an open mind about the different cultural experiences and business practices I’ve come across. From the countryside and cities of Vietnam, to Bangkok and the southern islands in Thailand, a quick trip to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and wrapping it up with a visit to Chiang Mai, I’ve tried to take in everything from local customs, customer interactions, government regulations and how citizens go on about their day to day lives.

The entire trip, I have thought about Myanmar, and specifically Yangon, and how they will compare to these places. I could be completely wrong, but I picture Yangon as a mix between Hanoi, Vietnam and Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Hanoi is full of amazing smells, annoying sounds, and delicious food that when combined with the old colonial French buildings makes it seem much smaller than a city with a population of 7.5 million. However, as soon as you see the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum and the nearby museum dedicated to the same man, you are reminded of the communist party’s control of the country. Albeit for better or for worse, one cannot deny that on the surface, the government has a much stronger presence and influence on its people than the surrounding countries.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi, Vietnam

Chiang Mai is a popular tourist destination in Northern Thailand that is home to over 300 Buddhist temples scattered throughout the city and the surrounding area. The people, mostly Buddhists, have been incredibly hospitable, friendly, and genuine with their actions. I found myself having to negotiate so frequently in Vietnam, that a classmate pointed out I developed a pattern whenever making a purchase. In Vietnam, I would frequently haggle the price and usually get the souvenir, taxi ride, or meal for much less. In Thailand, it went something like this:

Vendor: Friend, for you, I give you this [jade bracelet] for 100 baht.

Me: 100 Baht!?!? *Does math in head really quickly* (that’s like.. about $3) That’s… that’s actually a really good price. Okay, yeah…I’ll take it.

So that is how I picture Yangon. A city filled with kind people who are still feeling the weight of their government bear down upon them. A city, like Hanoi, that has a colonial past and an oppressive government in the present, with Buddhist temples scattered throughout. People who are trying to make ends meet and welcome tourists into their country which has historically suffered lower tourism rates that most (if not all, this is a blog post, not a research paper) of the neighboring countries in the region.

Most importantly, I’m excited for the company visits and hope to learn about the progress that has developed in recent years and the optimism (or pessimism) about the future of Myanmar and where business leaders think it will be in 20 years. Like most of the neighboring Southeast Asian cities, I’m interested to see the dynamic between the corporations vying for early positions in a developing city and the local businesses that would prefer cash to avoid taxes and can bend just about any rule to garner a sale.

The largest city in Myanmar, Yangon, which has struggled to maintain a 24-hour power supply as recent as early 2018 (something we don’t even come close to thinking about as an issue, literally taking for granted) will have surprises for us all. Doing business in Myanmar is more complicated than it seems.

Oliver Salman (’19) is an MBA Candidate at Columbia Business School

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