Key Learnings: Challenges & Optimism for Myanmar

Kate Canfield ‘17

Spending ten days in Myanmar was a fascinating experience for me personally. I studied development economics in New Delhi for a semester in college and, since then, have debated the best way to leverage my career to improve the lives of those who have not yet caught the growth wave in emerging markets. This trip offered a firsthand vantage point of a country recovering from decades of decline and the work being done with a variety of strategies to help Myanmar live up to its full potential.

Reflecting on the week, some of the key takeaways for me were the challenges to development in Myanmar that are strongly felt across the board by those working in Yangon.

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1) Human capital

During the half-century of military rule in Myanmar beginning 1962, the country’s education system was decimated. The University of Rangoon was closed down, meaning there was no way for Burmese citizens to receive a college education unless they were wealthy enough to send their children abroad. As a result, the current population aged 30-50 has virtually no education past the high-school level. From a business perspective, this creates a challenge in that locals are not trained for positions in middle management and have little to no experience with leadership roles. Human capital must either be trained internally by businesses themselves or replaced with expats and/or “repats” (Burmese natives who left the country for work/education and are now returning) who require higher salaries.

Those Burmese who have been working throughout the time of military rule also have little to no ambition or instinct to think creatively or proactively. Military appointees filled all senior positions for decades, so there was never opportunity for the Burmese to grow into higher-level positions; hence, it has been culturally engrained in them to do only as told, no more and no less. This also presents a challenge to businesses seeking to grow talent internally, but business leaders are optimistic about the Burmese willingness and strong desire to learn.

2) Political uncertainty

Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK) and the National League for Democracy (NLD) have been in power for nearly a year, and many are concerned with the lack of immediate, rapid change. ASSK is largely focused on creating peace amongst the five ethnic-driven civil wars taking place in the north of the country, in regions that are completely closed off to the rest of Myanmar. She also inherited an intensely bureaucratic government system, and while she replaced military leaders with her own appointees, many of them have little experience working in government. Her ability to create visible change in the country will take time, and there is concern that the Burmese people could become frustrated with her rule leading up to the next election.

Meanwhile, the former military ruler General Ne Win still resides in his mansion in Naypyidaw, oftentimes receiving visits from foreign ministers despite the fact that he is no longer in power. Some say he has masterfully crafted his image as he transitioned out of power; by allowing the country to open up and have free elections, the general was able to preserve his position rather than be overthrown. He and his cronies have arguably benefitted the most from the country’s reopening, as they own the majority of large businesses in the country (including large hotels, Myanmar beer, and others) that have done extremely well over the past few years. It’s difficult to predict what could happen with politics in the country in the years to come.

3) Business environment

“Everyone wants to help Myanmar; it is both a blessing and a curse,” said Ian Porter from IGC. The business environment in Myanmar is becoming crowded, making it difficult and even slower for things to get done. The government is constantly advised to do one thing by one party and the opposite by another – for example, invest in coal, or invest in gas? Because of these competing viewpoints, decisions are dragged out and business interests stalled. Similarly, resources are fragmented to different groups working to achieve the same goal, rather than all coming together to fund one unilateral project. This creates a unique challenge in a country where much is to be done.

Despite these challenges, Myanmar is full of potential. Never have I heard such universal praise for a population than from the leaders we met with on this trip in their descriptions of the Burmese people. It’s impossible to leave Myanmar without a tremendous sense of hope—I look forward to returning to the country one day to see the progress that has been made by and for the Burmese. Thanks to Professor Amit Khandelwal for the thoughtful lessons, Jennifer and Caitlin with the Chazen Institute for a seamless trip, Rayhan Arif for fun social and cultural activities, and President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for making this trip possible for us (and many Americans to come!).

Closing dinner at Le Planteur

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

Getting Acquainted with Burmese Culture and Heritage

Day 1: Yangon

Our trip began with an afternoon of sightseeing in Yangon, the commercial hub of Myanmar. While the nation’s capital was moved to Naypyidaw (a planned city built by the military government, which remains virtually uninhabited) in 2006, Yangon remains the center of business and the country’s largest city, with a population of approximately 5.2 million inhabitants.

The downtown center of the city is full of colonial architecture built during the British occupation leading up to 1948. Sule Pagoda, a beautiful gold stupa in the middle of the old city, is often referred to in Yangon as a point of reference – locations were once described as distances from Sule, the central hub of the city. Several grand colonial buildings surround the pagoda, alongside narrow streets filled with shops, restaurants, and apartments.

Near sunset, we visited the Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar’s most sacred Buddhist shrine and a legendary landmark with its golden stupa soaring above the city’s skyline. The shrine encloses eight hairs from the Buddha and is visited by large numbers of Buddhist monks and Burmese, particularly at dusk, a time of many offerings and general hubbub around the lower terraces of the complex. The topmost point of the pagoda is set with a priceless 76-carat diamond and the upper spires are constructed of centuries-old solid gold plates. In their historic visit to the country in 2012—the first by a sitting U.S. President—President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the Shwedagon Pagoda in between meetings with Aung San Suu Kyi and speeches at the University of Yangon.

Dusk at Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon

Days 2-3: Bagan

We traveled to the ancient city of Bagan to learn more about the country’s history and experience the region outside of Yangon. The region is scattered with the ruins of over 2,000 monasteries, temples, shrines, and stupas from the 11th to 13th centuries, when Bagan was the imperial capital of Myanmar. The pagodas range in size from grand stupas built by kings to small shrines built by local families, and all are available to explore. Unfortunately, as we learned in our meeting with UNESCO, the site is poorly managed and having a difficult time gaining World Heritage Site status and the funding and support that would come with it, but it’s a stunningly beautiful place nonetheless. We also visited the nearby Mount Popa, a revered center of Nat worship located atop a small mountain of volcanic rock.

Group selfie at Taung Kalat Buddhist Monastery atop Mount Popa!

One of my favorite moments was when we hiked up the steep steps of Shwesandaw Pagoda at dusk to soak in the views from the top. These few days offered a deep cultural understanding of the country leading into our week of business meetings in Yangon, as well as the opportunity to spend time getting to know each other as a group – and a fantastic one at that!

– Kate Canfield ‘17

Expectations for Myanmar

Myanmar has long been on my shortlist of countries to visit – “long” being ever since the travel ban was lifted in 2010 by Aung San Suu Kyi. I have traveled extensively in Southeast Asia, one of my favorite parts of the world. I love that every day and every moment is an adventure, even just crossing the street! Nothing goes exactly as planned, forcing you to live in the moment and enjoy it for what it is.

The region has also often made me feel uncomfortable and unsafe. As a young American woman living in Delhi, I was constantly stared at as I walked down the street, despite wearing modest clothing. I had to haggle every rickshaw ride to avoid being aggressively ripped off. One might expect the same in Myanmar, but I believe it will be different in a distinct way: 90% of the Burmese are Buddhist and have a reputation of being extremely respectful, honest people. The country is considered the safest in Southeast Asia. I look forward to meeting and engaging with the Burmese people and learning more about the history and practices of their religion.

I’m interested to see what a country so recently opened to foreign investment and tourism is like on the ground. While the region overall has seen rapid growth in the past decade, Myanmar has lagged behind its neighbors. An estimated 20 elite families from the former military rule have taken the majority of the profits that the opening of the country has offered. Does that translate into more extreme, visible poverty amongst the local population? How are those effects being felt, both in the major cities of Yangon and Mandalay as well as for rural people? I am unsure what to expect in that regard and hope that our business meetings will provide deeper perspective on the situation.

And I can’t wait for the food! Shan noodles and Burmese street food are high on my list to try this trip. Apparently several local wineries have recently developed – could be fun to try, but I’ll likely stick with a beer at a street stall with the locals.

See you in Myanmar!

Kate Canfield ’17

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

Speakeasies and Shan Noodles

One of my favorite things to do with friends when travelling abroad is to explore new and exciting restaurants! I wasn’t sure what the culinary scene would be like in Yangon, but I have been pleasantly surprised by the food we have stumbled upon thus far. Due to Myanmar’s location, the food we have had has been heavily influenced by Indian and Chinese cuisines.

Group Lunch in Yangon
Group Lunch in Yangon

One of the most popular dishes that we have come across has been Shan Sticky Noodles, which are named for the Shan State located on the eastern side of Myanmar. Shan noodles can be served in a broth or as a “salad” and topped with your choice of chicken, pork or tofu. While you can find this dish in numerous restaurants in Yangon, I was most excited to try them at 999 Shan Noodle House, one of the highest rated restaurants in Yangon. 999 Shan Noodle House is located on an unassuming street near City Hall and can be incredibly hard to find if you don’t know exactly where you’re going.

Storefront of 999 Shan Noodle Shop in Yangon
Storefront of 999 Shan Noodle Shop in Yangon

Once we walked in the staff seated our large group immediately and brought over fans and cold towels to alleviate the intense, summer, Yangon heat. We chose a mixture of the broth and salad noodles as well as other Yangon cuisine favorites such as fried tofu and sautéed watercress. Everything was so delicious and we each only spent $2.50 including drinks and appetizers!

Sticky Shan Noodle "Salad" and sauteed watercress.
Sticky Shan Noodle “Salad” and sauteed watercress.

Another restaurant in Yangon that I was eager to try is Yangon’s first and only speakeasy called Blind Tiger. Blind Tiger offers small plates and burgers as well as delicious cocktails which provide expats a lovely recluse when they’re looking for a taste of home. The owner had previously opened a speakeasy in Kabul, Afghanistan offering Mexican food, so I was very curious to see what her Yangon establishment would be like. Now came the hard part: finding the restaurant.

We entered a run-down, dirty building where we were told we would find the restaurant. There were no signs and the building looked completely deserted. However, we soon noticed small tiger paw prints spray-painted on the walls alongside copious amounts of graffiti.

Tiger paw prints leading to the speakeasy
Tiger paw prints leading to the speakeasy

Finally, after following the maze-like path through a seemingly abandoned building we reached a giant portrait of a tiger next to a large wooden door, we knew we found the right place!

Knocking on Blind Tiger's door
Knocking on Blind Tiger’s door

The atmosphere was fun and the food was great! We even ran into numerous company representatives we had the pleasure of meeting throughout the week at the various company visits.

It has been great to explore the streets of Yangon in the evening post-company visits and I feel this has allowed me to truly experience the culture first-hand. As sad as I am that our time in Yangon has come to an end, I’m ready to return to New York and finish my last semester!

Transforming the Real Estate Market in Myanmar

It has been great to settle down in Yangon and begin company visits after spending over a week travelling through other parts of Myanmar. While the first three days of GIP Myanmar have filled with fascinating, interactive discussions with business leaders of various industries, I think one of the highlights has been our visit with Marga Capital, a real estate development company. The country’s real estate market is incredibly interesting due to Myanmar’s high prices and strict regulations. Although the annual income per capita in Myanmar is only around $1800, the price for residential and commercial real estate rivals that of the New York City rental market. Many of the executives of the various companies we have met with have also remarked that office rental prices are not sustainable and should we return to Yangon in the future we would likely be visiting them in an alternative office space. Also, according to country regulations, foreigners are not allowed to lease or buy apartments, making it complicated for expatriates to find suitable places to live.

We visited Marga Capital to learn about their plans for Dagon City 1, a massive real estate project that will bring together residential, commercial and state-of-the-art office spaces steps from the famous Shwedagon Pagoda.

CBS students admiring the detailed Dagon City 1 project model
CBS students admiring the detailed Dagon City 1 project model

The Dagon City 1 project will provide a much needed increase in residential and office space which will hopefully alleviate some of the rising rentals costs seen in the market. We heard from Marga Group’s Executive Director Eliott Suen, an alumnus of Columbia University, on Marga’s project development strategy and were also treated to a tour of model apartments.

Students exploring a model apartment
Students exploring a model apartment

The visit ended with a round-table session featuring key players in Myanmar’s business environment as well as a networking session with local students and foreign business leaders. We were also treated to an extra special performance by a youth orchestra with the mission of uniting youth of Myanmar’s various ethnic groups under the shared joy of music.

Special guests of the round-table discussion
Special guests of the round-table discussion