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Myanmar: Now Open for Business

Kaori Enjoji|Tokyo Bureau Chief

Myanmar — Now Open for Business

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The lifting of Western sanctions on Myanmar, after it ended nearly 50 years of direct military rule, has pushed the door wide open for foreign investments into this resource rich country.Formerly known as Burma, the Southeast Asian country has attracted about $1.6 billion of foreign money over 2004-2010 with China its top investor. These inflows are expected to increase as more companies look to enter this frontier market that boasts of rich reserves of precious metals, oil and natural gas.A rec
Photo: Jim Simmen | Getty Images

The lifting of Western sanctions on Myanmar, after it ended nearly 50 years of direct military rule, has pushed the door wide open for foreign investments into this resource rich country.

Formerly known as Burma, the Southeast Asian country has attracted about $1.6 billion of foreign money over 2004-2010 with China its top investor. These inflows are expected to increase as more companies look to enter this frontier market that boasts of rich reserves of precious metals, oil and natural gas.

A recent by-election in Myanmar, was hailed as nothing short of historic and it won Nobel laureate and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi a seat in parliament. This has gone a long way in improving sentiment towards the country, which until recently only a few could visit.

CNBC’s correspondent Kaori Enjoji makes a trip to the land of opportunity and finds it's full of surprises.

An Aerial View of Yangon

Photo: CNBC

Yangon is Myanmar’s largest city and commercial center. The country of over 60 million people is Southeast Asia's second-largest and has rich reserves of gems, metals, oil and natural gas.

Yangon's Street Market

Yangon, Myanmar
Photo: CNBC

Everyday shopping at a wet market in Yangon. International organizations estimate that a quarter of its population lives in poverty and 70 percent have no access to electricity. Rich in natural resources and strategically located, Myanmar is often called Asia’s last frontier.

Counting Kyats at a Local Bank

Photo: CNBC

Cash is king in Myanmar. Bank tellers at Myanmar Livestock and Fisheries Development Bank count banknotes and log by hand. The country began a managed float of its currency in April, a major step in the economic reform process, but black marketing and volatility prevail. ATMs are just being introduced. Plans for the country’s first national debit card network are underway.

The Pagoda With a 75-Carat Diamond

Photo: CNBC

Estimated to be over 2,500 years old, the gilded stupa and 75-carat diamond tip of Shwedagon Pagoda radiate over Yangon. It is considered to be the most sacred Buddhist monument in Myanmar. It has also been the stage for several violent pro-democracy movements in recent years.

Booming Second-Hand Car Market

Photo: CNBC

Used Toyotas are popular among the rising middle class in Yangon, with prices for some second-hand cars up six-fold in the past year. Labor costs in primary industries in Myanmar are about $68 a month, a fifth of wages in Bangkok.

However, an influx of foreign businesses into Yangon has led to a severe shortage of qualified workers and wages in certain sectors, such as tourism, real estate and finance, are rising quickly.

A Relic From Myanmar's Colonial Past

Photo: CNBC

Relics of the British occupation of Myanmar are everywhere in Myanmar including this made-in-Edinburgh scale at the local airport, which the CNBC crew encountered before a flight from Yangon to Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital.

Naypyidaw to Host Global Events

Photo: CNBC

Before Naypyidaw was crowned as the new capital of Myanmar seven years ago, the entire area was a bush land. Massive government buildings were built and a 16 lane road envelops this Parliament building.

More infrastructure spending is likely in the city ahead of the World Economic Forum Southeast Asia in 2013 and the Southeast Asian Games due to be held the same year.

A Replica of the Famed Pagoda

Photo: CNBC

There are few people in sight and an eerie silence blankets the capital city of Naypyidaw at night. A replica of the famed Shwedagon Pagoda takes center stage in the city.

Meanwhile, an electricity shortage triggers about a dozen blackouts a day in the commercial capital Yangon even as the government spends money on flooding the city's monuments with light.

On the Road to Naypyidaw

Photo: CNBC

The 400-kilometer (250 mile) expressway connecting Yangon and Naypyidaw is virtually deserted with only one pitstop along the way. A tire ruptured by a tip of a screwdriver is quickly fixed by inserting a piece of scrap wood.

Economic Reforms on the Way

Photo: CNBC

National elections are scheduled in 2015 and the government has embarked on a drive to win foreign investment into Myanmar to help build much-needed infrastructure. The nominally-civilian government has surprised the world with economic reforms and global leaders have responded by easing sanctions.

Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has said she would welcome “ethical, responsible investment.” International organizations also warn about human rights abuse, ethnic violence and corruption.