Australian business is looking for opportunities in Myanmar as the nation emerges from self-imposed seclusion
Australian business stakes its claims in Myanmar
I T’S closing in on midnight when our taxi pulls up outside a run-down apartment block on the edge of central business district of Myanmar’s commercial hub and former capital Yangon. The attendant lounging on a chair out front, shows us up a short flight of stairs to the entrance; down the end of the corridor, past an elevator you would think twice about stepping into there is an imposing door. Our guide knocks, and the wooden peephole slides back. It’s opened by a smiling young Burmese barman, the din of latenight chatter from the buzzing crowd clutching drinks swirls over a 1920s jazz soundtrack.
Holding court in the middle of the room is Sophie Barry, a kaftan-clad Australian who worked for decades as a news camerawoman and co-owns the bar with a Bangkok-based Australian. “Don’t you love it,” says Barry, who recently returned to Yangon after seven years running a bar in Kabul, “it’s a real frontier town.”
In the crowd is Alastair Mackay, a tousled-haired 30-something who comes from rural Braidwood in southern NSW. He has a business refitting vintage yachts at a dry dock on the city’s barge-laden Yangon River. “I sailed up from Australia 11 years ago, and I just ended up staying,” he says. At the time, Yangon was one of the few places in the region he could get the kind of docking facility he wanted. When he first arrived Myanmar was still very much in the dark days of the ruling military junta. The place was a lot cheaper, and run down.
Four years after the junta opened up the country, formerly known as Burma, to the world, it is attracting a flood of foreign interest, including from Australia. Major companies such as ANZ and Woodside Petroleum are setting up business while a host of more adventurous Australians are coming to a country that is shaping up as the next Asian frontier.
Hotel prices in Yangon are skyrocketing as foreigners flock in. Asked about opportunities for Australians, Mackay laughs. “You should have come yesterday,” he says. He may be right but Myanmar is still seen as a land of potential. With a population of more than 50 million, it has the biggest landmass in Southeast Asia apart from Indonesia, and an abundance of natural resources.
In 2011, the quasi-civilian government shocked the world by announcing a program of economic reform. It released thousands of political prisoners, floated its currency, removed widespread media censorship and embarked on a national infrastructure improvement program. A worldwide lifting of sanctions followed.
Bill Shorten, then the financial services minister, led a delegation to the country in October 2012, three months after Australia officially lifted its trade and financial sanctions. The following June Australia’s trade promotion agency, Austrade, opened an office. After a visit last August, Trade Minister Andrew