When Nobel prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi arrived at the Italian ministry of foreign affairs this week after visiting the Pope, she walked into the room with six little roses in her hair and many question marks over the future of her country of 60m inhabitants. She always calls it by the pre-regime name of Burma, crystallising in five letters her role as opposition leader and her 15 years spent under house arrest.
Only a week before, a delegation of the country’s officials that included foreign minister Wunna Maung Lwin were in the same building to illustrate the economic reforms aimed at attracting much-needed foreign investments into the nation they instead called with the official name of Myanmar.
The different choice of name was echoed in the western suits and ties of the government representatives, followed by the traditional Burmese dress worn by Ms Suu Kyi. “It is easier to change dress than mindset,” she said, stressing that “there are no economic reforms without political reforms”.
So, what’s for foreign investors out there? The pile of papers illustrating the economic measures enacted since 2011 contained the CVs of the delegation, with no intention to hide their links to the military.
Nobody seems to be too bothered either by the call by international observers in the room to link reforms with a fully democratic process. According to a representative of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, a member of the delegation defined The Lady – Ms Su Kyi – “an inspiration”.
The source of the inspiration, however, warned the international community over the danger of overestimating the democratic opening the country is experiencing and urged to call on the Myanmar government to change the constitution, which prevents her from running for president as a mother of foreign children. Currently, 25 per cent of seats in Parliament are reserved for the military.
For now, the government has set a target of almost 9 per cent growth by next year, saying it will prioritise poverty reduction, industrialisation, the development of the energy sector, telecommunications, education and the health sector.
MasterCard and Visa have already entered the country, together with multinationals such as Nestle, CocaCola, Uniliver, Total and Suzuki.
Italian energy giant ENI was among the winners of several onshore energy blocks and is already considering Myanmar its “new Asian frontier”, thanks to its strategic position and richness in raw materials, especially natural gas.
“There have been only 150 explorations in the country so far, as much as in the US every two days,” ENI ‘s chief executive Paolo Scaroni said during the conference.
“Half of the population has no electricity and there is no economic development without it. Now, after decades of isolation, Myanmar could become a bridge between Southern Asia, the Asiatic Southern East and China,” he added.
The main challenges however relate to uncertainty over future political stability and the possibility to proceed with the creation of a safe business environment. Doubts that have only began to ease following the endorsement in 2011 of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
Myanmar delegation presented its packet of certainties offering a five-year tax holiday, the same rate of income tax between foreigners and Myanmar citizens, no taxes on imported machinery or raw material. The government also ticked the box of no nationalisations or expropriations, together with the right to repatriation.
Enough for the multinationals that have already expanded into Myanmar, while the challenges are still significant for smaller enterprises and range from an undeveloped banking system and a lack of capital market, to poor infrastructures and an inadequate insurance system.
In the words of the Myanmar delegation, this is not a nation ready-made for investors, but a bet on the future. A bet that UK investors are already supporting: if China tops the ranking, Britain is the fifth foreign investor and the first Western country, with twenty times the enterprises of the second foreign investor France and some 7 per cent slice of the total cake.
As more stakeholders take the first steps into post-sanctions Myanmar, the focus ahead of the 2015 elections is not so much if the name, but if the mindset will change and who will benefit most from the forecast economic growth.