Mr Filip Lauwerysen, Executive Director of EuroCham Myanmar, is upbeat on Europe’s engagement with Myanmar as it opens up and sees a great deal of promise for European companies seeking to invest.
In the following interview with Mizzima, Mr Lauwerysen discusses how EuroCham Myanmar, a platform for European companies, is working under a more democratic and open government.
How does EuroCham Myanmar seek to engage with Myanmar’s new government?
EuroCham is a platform for European companies to voice and form policy recommendations to the Myanmar authorities. We operate with staff in Yangon and Naypyidaw and who knows in the future we might even consider Mandalay; depending on how things evolve there. EuroCham gives Myanmar authorities an important source of consultation when it comes to dealing with economic challenges and finding solutions to create a better business climate for all. Our Advocacy Groups consist of world leading enterprises with top knowledge and experience on how to find the right solutions to business climate bottlenecks and setbacks.
EuroCham Myanmar was launched in 2014 during the tenure of the Thein Sein government. How would you say the arrival of an elected civilian government earlier this year has affected your approach?
The transition to democracy without bloodshed is an amazing and historical accomplishment welcomed and cheered by all European businesses. Now it’s time to work with the government and help them to land more sustainable investment and create more jobs. As EuroCham we support the NLD emphasis on transparency and anti-corruption; as EuroCham we offer the new government a fully transparent platform for private-sector consultation; giving them a direct channel to find appropriate solutions for the many challenges facing the Myanmar economy which are blocking job creation.
What do you see as the main business opportunities for European companies in Myanmar today?
You are the fastest growing economy in the world according to the World Economic Forum this year. I would say this in itself is a ‘business opportunity’. To be more specific, we see many opportunities. Especially in the field of Energy, Logistics, Infrastructure, Construction, Health and Agri-Food Sector. It is now key to the Myanmar authorities to create the right environment for these sectors to grow.
What would you say are the main challenges for the new Myanmar government in developing the country?
Myanmar now has the ‘seeds’ to grow into a major ASEAN economy. The main challenge for any country changing from a military regime to a more open economy is: “not to put a dead chicken on a fresh egg”. If you look at other developing countries, often the new government comes with new policies that may seem popular and patriotic in their respective Medias, but eventually keep investors at bay and leave an entire generation without decent jobs; which eventually turns the population against the authorities as well. Wherever you go, no matter when in modern history you look, people want to make more money than their parents made. Only job creation through a proper business- and investment climate can make this happen. For this, you need to attract and listen to the right experts.
How can EuroCham Myanmar help specifically?
We can give central and local authorities access to engage in dialogue with Europe’s best companies. My opinion is biased, but many will agree with me, these are in many sectors the best and most experienced private sector players in the world. If you want to attract business and create jobs, you need to talk and listen to the job creator. Unlike some other countries looking at Myanmar, European investors respect CSR practices and actually invest in the local people through education and training. This all results in sustainable job creation.
A great deal needs to be done in terms of improving infrastructure and services in Myanmar. What can be done in terms of private European company partnership with local firms?
Our Advocacy Group in this area is drafting policy recommendations on how to tackle these issues. Very soon we will meet with different government authorities to communicate our concerns and solutions. Next year we will, of course, evaluate to what extend our concerns have been considered and why. This will give us, you, and the government authorities a baseline to measure progress.
What can be done in terms of private European company partnerships with the public sector and regional governments, for example in the Ayeyarwady and Bago regions?
A lot can be done! The local government is essential when it comes to attracting FDI. We welcome engagement with local authorities in the form of meetings and policy recommendations on how to attract more investment. It is important to have local governments that dare to make decisions and take responsibility to develop their territory. Central governments should hold local governments responsible for taking initiatives to create growth instead of forwarding all requests to the capital. The last thing a country needs is a local government official who sits back and does nothing and keeps everybody jobless. My experience in China, which I will come back to later, shows how local governments are key players for attracting FDI. Central authorities in China have mastered the skill of letting cities and regions compete freely with self-made incentives to boost job-creation. European companies loved it and invested majorly all over the place; lifting up an entire generation from rice-fields into high-rises.
Can you give us any examples of private or private to public partnerships that are already underway? Or planned?
Yes, there are and very promising ones, but I don’t want to disclose any information until the agreements are finalised.
What would you say are the hurdles that European companies need to be aware of when seeking to invest in Myanmar?
Myanmar has just opened up; its market and business climate should be considered in this context; ‘Rome was not built in one day’. It is still considered a risky country to do business because of a long list of things. However, the companies that come here early and have the ‘risk capital’ to explore a new frontier market, will surely have a big start ahead of the game. Nevertheless, it is a very beautiful country and I have travelled all over the world and I have never seen such a kind people as in Myanmar. I believe Myanmar also scores on the world’s top rankings when it comes to using one’s own (often little) income for helping strangers in need; this tells a lot about a nation.
Is the Myanmar Investment Law a step forward? How do you view this legislation?
The law is indeed very new and I have a very strong view about this. I will not answer on this before we have internally aligned our opinion along with all our Advocacy Groups. We will issue position papers very soon which will partly comment on this law.
How did you come to take up the position of Executive Director with EuroCham Myanmar? Do you think your experience in China helps in terms of your position here?
I have a lot of experience in EU-Asia trade, especially in China where I witnessed a new start for the country during the 2008 Olympics. China was centre stage for European businesses. You cannot consider yourself a business expert if you have never seen what’s happening in China. I have witnessed and contributed to help European companies invest and succeed majorly in China. I know what drives them and what keeps them away. China has mastered the skill of attracting FDI, many ‘tricks’ can be applied in Myanmar. China listened carefully to what companies want before making a major decision to park their private money ‘so far from home’. When I arrived in Beijing in 2008, China was almost behind the EU in every aspect, when I moved to Myanmar, Chinese companies were beating European companies on many fronts and creating historical job growth for their people. When I came to Myanmar, I went into the streets with my wife and witnessed the excitement of people with the victory of democracy. Many people went ‘ballistic’ with happiness and pride. Something I saw last time in Beijing after the Olympic ceremony. The moment is here; the government can make a change. The question is, will it be the same as when I left China, leaving behind a whole new middle-class and league of new companies, or will the country sink into the classic cliché story of just another frontier market sinking back into an economic disaster (except for a handful of families).