Australia is proving an important and growing trading and investment partner for Myanmar. The bilateral trade between Australia and Myanmar reached US$144 million in 2016, according to Myanmar’s Ministry of Commerce.
Ms. Jodi Weedon is CEO of the AustCham Myanmar (Australia-Myanmar Chamber of Commerce), which was set up in March 2013.
In a recent interview with Mizzima’s chief business reporter Aung Thura, Ms Weedon discussed Australian companies’ interest in Myanmar, and concerns over the Companies Law, stronger financial services, regulations, and improved infrastructure.
Mizzima: You are a lawyer and you have financial experience. How do you use these skills and expertise to promote Australian business in Myanmar?
My background is as a lawyer and I also have been working throughout Asia for many years now. I have been very beneficial to the role as CEO of AustCham Myanmar. I think that I have a strong sense of what the process of Australian companies have in place and the process that they need to go through both for risk assessments and corporate compliance in order to move into a new market particularly a frontier market like Myanmar. And I have been able to develop a really good understanding what the members or potential members look for when investing in Myanmar.
The key role of the Chamber is to advocate and lobby on behalf of our members and it has been some legislation put to parliament, and the draft legislation put to parliament in the last eighteen months that our members wanted to comment on and so we often worked together with foreign chambers and sometimes we worked together with Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business (MCRB) to propose the new draft legislation and to make comments on existing legislation. And I think my background as a lawyer and the corporate skills I have accumulated over the last few years have been beneficial in assisting in the lobbying with the Myanmar government and Parliament.
What are the objectives of AustCham Myanmar?
Our objectives are fourfold. We focus a lot on knowledge sharing and capacity building. We’ve had a lot of initiatives based on training such as English training, corporate governance training, some regulatory training and capacity building for job interviews for women, training for writing CVs. We worked with UMFCCI to roll out English training programmes which have a large reach through Myanmar corporations. Our second objective is networking. We hold at least two networking events every month. We always have a lot of non-members come to these as well; it’s a good opportunity for people to meet new people. Also each month we have joint networking events that we hold with other foreign chambers – the French, Euro, British and some more coming up. It’s a great idea to offer to our membership base new networks. It’s the whole idea of networking. The third is advocacy. We do spend quite a lot of time speaking with our members and the business community at large about what they think is going on with the Myanmar government now, policies and some draft legislation, and we’re always willing to advocate and lobby on behalf of our membership base. The fourth is to promote responsible investment. Representing Australian companies, we are in a really good position to promote best practice and encourage investment into Myanmar but make sure they are responsible investments.
You have been in your position for 18 months. How successful has AustCham Myanmar been?
We have had a lot of success in the last year. We won the 2017 Asia Pacific Small Chamber of the Year Award and that was given to us on the grounds of our innovative programmes and our huge increasing membership base, which increased over 50 per cent in one year and our many initiatives including the Women in Business and Leadership Conference which was held last year as our inaugural. And we also have held the second Women in Business Conference on November 25 this year. These are along with our responsible investment working group in which I am a chair with Vicky Bowman from MCRB, she is co-chair. We’re very active. We’ve had a lot of workshops and a lot of knowledge-sharing that we offer. The Chamber has been able to grow significantly because we are very active. We’re very much part of the business community.
Are there a lot of Australian companies active in Myanmar?
Yes, we have a lot of Australian companies active in Myanmar. Some Australian companies have thought for a very long time that it is a frontier market which may offer benefits. Some have been here for quite a long time and these are some of our larger corporate members and are already very well established here and are often waiting for changes in the financial services sector before they can really start going. I think some have understood the benefit of being here, understanding how the government works, how the regulations work. They often wait for these regulations to be put in place, which brings comfort to the expectations of the corporations.
Australian investment in Myanmar is quite low when compared with Australian investment in other countries such as Thailand, Singapore or India. What are they waiting for when it comes to investing in Myanmar?
I think you are absolutely right. Every day I get many calls and emails from interested potential investors from Australia. There is a lot of interest and I do think there is a lot of synergy between the Australian and Myanmar markets, and there is a lot that Australian companies can bring to Myanmar business. Australian companies generally have a very low threshold for risk tolerance, and really strong corporate governance compliance, so I think it is quite difficult for Australian companies to make a move into this market until there is a strong regulatory regime in place. I think, from speaking with a lot of Australian companies, they are waiting for the Companies Law, stronger financial services, regulations, improved infrastructure; these are all lobbyists’ components to making foreign investment really viable here in Myanmar.
What is the feedback you receive with regard to peace, stability and national reconciliation in Myanmar which may be one of the basic factors to bear in mind when considering the economy in the country?
The peace situation is very real and tragic that is happening in Myanmar at the moment and we all hope that it is resolved as soon as possible for peace and stability but also for the economic growth Myanmar could undergo in the coming years. But I do think it is only one area of concern for potential investors. They really are waiting for regulations to be put in place, and not only regulations to be put in place, but also having understanding and confidence that the regulations will actually be implemented. We are doing quite a bit of work within some departments and ministries at the moment to build capacity so that once the regulations are put in place; they already know how to use those regulations. I really think that is of equal importance to potential Australian investors. That and energy, electricity, infrastructure and transport – all of these things at the moment are holding back some foreign direct investment. From a domestic investment perspective, a lot of work needs to be done in the education and health sectors to encourage growth.
How has the Rakhine crisis affected the way international investors, including Australian companies, look at doing business in Myanmar?
I really think that it is just one of the many pieces of the puzzle at the moment that may be detracting foreign direct investment from coming in. I think, of course, it is a huge concern all over the world and also here in Myanmar, but I do not think that alone is the reason for maybe FDI not being as high as we expected at the moment.
So what is your understanding of the Rakhine crisis?
The Rakhine crisis is certainly a tragic situation and I really hope, we all really hope that peace and stability return to that region. I think people internationally are starting to understand that it is specific to one region in Myanmar and it is not the whole Myanmar story, and as I said, focusing on some other critical areas in Myanmar, development that needs to be worked through in order to give companies that confidence they need to go through with their corporate compliance.
Do you think the Rakhine crisis will have a negative impact on the Myanmar economy?
I do not know. I think there are many other things at the moment that are detracting their confidence in the Myanmar market generally.
How has AustCham been helping the Myanmar economy since 2013?
We have been here since 2013. We have been a very active chamber the whole time, but really have increased in the last two or two and a half years in getting involved in the business community here. We assist in the Myanmar economic growth by encouraging Australian investment, bringing Australian companies into the market, building their networks, offering them training in terms of local legislation, and we also do a lot of promotion here in Myanmar and in Australia for the Myanmar market. This year, we took two delegations to Australia to give them the opportunity to promote their business, the Myanmar market in their respective sectors. The first one was the Minister of MONREC, along with seven government officials, down to Perth, Melbourne and Brisbane to tour some of the Australian mines to show them best mining practice but also to provide them with an opportunity to present in front of Australian companies what Myanmar has to offer in the mining space. That was a hugely successful delegation. A couple of months later, in May, I travelled with U Aung Naing Oo, the Director General of DICA, to Melbourne and Sydney, to promote investment into Myanmar. We had several hundred people in the audience and we talked about how potential Australian investors can get confidence in the new investment law, rules and regulations and the upcoming Companies Law. It was really good. People were just waiting to see how these particular laws are rolled out by Myanmar government to give them confidence to bring their investment in.
How do you promote responsible trade and investment?
As I said, I am the chair of the group and we have a working group of around 23 private sector representatives from Myanmar and Australian companies. On the working group is also the Australian government. We often have Myanmar government officials attend, depending on the subject. We also work very closely with NGOs to look at various arms of the UN Global Compact. This year we have looked at labour and safety concerns in Myanmar and environmental impact assessments and the processes behind these requirements. In each instance, we have provided recommendations to the government, and in the instances of labour and safety, we have just made a submission to Parliament of a draft of occupational safety and health legislation. We spend a lot of time working on responsible investment generally.
What sectors are of interest to Australian investors in Myanmar?
There is a lot of synergy between the Australian market and the Myanmar market. The Australian market is very broad. Australian companies can cross a lot of sectors. So far we have seen a lot of interest in the education sector and the agriculture sector. We have some representatives here in oil and gas. There is also increase in health and tourism.
What are the remaining challenges in the Myanmar market?
I have been really impressed in the changes in the Myanmar market over the last 18 months. I think we may have set our expectations too high. I see potential in the coming year or two years. Obviously the government of Myanmar has a wide range of priorities. Obviously peace and stability is one primary issue. Infrastructure and transport will really make a lot of businesses more viable. I think once the regulations are in place and we know that they are going to be implemented, they will have much more confidence and the FDI will increase. In terms of domestic input into the Myanmar economy, I think health and education are the areas that the government will have to focus on.
What weak points do you see in Myanmar’s new investment laws?
I do not know. I was involved in the public consultation of the drafting of the rules and regulations. I have yet to see weak points in the law. I was really impressed with the way the government really sought assistance in the drafting of the law. They looked around the region to laws that were relevant and obviously they put a Myanmar twist to that drafting, but I think they really reached out to relevant organisations in the drafting of the law. AustCham Myanmar organised one of the public consultations. The World Bank and some other lawyers were involved in the drafting. We sat down and listened. A few hundred people turned up and shared what they thought about what was strong or weak about the draft. I also attended another public consultation at UMFCCI, and there were hundreds of people there, from the private sector, government and NGOs and they all had the opportunity to provide their feedback. Many people say that was one of the best examples of the drafting of legislation today in Myanmar.
Which chambers do you work with in Myanmar?
Locally we work with most of the foreign chambers – French, Europe, British, American – and more and more now with some local Asian chambers – Thai, Singapore, Hong Kong. We are doing work with all of them, which is fantastic. We also do a lot of work with UMFCCI. That is within Myanmar. Outside of Myanmar, we are a member of ASEAN AustCham, which is the Australian Chambers throughout the region. It is a very active group and we’re a member of that organisation. We also work with the Australian Business Association.
How many active members do you have?
We have around 140 members. From July 2016 to July 2017 we increased our membership by 50 per cent and since we’ve managed to grow it a lot, especially and proudly with Myanmar companies.
What is your view on Myanmar economy?
The Myanmar economy has probably slowed more than what people had expected, but I do think that that is not indicative of the work being done behind the scene. There is so much that needs to be done. I also think that time was needed for the new government to take up its role. There was some slowdown in 2016 due to that. I do see real potential for growth and if the government can bring peace and stability as much as possible, it is very, very important. I do think it is very important that the Myanmar government focus on these key areas such as the regulatory regime, health, education and infrastructure.
Can Myanmar overcome the challenges you mentioned? How can the government achieve their goals?
I think the Myanmar government is doing a really good job at working across all of those areas, and there are a lot of areas to work on. I think work is being done across those areas. Once the regulatory regime is put in place, which covers all those areas, it will make it much easier for the government and private companies to start work and develop, which in turn will improve Myanmar economy. There are challenges, but I think we need to give the government time to settle into office, and to start really progressing.
Why are you interested in promoting women’s issues, such as in business, in Myanmar?
I have always been interested in women’s issues in any country that I have lived in, because I am a woman and I have a mother, a grandmother and a sister, because I think the issues women face in Myanmar are not just in Myanmar. There is gender gap, discrimination in other countries as well, also in Australia, so I have always had a focus on women’s issues and women’s development. With the business background, I think I have been able to focus on women’s economic empowerment because not only is it equal, fair and just, it also makes economic sense.
Are those problems happening right now in Myanmar?
There is a gender pay gap. In Myanmar, various data show there’s about 30 per cent of a gender pay gap between men and women. There are still social expectations for women to be at home to look after the family. I think in Myanmar also there are obviously long-existing issues with the education and health, not just for women but also for men. The education being relatively low in standard, it has not encouraged women to grow and be educated and to develop. I think my predecessor as CEO of AustCham Myanmar also had very similar ideas about women’s economic empowerment, and so she hosted the first Women in Business and Leadership Development Conference last year, the inaugural one, which was a huge success. We had hundreds of people, mostly women, coming through the door of the conference.
What are the challenges that Myanmar women face?
I think there are still expectations within families that women will be the ones who stay at home, which often limits career advancement. I think women still face discrimination. I think that we need to put some robust legislation in place to ensure this discrimination does not continue. We need to see women empowerment, women on corporate boards. Only then can we encourage women to get involved in the economy.
What have you learned about the lives of women in rural areas?
I have been speaking with some members who work with regional women and women who work and live in regional Myanmar. Those women are fantastic at running households and looking after their families’ finances, so it is just about giving them financial access. Statistics show women spend money in the most responsible ways. They use the money to send their children to school, to provide food for their family. Many of our members in the business community have spoken to me about how important it is that we provide women with empowerment so they can do the right thing with the money, with the very limited money that they have. Our Women in Business and Leadership Conference has a couple of segments that look at women in alternative careers, women in non-traditional roles. I really encourage women who are interested in alternative careers to come along and hear these inspirational stories, some really successful inspirational stories. We’re also looking at SMEs. There will be a lot of stories of how to set up a business, how to get access to finance, how to build your brand in these digital days.
What programmes are AustCham Myanmar supporting for the women?
We have many programs for women. Women in Business and Leadership Conference and the Gala Dinner is just one of many. It is our flagship women initiative. … We assisted in launching the first Myanmar Women’s Week in March 2017, a great success over the course of a week which was set around International Women’s Day. We provided a huge range of opportunities for women to attend and we were looking at not just professional women to attend but also for university students to come get hands-on training on how to write CVs, how to sit job interviews, and once you get the job, how to behave in it. That was hugely successful. We had about 300 people attend that, mostly women, and then through our responsible investment working group, a lot of our output is on anti-discrimination, making sure organisations take everybody into consideration. Obviously women are part of that.