09 April 2013

Myanmar takes steps to preserve its history before tourist boom

A home that once belonged to a former United Nations secretary-general, the late U Thant, is being restored and will open as a new museum in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city.

Government officials, diplomats and members of U Thant’s family gathered Saturday at a ceremony at the home, a two-story yellow villa built in the 1920s and where he lived in the 1950s before serving as the U.N. chief. It is being renovated as part of an effort to preserve the colonial-era cityscape of one of Asia’s last untouched cities.

The museum is scheduled to open to the public in the coming months, which is chaired by Thant Myint-U, a Harvard-educated historian who is also U Thant’s grandson.

“I hope that this is both about celebrating his life and his work, but also about reclaiming our past so that we can think a different way about (our) future,” Thant Myint-U said at the ceremony in front of the house, which sits in a leafy Yangon neighborhood.

Yangon, Myanmar’s former capital, has been bypassed by the rapid modernization that has bulldozed the past in virtually every other Asian metropolis. Its cityscape is studded with hundreds of grand and humble buildings from the colonial era.

Now, as Myanmar opens its long-closed doors to the outside world after half a century of military rule, a major effort has been launched to preserve both Yangon’s architecture and atmosphere from rampant development and decay.

There are more than 180 structures on Yangon’s official heritage list, most of which are churches and Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries.

“The Yangon Heritage Trust hopes that this will be just the first of many similar projects to remember and recognize the contributions of the many Myanmar men and women who have worked for the betterment of the country,” the group said in a statement.

U Thant lived in the home from 1951 to 1957, prior to his role as an international diplomat. At the time he was a top adviser to then-Prime Minister U Nu and wrote numerous books and articles while living there, the statement said.

From 1957 to 1961, U Thant served as Myanmar’s representative to the United Nations, before serving as U.N. secretary-general from 1961 to 1971.


Fuji Xerox aims for top market share spot in Myanmar

Fuji Xerox is aiming to be the top player in printers and copiers in the nascent market of Myanmar within three years, after it opened a new office in Yangon on April 1.

Although the top spot is currently occupied by rival Japanese firm Canon, Fuji Xerox’s corporate vice president Masashi Honda said his company expects to wrest that title over with closer support for clients expanding into the country.

“Myanmar has a higher total population than Korea, and we foresee very high opportunity in this market,” he told reporters last Thursday at its Asia-Pacific headquarters in Singapore.

The company sold 2,500 multi-function print and copy devices in 2012, and expects to sell about 3,000 this year. With the new business operations in place, Fuji Xerox expects to sell 20,000 multi-function devices annually by 2022.

Previously, the company’s presence in Myanmar was limited to sales activities through a local dealer.
The new Yangon office will enable Fuji Xerox to work closer with the same local dealer in carrying out sales and consulting services, as well as make a push for the company’s more premium products such as high-speed colour publishing systems.

This is especially important for global clients such as other international corporations looking to expand into Myanmar, said Honda, as the local dealer cannot provide the level of quality support required.

Although Myanmar has seen some reforms since it elected a new government in 2011, doing business in the country is still considered risky, not least because of the political climate.

Yoshio Hanada, newly-appointed general manager of the Myanmar branch, told he foresees quite a number of challenges.

For one, there are infrastructural issues such as reliable Internet access. The technical knowledge of staff on the ground is also important, and the company has taken on an all-local staff in Myanmar in part to train them.

“The situation in Myanmar is still changing, and we will remain flexible and monitor our progress,” Hanada said.


More Thais visit Myanmar casinos ahead of Songkran New Year Holidays

More and more Thai holidaymakers have been making their way to visit casinos in Myanmar before the start of the Songkran holidays.

The Ranong Tourist Business Association President Sonchai Uitekkeng revealed on Monday that local tourists have increasingly been visited Ranong Province, with a plan to cross the border to Myanmar to try their luck in gambling.

Mr. Sonchai stated that popular casinos along the Thailand-Myanmar border are at Victoria Point (Koh Son), which is near Ranong.

He expects a surge in the number of tourists going to casinos during April 13 and 17, when the Songkran holidays are on, especially when wind and waves are safe for traveling.


Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, the "Iron Lady" dies at 87

Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, the "Iron Lady" who shaped a generation of British politics, died following a stroke on Monday at the age of 87, her spokesman said.

"It is with great sadness that Mark and Carol Thatcher announced that their mother Baroness Thatcher died peacefully following a stroke this morning," Lord Tim Bell said, referring to Thatcher's children.
Britain's Queen Elizabeth II was saddened to hear of her death, Buckingham Palace said.

"The Queen was sad to hear the news of the death of Baroness Thatcher. Her Majesty will be sending a private message of sympathy to the family," it said.

The former premier, who led Britain from 1979 to 1990, suffered from dementia and has appeared rarely in public in recent years.

She was last in hospital in December for a minor operation to remove a growth from her bladder.
The former Conservative Party leader remains the only female premier in British history and was the 20th century's longest continuous occupant of Downing Street.

Her daughter once revealed that the former premier had to be repeatedly reminded that her husband Denis had died in 2003.

She was told by doctors to quit public speaking a decade ago after a series of minor strokes.
Michael Howard, Conservative leader 2003-2005, told Sky News television: "It's terribly sad news. She was a titan in British politics.

"I believe she saved the country, she transformed our economy and I believe she will go down in history as one of our very greatest prime ministers."

Right-wingers hailed her as having hauled Britain out of the economic doldrums but the left accused her of dismantling traditional industry, claiming her reforms helped unpick the fabric of society.

On the world stage, she built a close "special relationship" with US president Ronald Reagan which helped bring the curtain down on Soviet Communism. She also fiercely opposed closer ties with Europe.


08 April 2013

Myanmar's poor infrastructure holds it back but Hong Kong firms see opportunities

Myanmar's backward infrastructure threatens to create a bottleneck, holding back the country's rapid development. But for Hong Kong companies fresh from helping transform mainland China over the past 30 years, it adds up to opportunity.

The 320-kilometre bus ride from the commercial centre of Yangon to Naypyidaw, the new capital carved out of the jungle by the junta in the past decade, takes 6-1/2 hours.

But traffic jams are not to blame for the slow pace. On the contrary, traffic is only seen occasionally on the main route between the old and new capitals. Rather, substandard construction techniques are to blame for the slow, sometimes bumpy ride.

"The road surface is the result of the uneven settlement of the building material and substandard construction skills," says Kuok Hoi-sang, vice-chairman and managing director of Chevalier Group, a Hong Kong-based international company with interests in Myanmar, including in construction.

Naypyidaw is an oversized city with a handful of hotel resorts sitting alongside an eight-lane main road. The absence of traffic makes the road look even wider, and provides a stark contrast to the hustle and bustle of pedestrians and vehicles in Yangon.

The sizeable hotels of Naypyidaw look beautiful from the outside - but take a closer look and you will discover a very primitive interior design, echoing the lack of building technique in the country, Kuok says.

The military government relocated the administration from Yangon to Naypyidaw overnight in 2005, reportedly in an attempt to strengthen its control over the country, taking advantage of the new capital's central yet isolated location.

It's not just the construction that is shoddy in Myanmar.

A delegation from the Hong Kong Trade Development Council discovered first-hand the unreliability of the power supply when the lights went out on their first night in a five-star hotel in Yangon last month.

Telecom services are also a headache for foreign visitors. Wi-fi internet service is limited to the five-star hotels in Yangon, leaving business travellers cut off from the world and their e-mail accounts for much of their trip.

For some Hong Kong businesspeople, the state of Yangon and Naypyidaw is a reminder of their visits to Shenzhen in the early 1980s and Ho Chi Minh City in the 1990s.

"Having said that, Myanmar is in a better shape than Vietnam in terms of legal system, as Myanmar is practising the British legal system," Kuok says. People in Myanmar also seem more peaceful and compliant than the Vietnamese, he says.

Dr Joseph Chow Ming-kuen, independent non-executive director of Hong Kong-based Road King Infrastructure, says the railway network in Myanmar is underdeveloped, given the population of 60 million and the large size of the country.

"People in Myanmar prefer taking aeroplanes, even for journeys of less than several hundred kilometres, reflecting the backward development of toll roads or railways," Chow says.
There would be great potential for Hong Kong's MTR Corporation to explore the railway market in Myanmar, he says.

As for the power problem, Chow says Hongkong Electric is poised to invest in Myanmar.
"Myanmar is rich in natural gas resources, which could be used for recouping the initial losses in power plants and grid construction," he says. Power Assets, the parent company of Hongkong Electric, said it was looking at many investment opportunities aboard.

For Hong Kong companies of small to medium size, which lack government backing to help them compete with their Japanese and Korean rivals, Chow suggests that they bolster their chances by forming a consortium comprised of all the related professionals, from lawyers, accountants, bankers and architect to contractors and construction companies.

"We could form a company, dubbed Hong Kong Inc, to leverage the expertise from every level, ranging from funding, legal advice to construction of the project," Chow says. And the Hong Kong government and the Trade Development Council should negotiate with the Myanmese government on its behalf, he says.

However, architect Cheung Kwong-wing, director of Dennis Lau & Ng Chun Man Architects & Engineers (HK), is doubtful about the returns on infrastructure projects in Myanmar.

He points to the charge levied for driving the 320-kilometre toll road between Yangon and Naypyidaw, which at US$10 per coach, or less than three US cents per kilometre, is far below the level charged in mainland China.

Cheung says residential or hotel property and trade-related facilities such as logistics service centres and convention centres would have a better chance of paying their way.

Kuok agrees that property development has great potential in Yangon. He is looking for a local partner to develop some upmarket residential projects with fewer than 100 flats in the city.

The prices of flats at a newly built low-rise apartment building on the main road in Yangon are between US$120,000 and US$150,000. The area of the flats is 1,000 square feet, giving a price per square foot of between HK$936 and HK$1,170.

"It is very promising," says Kuok, who estimates it costs about HK$700 per square foot to build such flats.

Architecture, construction and building service companies in Hong Kong are in the process of diversifying their portfolios away from mainland China, since the cooling measures by Beijing have put some property projects there on hold.

"We have to prepare for worse when things still look pleasant," Cheung says. Myanmar is a market with great opportunities compared with other countries in Southeast Asia, which are more mature and sophisticated and have less room for Hong Kong professionals, he says.

A lack of urban planning, poor road-junction management and a shortage of roads, flyovers and tunnels in Yangon have fuelled traffic jams in the city, which is creating a drag on the economic growth of the country.

"Myanmar is developing rapidly but the infrastructure facilities there fall short of demand and will curb its growth to a certain degree," says Otto Poon, chairman of Analogue Holdings, a Hong Kong building services company.