Myanmar’s top brass have high hopes about developing the country’s mining sector. This month, Rangoon will be hosting its first major industry conference since sanctions on the country were lifted by the United States, European Union, Japan, Canada, and Australia this spring. While the government’s reasons for wanting to tap into Myanmar’s natural resource wealth are obvious, its potential in copper, natural gas, and precious stones like rubies means that now may also be a good time for investors to step forward.
As the once-pariah state attracts international attention not only from diplomats, but also from the business community, Myanmar’s challenge will be to move toward economic growth while ensuring that natural resource profits are distributed so that they benefit the population at large. There are certainly ample opportunities for the private sector to develop Myanmar’s mining sector, and investors will be closely watching the Myanmar Mining Summit, which will be hosted in Rangoon by the Ministry of Mines from July 22 to 25.
In addition to Union Minister of Mines U Thein Htike and U Aung Naing Oo, director general of the Directorate of Investment and Company Administration, Owen Hegarty, former managing director of Rio Tinto Asia (LSE:RIO,ASX:RIO,NYSE:RIO), and Marc Rathbone, a counsel at Clifford Chance’s Singapore office, will also be speaking at the summit. Over 200 participants from over 22 countries are expected to attend the event.
Myanmar produced about 7,000 metric tons of copper in 2008, 54 percent lower than the previous year, and only about a quarter of the 28,000 metric tons produced in 2002, according to the US Geological Survey. Analysts broadly agree that the country’s copper and mineral wealth clearly exists and could easily rebound at least to its former levels now that sanctions have been lifted. However, the country sorely lacks infrastructure, including roads and a steady energy supply. By encouraging more foreign investment, the country will not only be able to cash in on its mineral wealth, but will also be able to secure much-needed assistance for infrastructure development.
For the private sector, Myanmar’s allure is on the rise. The Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) estimates that the average monthly salary in Myanmar was about $95 last year, or about one-fifth of the average in China. JETRO also expects Myanmar’s GDP to reach that of Vietnam in 13 years’ time, and that of Thailand in 30 years. Japanese companies have certainly been eager to invest in the country; trading group ITOCHU (TSE:8001) has been exploring the country’s rare earth potential since May, while its rival Marubeni (TSE:8002) is planning to put its money into energy development. China, however, takes the lead in investing in Myanmar, having put in about $8.2 billion since 1990. Japan’s total is about $200 million thus far, JETRO reported.
Myanmar not only holds natural resource potential, but is also a “market that has a lot of potential which is still not fully uncovered,” said one JETRO official.
In 2011, Ivanhoe sold its 50 percent stake in the Monywa copper project to a Chinese consortium led by Chinese defense group China North Industries, better known as Norinco, for $103 million. Ivanhoe secured its 50 percent share in the copper mine in 1994; the remaining 50 percent was held by the Burmese military regime. In 2006, Ivanhoe partnered with Rio Tinto to develop Mongolia’s Oyu Tolgoi mine, and Rio Tinto agreed to dispose of Ivanhoe’s Burmese assets, which were put into the Monywa Trust in 2007 as part of the deal, according to Wikileaks. As a result, China’s Norinco is currently the country’s biggest copper mine operator.
But given that Myanmar has a mining ministry as well as separate ministries for coal, forestry, and energy, it is clear that the government is eager to encourage the development of its mining potential moving forward. Yet Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the opposition and the country’s top stateswoman, pointed out the need for the government to be strategic in developing the private sector.
“We do not want investment to mean greater inequality. And we do not want investment to mean greater privileges for those already privileged,” she said at the World Economic Forum on East Asia, held in Bangkok from May 30 to June 1. She also cautioned against unrealistic expectations both from Myanmar’s citizens and the business community, commenting, “[o]ptimism is good but it should be cautious optimism. I have come across reckless optimism. A little bit of healthy skepticism is in order.”
Political risks also remain, even as the country begins to embrace a more democratic political process. Vice President Tin Aung Myint Oo’s resignation in early July has made it possible for Suu Kyi’s opposition to perhaps work in parliament for the first time. Yet “there has been speculation within the country that President Thein Sein’s reforms over the past year, which have seen the lifting of international sanctions, opening up of foreign investment and the re-engagement of opposition leader Aung Sun Suu Kyi, will lead to a confrontation between the reformists in the government and the military, who remains the key player in Myanmar politics and remains opposed to unlimited reform,” stated London-based intelligence group Exclusive Analysis.
With or without risks, Northeast Asian investors are stepping up their efforts to put money and manpower into Myanmar and are hoping for greater returns.
Securities Disclosure: I, Shihoko Goto, hold no direct investment interest in any company mentioned in this article.