Burma Business Roundup (Aug. 10)

By William Boot 10 August 2013

US Import Ban on Rubies, Jade Stays Due to ‘Problematic Burmese’

The United States is maintaining an import ban on Burmese precious stones such as rubies as well as jade.

The ban will stay because some of the people involved in their mining and trade still “contribute to human rights abuses or undermine Burma’s democratic reform process,” the US deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said in a statement.

It was renewed as part of an otherwise general relaxation of trading between the two countries as many US sanctions expired at the end of July.

“President Obama fully supported the expiration of the broader ban on imports from Burma and is taking this step to advance our policy of promoting responsible economic engagement and encouraging reform that directly benefits the Burmese people,” Rhodes said in the White House statement on Wednesday.

“The removal of the broad ban on imports of articles other than jadeite and rubies, and articles of jewellery containing them, represents the next step in the Administration’s continued efforts to promote responsible trade and investment in support of Burma’s reform process,” he said.

Reuters news agency quoted an unnamed US official as saying, “We want to encourage responsible trade and investment in Burma, and at the same time we want to continue to target … those sectors and entities and individuals that we consider to be problematic.”

The continuing ban on jade and rubies is “largely an act of political symbolism,” said the former British ambassador to Thailand and Vietnam, Derek Tonkin, who is now chairman of the non-profit Network Myanmar.

“China is far and away the greatest importer of jadeite, while the [US] ban on imports of rubies affects Thai and Singaporean jewellery exporters as much if not more than [Burma] itself,” he wrote in a statement on the Network Myanmar website.

Thailand Named Burma’s Biggest Investor in January-June Period

Thailand was the biggest investor in Burma in the first half of this year, according to figures from the Ministry of National Planning and Economic Development.

Thai companies spent US$410 million in investments in the January-June period.

Thailand was also the second-biggest two-way trader with Burma in the half year, behind China, said local media and the Chinese news agency Xinhua.

The half year saw significant investments also from Vietnam, with $140 million, and Singapore with $136 million.

The largest investments were in energy developments, including power generation, oil and gas exploration, said the ministry.

The Burmese government recently authorized the opening up of more commercial trade border points with Thailand.

Both Thailand and China are listed as the biggest overall investors in Burma in recent years.

The ministry says China has invested a total of $14 billion and Thailand $10 billion. However, it gives no time frame for these investments, or what they were for.

One-Way Land Border Crossings Planned to Boost Foreign Tourism

Foreign tourists traveling in the Mekong region will soon be allowed to cross into Burma from land borders in Thailand and then leave by air from Mandalay or Rangoon, according to the regional tourism industry magazine TTR Weekly.

At present, foreigners can cross into Burma from Thailand at several northern border points but must leave their passports to ensure they return back to the same border post, usually the same day.

TTR Weekly quoted Burma’s Ministry of Information as saying that this restriction was undermining tourism income and would end by the end of this year.

“We expect the tourism industry will show good signs of improvement once the new measure is introduced,” Aung Win Thein, head of the Immigration Administration and National Registration of Myawaddy District, was quoted as saying by TTR Weekly.

However, foreigners will still need a visa in advance before crossing into Burma through land borders.

Japanese Business Group in Rangoon to Find Local Investment Partners

Burma is to get technical help from Japanese companies on constructing high-rise buildings in Rangoon, said the Myanmar Construction Entrepreneurs Association (MCEA).

Representatives from Japan’s Construction Entrepreneurs Association met officials of the MCEA to discuss cooperation, reported Eleven Media.

The linkup between the two associations came in the same week that a delegation of 50 Japanese companies led by the Tokyo government-funded Japan External Trade Organization (Jetro) held meetings in Rangoon with the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry.

The Jetro-sponsored visit was to help Japanese firms find business investment partners in energy, construction, real estate, consumer goods, clothing, warehousing, machinery and information technology, according to an Eleven Media report.

Bangladesh Sea Gas Hunt Draws Blank as Burma Readies to Explore

A survey of two deep-water blocks in Bangladesh’s part of the Bay of Bengal adjacent to Burma has failed to find any signs of natural gas.

The two dimensional survey of blocks 10 and 11 by the US major oil company ConocoPhillips has so far been unsuccessful, reported EnergyBangla, the Dhaka-based oil and gas news website.

The two blocks cover about 2,500 square kilometers of sea, said EnergyBangla.

In July, the state-owned oil company PetroBangla said the country had failed to attract any firm bids for several new offshore blocks in shallow seas of the Bay of Bengal.

Burma’s Ministry of Energy, working with the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise, is in the middle of assessing international offers to explore for gas and oil in 30 blocks in shallow and deep waters of the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea.