Burmese Returnees Bet on Frontier Economy’s Future

By Elaine Kurtenbach 2 May 2014

RANGOON — Former Google executive Nay Aung was philosophic as a crisis brewed at the Rangoon headquarters of his Oway online travel services company.

“I’m still struggling,” the tanned, muscular 34-year-old said as he apologized for interruptions during a recent meeting in his sparsely furnished office. “What I have, 60 percent is what I want. 40 percent, I just have to cope with it. It is what it is,” he said.

Like China, which relied heavily on overseas Chinese in Hong Kong and elsewhere to finance its own industrial boom, Burma has high hopes its diaspora will help rebuild its economy and lift millions out of poverty.

Nay Aung, a 34-year-old Stanford graduate and former business operations and strategy manager at Google Inc., is among a vanguard of overseas-trained professionals who have returned to Burma to find both opportunities and challenges. Many are setting up companies in niches that bridge the chasm between the city’s antiquated hardware and the 21st-century world of Wi-Fi and online business.

So far, trends suggest the heavy lifting for investment, especially in manufacturing, will depend more on overseas Chinese who prospered from China’s ascent as an industrial power and now are seeking fresh opportunities.

Data show foreign investment amounting to US $46.3 billion as of March 31, the lion’s share of it from China, Thailand and Hong Kong. The total amount invested by all Burmese citizens was equivalent to about $4.7 million.

After 15 years in California, Nay Aung said he felt he’d gotten enough corporate experience for a project of his own.

“It seemed like [Burma] was about to re-open, so I decided to take a risk and come back. It was just a part of me wanted to come back since the beginning and a part of me just was at a stage in my career when I wanted to try something new,” he said in an interview at his bustling office in Junction Square, a new commercial complex in downtown Rangoon.

Burma’s leaders are banking on investment in export manufacturing and services to help the country emerge from the poverty and isolation that deepened under Western sanctions against its former military-led regime in the 2000s. The goal is to create factory jobs for the more than two-thirds of the population still working in the country’s once prosperous but long neglected farm sector.

Along with money, Burma needs skilled manpower to lead its economic revival. One area where the country is forging ahead is in telecommunications and technology, where there are fewer vested interests to obstruct newcomers.

Many working in the IT field are returnees like Nay Aung and business partners Minn Thein, Godfrey Tan and Michelle Winn, high school acquaintances who left Burma as teens and earned technology and business degrees in the United States before deciding to return to Rangoon in late 2012.

Minn Thein worked as an IT consultant for 13 years at Avanade, a joint venture between Microsoft and Accenture, earning six figures, and settling down in Seattle with his wife and two kids.

The company he founded with Tan and Winn, Frontiir, set up a Wi-Fi network between two universities that has expanded into a technology support firm employing dozens.

“We want to bring what we think is best of Silicon Valley to [Burma]. That’s our dream,” Minn Thein said.

While returnees are active in Burma’s technology and finance industries, they’ve so far had little impact in other areas, says Rachel Calvert, a senior consultant at IHS in Singapore.

A few older tycoons, like Serge Pun, whose Hong Kong-registered Yoma Strategic Holdings has 30 companies in nine sectors spanning real estate development and trading to automobile assembly, returned early on and have influence and wealth reflecting their longstanding ties.

Moe Myint, a former pilot to Burma’s late leader Ne Win, worked in California before returning home to found Myint & Associates, an oil services company that has grown into one of the country’s biggest energy companies.

But most recent, younger returnees are operating on the fringes of Burma’s economy.

“All the young Burmese returnees I’ve met have been in the financial sector, in investment, international development agencies, the telecoms space,” said Calvert. “You’re part of the foreign investment, rather than community figures shaping things from the inside out.”

Burma lacks some of China’s key advantages, including having a wealthy enclave like Hong Kong right on its border.

“There’s no equivalent of that in Burma. It’s much poorer,” said Sean Turnell, an Australian economist who follows Burma closely.

Burma has sought to balance China’s huge investments in its energy and mining sectors with increasing commitments from Hong Kong, Japanese, Korean and European firms. But many of the Hong Kong manufacturers investing in Burma’s industrial zones have been operating for years in the Chinese mainland. So the lines are blurring as Hong Kong-based manufacturers expand into new industrial zones like Thilawa, just south of Rangoon, where a dozen Hong Kong garment makers are planning to set up factories that will employ up to 30,000 people.

Today’s returnees might take heed of the experience of those who came back earlier, like Tun Thura Thet, CEO of software company Myanmar Information Technology (MIT), who returned in 1997 and waited 17 years for business to really pick up, all the while struggling to avoid running afoul of the whims of the authoritarian leadership.

“I’ve seen ups and downs and also false hopes,” Tun Thura Thet said. For MIT, the break came in the form of cooperation with big international software companies like Oracle and Google, he says.

But there’s still huge room for improvement: Less than 1 percent of Burma’s residents have bank accounts. Fewer than 1 in 10 have Internet access. “This has to be fixed,” said Tun Thura Thet.

Then there’s the problem of infrastructure, including enough power capacity to keep the lights on and factory machines humming without interruption, and training, public transport and logistical capacity to handle surging flows of goods and people.

Tun Thura Thet said he and many others in IT work mostly at night, when pressure on limited bandwidths is less intense.

It’s a world apart, said Nay Aung.

“I had a great time at Google: The culture that I was immersed in. My goal was to create a mini, very transparent and innovative version of that culture here,” he said.

“There are times it works. There are times it doesn’t work in terms of how you try to select people,” he said. “You just have to believe in what you want to do.”

Associated Press writer Aye Aye Win contributed to this report.