Foreign Booze Returns to Burma’s Shelves—For Now

By Kyaw Hsu Mon 2 January 2014

RANGOON — Burma’s retailers resumed sales of foreign wines, beers and spirits just in time for New Year’s revelry as the authorities eased the threat of seizures that had left shelves empty. But imports remain restricted as the government reviews its import policy, and it remains to be seen how long the booze will last.

Restrictive government policy dating back to the former military regimes had led to widespread illegal importing of alcohol, until the Ministry of Commerce’s mobile task force initiated crackdowns on retailers’ warehouses in Rangoon and Mandalay.

It is unclear why the authorities suddenly decided to enforce what had been widely-flouted restrictions, and why distributers rather than importers—hotels and duty free shops that include crony-owned businesses-were targeted.

A spokesman for the country’s biggest retailer, City Mart Holdings, said sales had resumed in the firm’s stores.

“We started selling booze again since Dec. 28, before New Year’s Eve, including wines and other alcoholic products,” the spokesman said, adding that the new sales were above board. “All are tax-paid bottles.”

One of City Mart’s suppliers, Premium Food Service Products, was raided in early December, with about 90,000 bottles of wine and spirits seized. Directors both of Premium and Quarto Food Products, another supplier that was raided in October, are still facing trail for importing alcohol without paying duties.

After the sudden enforcement of the rules, which came without warning to most retailers, complaints grew from customers and businesses as the supply of foreign alcohol dried up. The government has eased its enforcement now, however.

Soe Aung, assistant director of the mobile team, said that the team would not raid shops selling imported alcohol.

“We won’t investigate on the shelves, but in the warehouses,” he said, adding that at present, no warehouses are being investigated.

But it remains unclear where the new alcohol is coming from. No new regulations are in place to import more booze legally, and the authorized importers are not allowed to sell on their imported alcohol to distributers or retailers.

Soe Aung said all the alcohol seized by the team had been handed over to the Customs Department, but that he did not know where that alcohol had ended up.

The Customs Department does not have a spokesman and officials do not speak to the media.

Than Aung Kyaw, director of the Ministry of Commerce’s trade directorate, said the foreign alcohol situation was being handled on a month-by-month basis.

For now, he said, sales of foreign booze are allowed as the broader trade policy that seeks to restrict imports on some types of foreign goods—including tobacco and processed foods, as well as alcohol—is reviewed.

“The policy on imported foreign booze is a specific part of overall trade policy. Alcohol products are [currently] a limited product, so while we’re considering more imports of foreign booze, they [the mobile team] plan to ease the rules for retail shops,” Than Aung Kyaw said.

“We need to consider how to allow the sale of alcohol—wholesale or retail—as well as tax collecting systems,” he added.

Ko Thadoe Swe, a Rangoon resident and a regular customer at drinks retailers, said he was glad to see the shelves of the country’s major retailers full of drink once again.

“But the price has significantly increased,” he complained. “Especially Red Label and Black Label [Johnny Walker whiskey], which has gone up from 3,000 kyats to 7,000 kyats [about US$3 to $7].”