The Irrawaddy Business Roundup (February 1, 2014)

By William Boot 1 February 2014

UK Govt Spotlights Forced Labor by Army in Teak Logging Racket

Concerns about the alleged use of forced labor by an Army-linked commercial teak logging operation in Shan State were voiced by a British government minister during his visit to Burma this week.

London Foreign Office Minister Hugo Swire told the British Parliament on January 27 he intended discussing the allegations while in Naypyidaw to meet senior Burmese government officials.

Britain’s Parliament heard allegations from the Shan Human Rights Foundation that villagers in Murng Paeng Township are being used as forced labor by Burmese soldiers providing security for “military-linked logging operations above the planned Ta Sang Dam” on the Salween River.

The Shan group said a group of ex-army officers were involved in cutting down valuable teak forest surrounding the planned dam. The group has collected photographic evidence of teak logs stacked near Tachileik, on the Thai-Burmese border, ready for export to Thailand or China.

Swire also voiced concern about the possible involvement of a British company in the Ta Sang Dam development, which is currently at a standstill over financing and other issues.

The British firm Malcolm Dunstan Associates has been involved in the past with work at the dam site, where hundreds of Shan villagers have been forcibly moved.

“We make clear to every British company operating in Burma that their investment should be made responsibly and in line with international standards,” Swire told the Parliament.

In Burma, Swire said the country had made much progress but the issue of human rights for all citizens was far from a reality.

Japan Urges Developers to Protect Rangoon’s Tourist Attractions

Rangoon has been urged by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) to avoid damaging or demolishing the valuable architectural heritage in the rush to modernize the city.

The city’s unique architecture, ranging from ancient temples to colonial buildings was a key attraction for the growing tourism industry and should be protected, the regional travel trade magazine TTR Weekly quoted JICA representative Shinji Yo Okusawoka saying.

JICA is involved in financing and advising on plans by the city government to develop a new transport infrastructure for Rangoon which is becoming clogged with rising traffic levels, like so many other Asia cities.

“When drawing up plans, we have to consider the situation of the natural environment and social surroundings. If the transport project does not cause damage to housing and the natural environment, people will accept it,” Okusawoka said.

“[Rangoon] has the opportunity to develop a system almost from scratch and learn from mistakes other countries made,” said TTR Weekly.

Burma’s Planned Stock Exchange Will Have $32M Cash Float

The new stock exchange in Rangoon, due to begin trading in the last quarter of 2015, will have a start-up cash “float” of 32 billion kyat—equivalent to US$32.5 million.

That’s the estimate of deputy finance minister Maung Maung Thein as the Burmese government aided by Japanese financial know-how prepare for the launch date, Eleven Media reported.

Almost half of the start-up capital will be provided by Japan’s Daiwa Securities Group and the Tokyo Stock Exchange, partners with Burma’s central bank, said the minister.

Burmese firms wishing to be listed on the exchange will have to comply with minimum business standards which will be detailed in exchange rules still being drafted.

“Only companies which meet the standards will be allowed registration for the exchange,” said Maung Maung Thein.

Thai Firms Urged by Bangkok’s Envoy to Invest in Burma quickly

Burma is ripe for investment by Thai businesses in the run up to the creation of a Southeast Asian single market at the end of 2015, the Bangkok government’s ambassador in Rangoon said.

“Many other rival countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and Asia, namely South Korea and Japan, are now also eager to invest in [Burma],” said the state Thai News Agency (TNA) quoting Ambassador Pisanu Suvanajata.

“Thailand should, therefore, have a clear investment direction toward [Burma] so that the country will not be slower than other rival countries in benefiting from investment opportunities,” Pisanu said.

The Asean Economic Community (AEC) is scheduled to begin towards the end of 2015, after being twice postponed, with the objective of removing trade and labor movement barriers.

“Thailand is also capable in investment areas that [Burma] needs, including infrastructure, construction and other labour-intensive businesses, and service sectors [such as] health, beauty, insurance,” TNA quoted Pisanu saying in an interview.

Thein Sein Aims to Raise Burma’s GDP in 2014-15 to 9.1%

The Burmese government is aiming to raise the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) to more than 9 percent for the 2014-15 financial year, President Thein Sein told a development conference in Naypyidaw.

The hoped-for target of 9.1 percent would be almost 2 percent higher than the 7.3 percent predicted for the current financial year, he was quoted by Eleven Media as saying.

GDP is the measure of a country’s overall productiveness.

Naypyidaw is aiming to focus on rural development in the next financial year, via development aid, interest-free loans, foreign direct investment and technical assistance, Thein Sein told the second national development cooperation forum.

In addition, the government plans to give priority during its final phase before national elections to improving electricity, drinking water, agricultural development, tourism development and financial services.