Economy

The Irrawaddy Business Roundup (Jan. 24, 2015)

By William Boot 24 January 2015

Open Data Survey Puts Burma Bottom of the Accountability Table

Burma has been ranked at the bottom of a list of 86 countries in a study on openness of public information available from government, state agencies and private businesses.

The Open Data Barometer analysis places Burma in a group of a 10 countries that it describes as capacity-constrained.

“[They] all face challenges in establishing sustainable open data initiatives as a result of: limited government; civil society or private sector capacity; limits on affordable widespread Internet access; and weaknesses in digital data collection and management.”

Burma’s neighbors also fared poorly in the study. The constrained cluster group of 10 included Thailand and Bangladesh, as well as Indonesia and Vietnam within Southeast Asia. Laos and Cambodia were not assessed.

It’s the first year that Burma has been included in the study, which named China as making the biggest improvement since the 2013 survey.

The Open Data Barometer survey, published by the World Wide Web Foundation, recommended several steps for countries to follow to improve openness, including political commitment to disclosure of public sector data, particularly the data most critical to accountability; sustained investment in supporting and training a broad cross-section of civil society and entrepreneurs to understand and use data effectively; and legal reform to “ensure that guarantees of the right to information and the right to privacy underpin open data initiatives.”

UK Trade Ministry Promotes Burma Energy Industry as Oil Prices Crash

The British government is encouraging British firms to invest in Burma’s oil and gas industry at a time when five-year low oil prices are putting a brake on new investment in exploration and production.

Most of the foreign firms awarded licenses for 20 offshore exploration blocks in Burma in March 2014 are still negotiating terms for production-sharing contracts with the state-controlled Myanma Oil & Gas Enterprise (MOGE). Terms have become much more critical for potential profitability with international oil prices, and to a lesser extent natural gas, plummeting since July.

Thailand’s PTTEP signaled this month that it is reviewing its capital expenditure program in Burma, among other countries, because of the oil price slump, which is squeezing profit margins, especially for offshore work.

However, the British Department of Trade & Industry says in a just published 16-page study that Burma is a “hotspot” for oil and gas investment.

“The [Burmese] Ministry of Energy indicated that the next bidding round for offshore oil and gas exploration blocks is likely to take place in 2015. UK companies … interested should start investigating opportunities now,” the study said.

The human rights NGO Burma Campaign UK said the British government was putting emphasis on the wrong business development for Burma.

“The energy sector is not labor intensive, not many Burmese people will benefit from such investment, and revenues will go directly to the government, which still spends more money on the military than on health and education combined,” campaign director Mark Farmaner told The Irrawaddy. “As British oil companies announce they are cutting back in the North Sea because of falling oil prices, the British government is telling them to invest billions in Burma.”

Plans for Tin Smelter Plant in Burma Revived by Indonesian Firm

Indonesia’s largest tin mining company, state-owned PT Timah, has renewed proposals to build a smelter in Burma, reports said.

Timah will invest more than US$8 million in the smelter, the Jakarta Post said, although it’s still not clear where the plant might be built.

The company last year canceled plans for a smelter following exploration of a tin mining concession around Bokpyin in Tenasserim Division, the result of which it described as disappointing.

The Jakarta Globe newspaper said the Indonesian government had imposed limits on tin exports, making Burma a more financially attractive investment.

Indonesia is one of the world’s biggest producers of tin but, as with other locally mined commodities, the Jakarta government wants to restrict exports in order to supply the domestic market to help Southeast Asia’s biggest economy expand.

Timah has two joint ventures in Burma, PT Timah Myanmar Mining and PT Timah Myanmar, the Jakarta Post said. The local partners were not named.

Burma Aims for Barrier-Free Tourist Travel Among Asean Countries

The Naypyidaw government is keen to join a “barrier-free tourism” strategy within the 10 member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), a travel trade magazine said.

Unrestricted cross-border travel for tourism should become part of Asean’s plans for establishing a regional economic community similar to the European Union’s tariff-free trade system from the end of this year, Burma’s Tourism Minister Htay Aung told TTR Weekly.

“We attach the highest importance to addressing barrier-free tourism in the new Asean tourism strategy,” he said. “We should create special equipped barrier-free destinations in order to facilitate travel for everyone.”

Responsible tourism and community involvement are part of a roadmap for the future development of tourism in Burma, the minister told TTR Weekly in an interview. “[Burma’s] policies are in line with the wider Asean Tourism Policy,” he said, describing the growing industry as a national priority.

Thailand Praised, But ‘More Action Needed’ to End Burmese Labor Abuse

The Thai government “still has much work to do to improve working conditions” in the country’s fishing industry, which employs many thousands of Burmese migrant workers, a labor rights group said.

The International Labor Rights Forum praised the Bangkok government’s decision to seek to tighten rules governing the industry, from fishing boat operations to factories where fish are processed and canned for export.

The government move follows negative international publicity spotlighting forced labor, cheating on wages, the use of child labor and confiscation of documents to prevent Burmese workers from leaving Thailand.

“Legislative changes alone will not succeed without much stronger enforcement and focus on ensuring the rule of law in both migration policy and on fishing boats,” the forum’s Abby McGill in the United States said in a statement.

“Improving working conditions within the industry and bolstering the rights of Thailand’s migrant workforce, including by granting them the right to form unions, is vital to actually address human trafficking in Thailand’s fishing industry.”

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