The Irrawaddy Business Roundup (Sept. 27, 2014)

By William Boot 27 September 2014

Size Matters in Debate on Dams to Solve Burma’s Electricity Shortage

Large-scale hydroelectric river dams pose environmental dangers for Burma, energy companies at an investment conference in Naypyidaw have warned.

The representatives of two foreign and Burmese firms said it would be safer to build smaller hydro dams on Burma’s rivers to help solve the country’s acute electricity shortages.

The warnings against mammoth dams came from APR Energy, a US power plant provider, and Parami Energy Group of Burma, Eleven Media reported.

But the conference also heard Vikram Kumar, Burma resident representative of the International Finance Corporation (IFC), voice his support for all forms of hydro dams, saying that major financial institutions “don’t want to provide technical and financial assistance when power generation methods are not based on clean energy.”

The IFC is part of the World Bank.

The Naypyidaw government is still negotiating with Chinese and Thai companies for the development of large hydroelectric dams on some of Burma’s major rivers, notably the Salween, which borders Thailand.

APR Energy in June installed and began operating a gas-fueled 100-megawatt power plant at Kyaukse in the Mandalay region.

APR is contracted to operate the mobile plant for two years, after which it could be shut down, dismantled and moved elsewhere.

Myawaddy Trade Route With Thailand Soars Despite Thai Coup

Imports from Thailand via the Mae Sot-Myawaddy border crossing totaled US$130 million in just five months from April 1, Burma’s Ministry of Commerce said.

Most of the imports were vehicles, including cars and farm equipment, motorcycles and mobile phones.

The trade was largely one way, with Burmese exports through the border crossing a mere $8.15 million, said Eleven Media, quoting the ministry.

Myawaddy is the biggest of seven land border trading points between Burma and Thailand, and the strong value of imports in this fiscal year comes despite a forced slowdown in May immediately after the military coup in Thailand.

Trade has grown so much that Thailand is financing a new $94 million bridge over the River Moei linking Mae Sot with Myawaddy.

Construction is scheduled to begin in early 2015 and be completed within a year, according to World Highways magazine.

Bangladesh’s ‘Chronic Instability’ May Aid Burma Garment Industry

Two of Burma’s neighbors have received black marks in a report by an international business risk assessor.

The black marks went to Bangladesh and, more surprisingly, Malaysia.

“Chronic regime instability, high levels of political violence and a poorly developed judicial framework pose significant governance-related risks to investors in Bangladesh,” said Maplecroft of Britain.

Bangladesh is a rival to Burma in attracting foreign investment in garment and textile manufacturing, but Maplecroft said the Bangladeshi sector is still “facing intense international scrutiny” over safety standards and labor rights following a disastrous factory collapse in 2013 that killed more than 1,100 workers.

On Malaysia, Maplecroft said that although it still offered “substantial opportunities” to investors, particularly in the energy and retail sectors, “challenges to rule of law such as political interference over the judiciary and corruption as well as affirmative action ‘bumiputera’ policies present significant impediments for investors.”

Bumiputera refers to the state policy of giving preferential opportunities to Malaysia’s ethnic Malay population ahead of ethnic Chinese and Indian communities.

Visa Muddle Allows Two-Tier Entry System in Burma, Says Trade Paper

More than 70,000 people who arrived in Burma via Rangoon Airport between January-August were granted on-the-spot entry visas, a travel trade magazine said, quoting immigration officials.

A total of 74,500 people—most of them Chinese and Japanese—obtained visas at the airport despite supposed restrictions, said TTR Weekly, quoting Burma’s Ministry of Immigration.

“Most airlines will not allow passengers to fly to [Rangoon] without a visa, or documents entitling them to apply for a business visa on arrival. They are not technically visas-on-arrival, but more akin to a pre-arranged visa that has undergone security clearance ahead of the trip and then endorsed at the airport,” reported TTR Weekly.

It’s not clear how so many people were admitted into Burma in this way unless they were mostly business visitors, the trade magazine said.

With the total number of visitors climbing over 2 million per year and likely to be 3 million by the end of 2014, Burma is attempting to ease long queues at some of its embassies abroad by introducing an electronic visa available on the Internet from Sept. 1. But there are restrictions with this system, including only being valid on flights arriving to Rangoon.

Travelers planning to arrive in Burma via a land border or an airport other than Rangoon must still obtain a visa from a Burmese embassy or consulate, said TTR Weekly.

Thein Sein Urges Fight to End Hunger as Burma Exports More Rice

Southeast Asian countries need to “work hand in hand” to achieve UN targets of reducing hunger and malnutrition in the region, Burma’s President Thein Sein was quoted by the Chinese state news agency Xinhua as saying.

He called on Asean, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, to ensure food security through sustainable agricultural development. Thein Sein made the call at a meeting of Asean agriculture ministers in Naypyidaw.

“Asean member states must work hand in hand to meet the objectives of the UN Millennium Development Goals with the aim of zero hunger by 2025,” Thein Sein said.

Burma holds the chairmanship of Asean this year.

But another conference, held by the Regional Civil Society Dialogue to Improve Food Security, was told that Burma is promoting exports of its food produce, especially rice, while segments of the population suffer from malnutrition.

“[Burma] is among the list of countries with food security issues along with Cambodia, Laos and the Philippines,” Eleven Media quoted Ohnmar Khine of the Food Security Working Group as saying. “[Burma] is the worst for food security and malnutrition in the Asean region.”

The country exported 1.27 million tons of rice in 2013, according to a World Bank report, and the Myanmar Rice Federation is making efforts to increase exports to 2 million this year, the Myanmar Times has reported.