Mon Business Plans on the up and up

By Kyaw Hsu Mon 1 September 2015

Myanmar’s recent census results revealed a population in Mon State of 2.054 million; four percent of the country’s 51.4 million total population. More than 425,000 Mon are living abroad, according to the census, including more than 385,000 in Thailand. Prominent Mon businessman Min Banyar San is among those seeking to encourage migrant workers to return. The 46-year-old is a major shareholder of Tala Mon Company which is involved in bus lines, hotels, construction and food manufacturing. The firm is also behind the planned development of the historic Thai-Myanmar “Death Railway” site in Thanbyuzayat Township. Min Banyar San spoke to The Irrawaddy’s Kyaw Hsu Mon about plans for the site and on promoting business ventures in his native state. 

When was Tala Mon Company established?

We started the business in 2010-11. At that time, Mon elders decided to set up their own businesses in Mon State by sharing capital. I was the only young businessman among them, and I was really happy to be working with them. The first business was a bus company. Before 2010, it was difficult for people to travel to Mon State and other southern areas. It was really difficult to get a bus operating license before the country began changing. In 2010, we received the license. At that time, I was only the director of the business. After one year, we opened a restaurant in Mon State and two years later, I became company president.

Last year, the Mon State government allowed Tala Mon to develop a museum at the site of the Death Railway in Thanbyuzayat Township.

I also have my own business, KHG holdings, of which I am vice president. We’re involved in construction, soft drink production, mobile phone sim card sales, LPG gas distribution and hotel projects. Hintha Holdings Ltd in Mon State is also a family business.

What’s behind the increase in Mon-run businesses?

As far back as 10 years ago, some Mon elders wanted to help establish Mon-owned businesses to run as public companies. We wanted to further state development since we don’t have a budget from the government for some projects. For example, we do not have enough funding for Mon language schools, to hold Mon National Day or to promote Mon culture. We usually collect donations to hold these events each year and we couldn’t run them efficiently. That’s why we thought we needed to build up businesses owned by ethnic Mon.

Tala Mon decided to donate 10 to 15 percent of profits to Mon society. Then we would expand our businesses, as well as support some Mon businesspersons who didn’t know how to make money. We also decided to support Mon students to study abroad. Because many young Mon are migrant workers in Thailand, if we want to welcome them back, this is the [ideal] chance.

Many people were interested in investing in our company from the beginning. At first, about 380 shareholders expressed interest. We have 1 billion kyat [US$891,000] in capital right now. As we’re still expanding the businesses, capital is still required.

Do you think you can encourage Mon migrant workers in Thailand to return?

Mon State is actually better placed than some other regions of the country, not because the state economy is good but because Mon people are working abroad and sending money home to support their families. We practically have no workforce in the state. But if we welcome them back, how can they survive? The government needs to create more jobs. But we can’t wait for the government. If we can work with foreign partners, we can create jobs as well. For example, while we’re building the museum, we have vacancies. Experienced workers are a priority. Those who can’t come back to the country can still invest in our project, like opening shops around the museum. We will reach our goal one day.

Do you feel ethnic Mon have equal opportunities to start their own businesses?

Actually, there is no discrimination. The main thing is you have to work closely with the government. Many people talk about the crony economy in Myanmar and there are also some ethnic cronies in business. But the weakness is that we have little capital. Establishing relationships with foreigners is also a weak point as well as low education and a lack of experience. That’s why the number of ethnic nationality-run businesses is still low. I also wonder why some businesspersons are hesitant to publicize their ethnicity. I am a Mon until the end of my life. I can’t change. There are many challenges in doing business in Myanmar, whether one is from an ethnic minority group or not.

Why is most FDI directed to the major centers and not to ethnic areas?

A lot of FDI is going to the cities because there is better infrastructure. Yangon and Mandalay have the biggest industrial centers and better transport. In Mon State, we lack good infrastructure and regular electricity, there are no seaports and poor transport.

Investors need incentives. They will see the deficiencies and won’t invest. That’s why most FDI will go to cities first and very little business may come to us. We need to prepare things before they come. Meanwhile we can create our own projects ourselves if we can work together. For example, we have rubber plantations in Mon State.

Can you tell me more about your company’s plans for the museum in Thanbyuzayat Township?

We expect the Death Railway Memorial Museum will open by the end of the year. The Death Railway was an infamous project during the Second World War. The rail line was built by the Japanese using British and other Allied soldiers, as well as many Mon.

The British and Allied soldiers have a very good cemetery honoring them. But the more than 60,000 ethnic Mon and other ethnic nationalities who died working on the railway aren’t recognized. The Japanese have still not paid compensation for this; some of their compensation has gone to the government, not to people in Mon State and others.

I would say the Japanese government has some responsibility to help develop the state. That’s why I am building this museum. At least we can honor our people and they can recall the period.

It will become a tourist attraction very soon. There will be entertainment programs, a hotel, restaurants and shops around the museum. We are targeting Thai tourists as there are many ways to visit Mon State from Thailand. I am expecting that there will be even more developments within two or three years.