Human Rights

Plan to Shed Light on Burma’s Secretive Companies

By Simon Lewis 5 March 2014

RANGOON — Burmese companies that fail to make information about their operations publicly available could soon be named and shamed under a new initiative.

While many overseas investors in Burma are subject to reporting requirements enforced by their home countries or by stock exchanges on which they are listed, locally owned firms are notoriously opaque. But the Myanmar Center for Responsible Business (MCRB), an organization set up with Western donor funding to promote good practice in commerce, is planning to launch an index later this year that it hopes will change that.

The center’s director, Vicky Bowman, explained the initiative—known as Transparency in Myanmar Enterprises, or TIME—during a seminar on responsible business hosted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Rangoon on Tuesday.

Bowman said the MCRB would survey what information the 50 largest companies in the country put online, and publish the results after inviting companies to improve their transparency.

“What do they reveal about themselves in terms of ownership, in terms of the structure of their group, their subsidiaries, in terms of what they have in the way of anti-bribery policies and other forms of business integrity approaches?” she said, describing the focus of the survey.  “Also what they say about human rights policies, their human rights risk, particularly around land.”

Bowman, a former British Ambassador to Burma, said the results of the survey would be ready in July, and that the process would be replicated annually to encourage companies to be more open about their businesses.

“We’re currently finding the 50 companies and their contact details, which is not as easy as it should be,” she said, adding that the government-published list of 100 top taxpayers in the country was being used as a starting point to identify which companies should be included in the survey.

The lack of information made available by Burmese firms can be an impediment to overseas companies looking for local partners, especially given the risks associated with Burma’s history of human rights abuses. Some businessmen with close ties to the former military government remain on the US Treasury’s list of sanctioned individuals.

US companies investing in Burma also must file reports with the US Embassy in Rangoon that outline the due diligence they have conducted, including in relation to human rights, labor rights, corruption and the environment.

Bowman said the results of the survey would be a useful indicator of how seriously a company takes transparency. “If I were looking for a partner and it didn’t have a website, that would be a straight cross on the list as far as I’m concerned,” she said.

Some of the biggest companies operating in Burma have a limited online presence. The major construction firm Asia World and the military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings do not appear to have websites and Htoo Group, owned by tycoon Tay Za, has a website that is currently “under construction.” However, other large companies—Kanbawza Bank, Zaw Zaw’s Max Myanmar Group and CB Bank, for example—have websites displaying contact details and other company information.