The Irrawaddy Business Roundup (June 6, 2015)

By Simon Lewis 6 June 2015

Burma’s Exports Rile Regional Rice Rival

Burma’s rice exports to Europe have reportedly more than doubled in a year as the country’s producers begin to challenge regional rival Cambodia.

A report on the rice industry website last month said that new European Commission data showed that between September 2014 and April this year, Burma’s exports of milled and semi-milled rice to the European Union were about 45,240 tons. That figure is up from about 20,848 tons in the same period a year earlier.

The site said that despite the growth, Burma’s rice exports still make up just 22 percent of Europe’s imports from least developed countries (LDCs) in Asia, which receive favorable import terms. Cambodia’s exports to Europe, which diminished slightly in the September-April period, stand at 155,501 tons and make up some 76 percent of Europe’s import from Asian LDCs, the report said.

But the news has got some of Cambodia’s rice producers concerned with the prospect of Burma returning to its pre-dictatorship role as the world’s largest rice exporter. An official at the Cambodian Rice Federation told the Phnom Penh Post that the country should focus on its high-quality fragrant rice exports, with which Burma cannot yet compete on a large scale.

In June 2013, the European Union announced that it would resume giving preferential trade terms to Burma after a 16 year hiatus as part of the West’s sanctions against the military regime. Under a program known as Everything But Arms, all goods produced in Burma, expect for weaponry and ammunition, are given duty-free and quota-free access to the 28 European Union states.

The trade preference scheme was applied retroactively on imports from Burma beginning on June 13, 2012, and Burma’s export-oriented industries, including the garment sector, have begun to take advantage.

According to European Commission data, only about 360 tons of rice—under the description “Semi-milled or wholly milled rice, whether or not polished or glazed”—was imported from Burma to Europe in the whole of 2012. For the full year 2014, the figure was above 48,000 tons—worth more than $18 million. And judging by the figures cited by, that growth is not abating.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says that Burma’s total rice exports to all countries totaled about 700,000 tons of milled rice equivalent in 2014 following a “record-breaking crop.” The FAO predicts that the total export figure will grow by some 15.2 percent this year, but the government has even higher expectations.

After China lifted an official ban on rice imports from Burma, an official at the Myanmar Rice Federation said in April that exports, including broken rice, would total more than 2 million tons in the 2015-16 fiscal year, state media reported.

Company Claims Plans for 20 Kilometers of Untouched Burmese Beaches

A little-known investment firm has claimed it will develop tourism projects on some 20 kilometers of “pristine white sand beaches” on the coast of Burma’s Irrawaddy Division.

The claim is made on the website of H&Co Holdings. Ltd, which also uses the company name H&Co Real Estate Holdings. Ltd. The site gives few details about the company’s background, but says it has a “track record of experience and success” in Burma and “was an early participant in the Myanmar property market and possesses excellent local execution capacity.”

The site lists three development projects in Irrawaddy Division that are currently in the works, including a mixed-use development including condominiums, serviced apartment, retail space and a hotel in the divisional capital of Pathein. The town is at present a sleepy economic backwater, but is on the main access road linking Rangoon to the beach resorts of Ngwe Saung and Chaung Tha.

H&Co’s website also says the company has also completed “preliminary Master Development Plan[s]” for two developments south of those beaches.

“The company’s Mya Bay project is under development on a site in the coastal Ayeyarwaddy Division, south of the village of Ngwe Saung,” it says. “The Mya Bay site comprises approximately 1,265 acres, including approximately eight kilometers of uninterrupted, pristine white sand beach.”

Similarly, a project known as Karaweik Kove comprises 3,000 acres “including approximately 12 kilometers of uninterrupted, pristine white sand beach.”

It is unclear what approvals the project has received from the Burmese government.

The Myanmar Times reported this week that the firm was a Hong Kong-Myanmar joint venture, citing information from MultiVerse Asia, a marketing agency that appears to have been recently formed in Burma and is promoting H&Co’s projects.

H&Co’s website does not specify where the company is based, but the senior managers and founders listed on the site are all Westerners living in Asia. The CEO, Jeffry A. Blount—who did not respond to The Irrawaddy’s request for comment—was previously a partner at a global law firm based in Hong Kong, the site says.

According to a description of the company previously posted on the website of UK-based advisory firm C2 Asia—which has since been removed—H&Co started life in 2011 as “strategic investor and real estate developer operating in Myanmar.”

“H&Co, with its international team of world-class industry professionals and in-house project managers, currently has over USD $200 million worth of planned and in-construction developments underway,” the description read.

Ministry Mulling New Mobile Phone Spectrum Allocation 

Burma’s Ministry of Communications and Information Technology is working on plans to allow mobile phone companies to transmit signals on more frequencies, according to an industry report.

“Myanmar is working on a new spectrum allocation policy that will enable it to make more sub-1 GHz frequencies available to mobile operators,” London-based business-to-business news site Total Telecoms reported, citing an interview with Deputy Minister Thaung Tin.

Governments around the world license different frequency bands to industries like mobile phone operators, as well as for the transmission of television signals and other transmission like Bluetooth.

The deputy minister told Total Telecoms that a policy document is currently being drafted, and could soon allow phone companies to use the 700 megahertz, 850 MHz and 900 MHz bands.

“We [Burma] are not using UHF [ultra high frequency] television, so [the] 700 MHz frequency is available at this moment in time,” Thaung Tin was quoted saying.

Private firms Ooredoo and Telenor joined state-run MPT as mobile phone service providers in Myanmar last year, and liberalization has sparked a boom in SIM card and handset sales.

Tin Reserves in Wa Region Expected to See ‘Depletion’

A recent boom in exports of raw tin from Burma has shaken up the global supply of the commodity, but a major China tin company says that production may have peaked.

In April, increased exports of unprocessed tin concentrates from Burma to China saw the price of the commodity drop dramatically, with Indonesia scaling back its tin production to try to stem the global supply.

A report Wednesday on industry information outlet Shanghai Metals Market said that raw tin imports from Burma in 2014 had enabled China, where Burma-sourced tin concentrate is refined, to become a net exporter of tin for the first time in six years.

However, the report said, China’s largest tin producer and exporter Yunnan Tin Group Company (YTC) is predicting the boom to be over shortly, with imports from Burma to China already slowing in recent months.

“According to YTC, Man Maw mining region in Wa County is likely to witness resource and grade depletion over the coming years,” the report said, crediting the information to a visit by company delegates to the mining area, which is inside the autonomous “special region” controlled by the United Wa State Army.

“The production by Myanmar may fail to touch the peak production recorded during last year. The mining region is expected to report declining production levels henceforth.”

Extension of Storied Rangoon Hotel to Open in 2016

The extension of the Sule Shangri-La hotel in downtown Rangoon is set for completion early next year, according to a statement.

Realtor Colliers International announced this week that it would be responsible for leasing out office space in the new tower, which is being built adjacent to the existing hotel—formerly known as Traders Hotel—using a loan from the World Bank Group’s International Finance Corporation (IFC).

According to US Embassy cables released by WikiLeaks, the Traders Hotel was built in the 1990s by a partnership of blacklisted tycoon Steven Law (also known as Tun Myint Naing)—the head of the Asia World conglomerate and son of notorious Shan State drug kingpin Lo Hsing Han—and Malaysian billionaire Robert Kuok, who owns a stake in its current operator Shangri-La Asia Ltd.

The extension, a high-rise commercial building in the heart of Rangoon’s historic downtown district, received part of an $80 million loan from the IFC. In response to questions from campaigners over the necessity of a branch of the World Bank funding such a development, an IFC official argued that the project would address a shortage of space in the city and create jobs for local people.

According to Colliers International, the extension, known as Sule Square, will include 15 floors of commercial space covering 2,000 square meters each. The company said that such “top-tier” office space was still in shortage in Rangoon, with only 38,000 square meters currently available—a figure that is set to rise to more than 60,000 square meters this year.