RANGOON — Burma’s Ministry of Commerce said limited foreign wine imports will be legalized at the start of the 2015-16 fiscal year in April, in the first stretch of phasing out a decades-long ban on alcohol imports.
Import restrictions on other varieties of foreign alcohol will be eased later on, according to Yan Naing Tun, deputy director general of the ministry, speaking to The Irrawaddy on Tuesday.
“We’re now finalizing the import policy for foreign wines, and we will make a public announcement soon,” he said, adding that the specifics of the new rules have not yet been determined, such as company criteria for licensing.
Many local retailers, including some of Burma’s biggest chains such as City Mart, Grab & Go and ABC, have been selling products sourced from suppliers that illegally imported luxury goods, as current policy limits alcohol and tobacco imports to the government, duty free shops and hotels.
The strict import policy was implemented in the mid-1990s as part of reforms that largely benefited military- and crony-owned companies that controlled much of the economy. Over the years, many retailers acquired foreign goods through connections in the hotel industry or black market channels.
The practiced continued largely unhindered until late 2013, when mobile task forces comprising ministry, customs and police officials carried out two major crackdowns on retailers and announced plans to revise the policy.
The managing directors of Quarto Products and City Mart were both arrested during the raids, during which more than 30,000 bottles of illegally imported wine and 2,400 cans of beer were confiscated.
On Feb. 20, more than 300 sellers listed under the Myanmar Retailers Association (MRA) voluntarily stripped their shelves of foreign alcohol out of concern that they could be targeted by the government. Members of the association said that they support import policy reform, but the slow and rocky transition to regulating foreign goods has them on edge.
“We are just retailers; we don’t import any foreign alcohol,” said Myo Min Aung, vice chairman of the MRA. “We feel like we’re guilty as long as we’re selling these [illegally imported] bottles. We discussed this with the government ministries but we still haven’t seen any changes in the policy, that’s why we stopped selling them.”
Director of City Mart Holdings and chairwoman of the MRA Win Win Tint said business and import reform should be carried out in tandem with other policy changes, as an influx of foreign partners and consumers has increased pressure on retailers.
“Nobody criticized the import policy under the previous government, but under the new democratized government we should have a stronger policy,” she said. “We want the government to regulate [imports].”
While some smaller retailers have not stopped selling imported alcohol, the MRA said its members would abstain until the new policy has been approved. It urged the government to finalize and implement new regulations as soon as possible because local businesses are suffering due to the self-imposed dry spell.
“I don’t understand why the government is delaying this policy,” Win Win Tint said. “We realized that there would be a big impact on business if we stopped selling these products, but we didn’t have a choice.”
The ministry’s Yan Naing Tun said that he is still in discussion with the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Customs Department and the Yangon City Development Committee on the issue of import policy. The MRA has aso been an active advocate for reform and has submitted independent research to relevant parties.
“We’ve had several meetings about approving a better import policy,” Yan Naing Tun said, “but the [commerce] ministry can’t do it alone. The remaining foreign alcohol import policy will be announced soon.”