By Didier Lauras (AFP) – Sep 7, 2012
YANGON — Myanmar's parliament on Friday passed an eagerly awaited new law aimed at boosting foreign investment in the former pariah state, which is emerging from decades of military rule.
The move comes as global corporate giants from Coca-Cola to General Electric jockey for a share of an expected economic boom in the impoverished but resource-rich nation, which is opening up after a long period of isolation.
The investment law, which allows foreign firms to own up to a 50-percent stake in joint ventures with local partners, is aimed at regulating the growing interest from overseas as the international community begins dismantling sanctions.
It still needs to be approved by President Thein Sein, who could send the legislation back to parliament for further changes.
Observers said the law was not yet a done deal and the former general could push lawmakers to come up with a more liberal text.
One of the major complaints of businesses eager to enter the country formerly known as Burma is the lack of a clear legal framework.
"The law is likely to give confidence to foreign investors, but it is part of a long process to reform the legal framework of investment," said Romain Caillaud, who heads the Yangon office of business advisory firm Vriens and Partners.
"Some structural problems remain... such as lack of infrastructure, electricity (supply problems) as well as a lack of competence in the bureaucracy," he said.
The law's approval follows months of wrangling over how much room to give to foreign firms.
Observers say "cronies" of the former junta who grew rich thanks to their links to the generals who ran the country for decades opposed throwing the doors wide open to foreign rivals.
But an earlier draft that would have allowed overseas firms to hold only up to 49 percent of a joint venture and required a minimum investment of $5 million also raised concerns that foreign investors might be put off.
There are some exceptions to the new ownership limit such as in the hi-technology sector where foreigners can invest up to 100 percent, according to lawmakers.
Than Maung, a lawyer who sits on a parliamentary legal affairs commission, said disagreement over the law in recent weeks had highlighted the dilemma the country faces choosing between protectionism or an open economy.
"We shouldn't be too afraid of foreign investors. Every country in the world is protectionist to some degree," he said.
Some people in Myanmar "are too concerned about the competitiveness of their business", he added.
With huge natural resources and a strategic position between China and India, Myanmar is seen as a potentially huge market for foreign firms as it opens up to the world after decades of isolation.
President Thein Sein has vowed to put the economy at the centre of a new raft of reforms, following a series of dramatic political changes since almost half a century of outright military rule ended last year.
"Foreign investment is needed for our country's economic development," said Hla Myint Oo, a lower house lawmaker with Thein Sein's ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
"We have to consider the needs of both sides to avoid hurting each other's interests," he told AFP by telephone.
Myanmar has invited foreign firms to invest in the mining sector and signed a series of oil exploration deals with foreign companies. Critics say the rewards of the nation's energy bounty have so far only been shared among foreign investors and the regime, rather than its impoverished people.
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