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Burma’s president has delayed an eagerly awaited foreign investment bill, an official said Monday, asking for amendments to the law that aims to open up the long-isolated nation to overseas trade.
Thein Sein returned the draft law to parliament at the weekend “with remarks”, according to Zaw Htay in the presidential office.
“The president wanted to amend some of the provisions in the bill, which was approved by the Parliament,” he told AFP.
Many investors see Burma as the next regional frontier market as businesses eye its huge natural resources, large population and strategic location between China and India.
A spate of reforms have seen the international community roll back many of the tough sanctions put in place to punish a brutal junta that ruled with an iron fist until it was replaced by a quasi-civilian regime last year.
Global corporate giants from Coca-Cola to General Electric have already begun to vie for a share of an expected economic boom in the impoverished nation.
But observers had expressed concern over so-called protectionist measures in the law, including that foreign firms would only be able to own up to a 50-percent stake in joint ventures with local partners.
Myat Thin Aung, vice chairman of Yoma bank, said the passage of the law had been complicated by disagreements between reformers in the president’s camp and those wanting to go slowly, who have a majority in the fledgling parliament.
“If we protect our market, investors won’t come. We have to open up otherwise we will be left behind,” said the businessman, who is also a member of the Union of Myanmar [Burma] Federation of Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
The law will now be stalled for an unknown period of time, although the next sitting of parliament is expected to start in the third week of October.
Respected Rangoon intellectual Aung Tun Thet said the foreign investment legislation should not be seen as a “threat but as an opportunity” to attract much needed funds and expertise to an economy left in tatters after nearly 50 years of junta mismanagement.
“We need to jump start the economy. Period. The law is the vehicle,” he told AFP.
Observers say “cronies” of the former junta who grew rich thanks to their links to the generals opposed throwing the doors wide open to foreign rivals, while some local firms feared being swamped by overseas competition.
But MPs earlier this month agreed to a more liberal version of the law than had originally been proposed.
They altered a draft that would have allowed overseas firms to hold only up to 49 percent of a joint venture and required a minimum investment of US$5 million, after concerns were raised that the funds required would preclude smaller deals.
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.
Burma 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.