Vietnamese firms look for early openings in Myanmar

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Traffic moves through the streets of Yangon, Myanmar. Many Vietnamese businesses are interested in the emerging market of more than 60 million people.

Vietnamese enterprises are eyeing Myanmar for greater trade and other business opportunities as the country opens its doors further to foreign investment.

The Association of Vietnamese Investors in Myanmar says around 20 Vietnamese businesses including the Vietnam Oil and Gas Group, better known as PetroVietnam, Vietnam Airlines, and major military-run telecom Viettel are interested in the market of more than 60 million people.

"Myanmar's purchasing power is increasing and Vietnamese high quality products will have many chances," said Tran Kim Chung, chairman of Ho Chi Minh City-based urban developer and retail distributor C.T Group.

The group plans to expand its distribution of Vietnamese quality products in Myanmar, which currently covers 50 brands.

It has signed a joint venture with Myanmar's Super One International Trading Company to distribute Vietnamese goods at supermarkets.

The group is also investing in a shopping mall in Myanmar, expected to start operating in two years.

The Nam Kim Steel Company from the southern industrial province of Binh Duong is selling steel roofing systems to Myanmar.

"We decided to export high-end products as Vietnamese products cannot compete in the mid-end segment against Chinese counterparts, which are cheaper," a Nam Kim executive said.

Leading property firm Hoang Anh Gia Lai said it is working on a US$300 million multi-purpose complex in Myanmar's biggest city of Yangon.

Le Hung, general director of Hoang Anh Housing Development and Construction, a member of the group, said the company received unofficial approval early this year and is working with Myanmar authorities to complete applications for a permit.

"An area of eight hectares in the center of Yangon has been cleared and construction will start once we have the permit," Hung said.

The project includes a five-star hotel and a shopping mall which are expected to be finished in three years, while two office buildings and eight residential blocks will be ready in six or seven years, he said.

Mekong Delta's An Giang Plant Protection JSC is another early bird that has started a joint venture worth around $55 million with Myanmar's Green Asia, building rice mills and providing rice seeds, fertilizers and pesticides.

According to the General Customs Department, Vietnam still posted a trade deficit of $6.9 million with Myanmar in the first 10 months this year.

It exported $89.7 million of chemicals, plastic products and garments, pottery, iron and steel, and machinery, while importing goods worth $96.6 million, nearly half of which were either lumber or wood products.

Seafood, fruits and vegetables, and rubber are other main imports from Myanmar.

New law

Vietnamese companies are among those looking to benefit from Myanmar's new Foreign Investment Law approved by President Thein Sein on November 2.

The new legislation allows foreign investors to fully own many businesses, extends tax breaks and land lease terms.

It provides foreign investors a tax exemption for the first five years of operation compared to the previous three years, and other forms of tax relief may be available if the investment is deemed in the national interest.

Foreign investors can lease land from the government or authorized private owners for up to 50 years and the deal can be extended twice, for 10 years each time. The old law allowed a maximum 45-year contract including two extensions.

They can also negotiate with their partners over the shareholding ratio in a joint business, instead of making an obligatory investment of at least 35 percent as before.

Tran Phuoc Anh, counselor of the Vietnamese Embassy in Myanmar, said related administrative procedures will also save Vietnamese businesses a lot of time.

Under the new law, the Myanmar Investment Commission will let the investor know within 15 days if their project is approved or not.

An approved project will wait up to 90 days further for a license, instead of six months or even a year like before, Anh said.

Myanmar currently requires traders to ask for a permit for every shipment, which can take from one week to three months.

But, Anh said the country will remove the requirement soon.

The International Monetary Fund in May published its first Country Report on Myanmar after decades of its military rule, saying the country is growing from one of the poorest in Southeast Asia to be one of Asia's rising stars.

"Myanmar could become the next economic frontier in Asia if, with appropriate reforms, it can turn its rich natural resources, young labor force, and proximity to some of the most dynamic economies, including China and India, to its advantage," the report said.

It acknowledged efforts made in recent months to modernize the economy since the political takeover last year, including steps to reform the exchange rate.

Myanmar's exchange rate system has many restrictions that increase transaction costs, discourage foreign direct investment and trade, and encourage informal activity, the IMF said.

In April, the authorities started to reform the system by adopting a managed float regime.

They also plan to remove all exchange restrictions and eliminate multiple currency practices by the end of 2013, when it will host the Southeast Asian Games.

The IMF report said Myanmar's economic growth had stabilized during the 2010-2011 fiscal year with GDP growth estimated at 5.3 percent.

It said the outlook for the Southeast Asian minnow is "positive" as real GDP growth is projected at 5.5 percent in the financial year 2011-2012 and at 6 percent the following year.

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