Myanmar businesses fear grim future under military control

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Businesses in Myanmar are bracing for a grim economic fallout from Monday’s coup, which has stirred memories of the dark days of military rule and international isolation that stifled the country’s development.

Businesses in the biggest city Yangon were already struggling from the coronavirus epidemic and say the military’s ousting of Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government might be the final blow to their hopes of recovery.

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“At the moment, I’m happy if I can pay my staff and break even,” said restaurant owner Shwe Yee Moe Thar, who said she was reassessing business plans.

“Now there’s a coup to deal with. Hard is a very underrated word to describe the situation we are in.”

High among concerns is a return of Western sanctions imposed on Myanmar in the 1990s, which severely limited investment, jobs creation and borrowing opportunities.

Critics say those embargoes hurt Myanmar’s poorest while helping the junta’s kleptocracy through its network of business monopolies and opaque deals in lucrative natural resources like gemstones and timber. The sanctions were mostly lifted after liberal reforms by a quasi-civilian government after 2011.

“Sanctions are terrible. It won’t intimidate the junta,” Shwe Yee Moe Tha said. “Our country still has land to sell and all the money will go back into military pockets.”

Zin Thu Aung, who runs a publication, said graft and cronyism was rampant during military rule, as was censorship.

Back in reverse

“It has slowly changed to a fair system but now the military has taken over, it will go backwards again,” she said. “They might censor books and stop publishing.”

Banks reopened on Tuesday, a day after closing due to telecommunications and internet outages. Long queues formed at ATM machines as people rushed to secure their savings.

The military has pledged to return power in an election,but gave no timeframe and has offered little by way of assurances to businesses or investors.

A Htoo, 27, who runs a travel agency and declined to give his full name due to the sensitivity of the topic, said the closure of Yangon’s airport was a bad sign for travel and investment. He expected sanctions to be imposed.

“Business will not operate as normal,” he said. “We youth have lost many job opportunities because of this coup.”

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Others say foreign firms once drawn to what was one of the world’s most exciting frontier markets might see Myanmar as bad for their image and too risky a prospect.

“It is difficult to work under an unelected government,” said Yangon businessman Soe Tun.

“It is a cause of big concern for investment. International businesses will have difficulty coming into the country. The market for them is very narrow in Myanmar.”

Property investor San San Win said the NLD election win was the will of the people and the intervention would put Myanmar’s economy in reverse gear.

“We had a lot of bad experiences under the junta for several decades. There will be more jobless,” he said.

“Nothing is good under dictatorship. We are heading back to a previous bad dream.”

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