Myanmar parliament's agenda: reshaping the economy

Reuters News
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Posted: Jul 03, 2012 1:16 AM
Myanmar parliament's agenda: reshaping the economy

By Aung Hla Tun

YANGON (Reuters) - A year and a half after it opened to skepticism from the West, Myanmar's fledgling parliament reconvenes this week for its biggest task yet: debating an ambitious set of laws to reshape an economy that wilted during half a century of military rule.

The assembly was written off as a sham when it opened in January 2011, but the lawmakers are getting bolder and more vocal and the new session will be a test of their reformist mettle, even if opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is not taking her seat this week, citing exhaustion.

Although a pro-government party dominates parliament and can usually rely on the votes from soldiers who fill 25 percent of the seats, doubts remain over what laws will be pushed through, particularly in sensitive areas such as foreign investment.

Some business leaders privately express concern the proposed investment law could hand too much influence to multinational companies when local firms are still coping with the transition from far-reaching state controls under military rule.

Possible legislation on corruption will attract attention in a country ranked among the world's most graft-ridden by watchdog Transparency International, joint 180th with Afghanistan out of 183 states.

Thein Nyunt, 66, chairman of the New National Democracy Party and member of the lower house, noted lawmakers were forbidden to speak about parliamentary proceedings.

"But I can say that the anti-corruption law I have drafted is based on similar laws from Malaysia and Singapore," he said.

"Once enacted, this law will call for explanation of the source of wealth of those in power. I am sure this law will help resolve corruption, a major perennial problem in our society."

Khin Shwe, a businessman and upper house lawmaker, said the final draft of the investment law differed in at least one important respect from earlier versions, on land regulations.

"Foreign investors can lease land not only from the government but also from private land owners for up to 50 years in the initial stage and extensions can be made for two 10-year terms consecutively," he said.

The earlier draft would have allowed a lease of 30 years that could have been extended by two terms of 15 years each. Until now, the practice has been to allow 30-year leases on government land, renewable twice, for five years each time.

Businessmen who fear losing their best staff and being unable to compete with incoming foreign firms met influential lower house Speaker Thura Shwe Mann at the weekend and passed on their worries about the law, according to one industrialist who declined to be identified.

"We really get jittery at the thought of the new foreign investment law since we are not ready to play on a level playing field. So we hope the parliament reviews and amends it," he said.

CAPITAL MARKETS

A separate law on Special Economic Zones was also expected to be debated in the new session. This may give companies additional incentives to invest.

A senior official from the Ministry of Finance and Revenue, who asked not to be named, said: "There are some other important laws among the long-awaited ones, like the capital market law, which is very important for the emergence of the stock and securities market in our country."

Daiwa Securities Group and the Tokyo Stock Exchange signed an agreement with the authorities on May 29 on the establishment of a securities exchange and the formation of capital markets.

Daiwa helped set up a stock exchange in 1996 but it has languished, with just two listed companies.

However, the opening-up of the country since the military government stepped aside in March 2011, with President Thein Sein pushing through political and economic reforms, is expected to lead to a rush of investment from outside and the development of local firms that will want to tap capital markets to expand.

Parliament may also get to debate a new media law during the session, which is expected to run until September.

Under the junta, newspapers and magazines were censored before they went to press. Restrictions have been loosened, but the authorities can still prevent the publication of material they disapprove of, as during recent sectarian violence in Rakhine state.

Consequently, some journalists are reserving judgment.

"It was drafted and drawn up by the Ministry of Information. Journalists should have been involved in drafting this law because it is supposed to define the responsibilities of journalists and give protection to their rights," said Kyaw Min Swe, chief editor of the Voice, a popular private weekly.

Dreary state-run newspapers, formerly mouthpieces for the junta and still used to promote the achievements of the government, are currently the only dailies on sale.

"I also doubt if the media law will allow the private dailies that we all are excited about," Kyaw Min Swe said.

(Writing by Alan Raybould; Editing by Martin Petty and Alex Richardson)