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High Hopes as Norway-Myanmar Business Council Opens its Doors

Companies, investors, dignitaries and stakeholders gathered in Yangon on February 24 to celebrate the opening of the Norway-Myanmar Business Council, which is expected to facilitate investment and partnerships between the two countries.
The ceremony took place at the residence of H.E. the Norwegian Ambassador to Myanmar, Ms Ann Ollestad, and Daw Khine Khine Nwe summed up the feelings of most of the attendees nicely. Daw Khine Khine Nwe, also known as Rosaline, is the joint secretary-general of the Republic of Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce & Industry, and there was a hushed melodramatic overtone as she spoke about what this council and Norwegian investors mean to her compatriots.

“We feel a piece of Norway is already in Myanmar with Telenor,” she said. “But we need several pieces more, as Telenor is not enough. I’m very encouraged to learn that Telenor has just published a guidebook on anti-corruption and distributed it throughout Myanmar. We want to invite big businesses from Norway to bring your principles and standards to come here and take root. We need someone to guide us, much like a baby, through these growing pains.

“We are trying to comply with international standards. And if you want to work with us, please respect our principles as well. We want to work with you, and with your assistance, we believe we can grow sustainably, and I guarantee you it will not be at the expense of your commercial viability.

“Over 99% of Myanmar businesses are small and medium-sized enterprises. Since the economy opened up, foreign investment has doubled every year, standing at 7 billion USD at last count. So obviously there is ample room for us to work together.”
Ola Nicolai Borge, a partner at Grant Thornton in Yangon, will initially head up the council, which is a sub-chapter of the Thai-Norwegian Chamber of Commerce and supported by the Norwegian Embassy in Myanmar and Innovation Norway.

“The council will serve as a door opener, offering web resources, introductions to ministry officials, and hosting regular meetings and training,” said Mr Borge. “Norwegian companies already situated in Myanmar such as Telenor, Eltek and Jotun have bought in to the concept, and we hope to be of service to Norwegian investors looking to expand here. We also aim to be an interface between the business society and the community.

“Norwegian companies have a very high standing in the world, so the Myanmar government is expecting the companies we bring in will have a squeaky clean image. Saying you’re from Norway is still a good card to hold up as it means you’re reliable, and we’ve had good feedback so far.

“The challenge for Norwegian companies looking to move here is they don’t understand how different doing business in this environment can be from Norway. This is especially true if you don’t have someone to relate to, so the council will serve as a sounding board and place to exchange ideas. We also want to host some networking events, though we don’t want to put too much pressure on the council immediately as Myanmar still faces several obstacles in building up the country and we are only a non-profit. On the other hand, if it wasn’t a challenge, there wouldn’t be a place for us here.”
Mr Borge said he expects there to be a new law regarding chambers of commerce in Myanmar soon.
Daw Khine Khine Nwe emphasised that the way Norwegian companies do business is almost as important as the investment they bring to the country.

“Companies in Myanmar don’t want to give up the opportunity to work with an industry leader like Telenor, so they have to follow Telenor’s principles,” she said. “Telenor knows this, so it can use its long reach to influence the culture here. The way it conducts itself here can have a multiplier effect on attitudes. Other businesses will want to match it, and it will become a competition about quality, not quantity.

“We all know it takes time to change attitudes, but there are ways we can do it. People work to make money, but responsible business practices show how to profit sustainably. There was a time when we were kept in the dark. People opened small businesses just to survive.

“But now times have changed. People are capable to do things now with business that no one ever dreamed of before. The locals were not happy with the way business operated before, such as a lack of concern for the environment in the extractive industries, and a lack of concern for workplace standards in labour-intensive industries. Now there is an opportunity to change the rules.

“We need big companies to come in and help us out with funding. We cannot transform from small businesses to big companies overnight. And we also need to learn to compete as a region, and now amongst each other. ASEAN small businesses should unite and grow together if we are going to compete with foreign businesses.

“I would also like to thank Axel Blom from Innovation Norway, whom I met before an ambassador was named to Myanmar, for coming here and working with us, bringing in a delegation of businesses interested in investing here. He started the dialogue that has helped build this successful relationship.”