Magnate ready to ride the Suu Kyi wave

Mr Khin Shwe, chairman of Zaykabar, in his Yangon office. He said his firm is in pole position to team up with global investors lured to Myanmar by Ms Aung San Suu Kyi's clean image and a renewed push for reform.
Mr Khin Shwe, chairman of Zaykabar, in his Yangon office. He said his firm is in pole position to team up with global investors lured to Myanmar by Ms Aung San Suu Kyi's clean image and a renewed push for reform.PHOTO: REUTERS

Construction firm chairman says her party's win will mean further easing of sanctions

YANGON • Ms Aung San Suu Kyi's landslide election win might be bad news for Myanmar businessmen like construction magnate Mr Khin Shwe, who lost his Parliament seat and remains barred from doing business with US nationals due to his ties to the former junta.

Or maybe not. Sitting comfortably on a beige leather sofa in his plush Yangon office, next to a large portrait of himself, Mr Khin Shwe, the chairman of Zaykabar, said he is in pole position to team up with the global investors who will be lured by Ms Suu Kyi's clean image and a renewed push for reform.

"When the investments come in, there is no one else apart from us, the 'cronies', who will be able to work on the same level as the foreign investors," Mr Khin Shwe told Reuters, in a rare interview with an international media organisation.

Mr Khin Shwe, who lost a battle for re-election to Parliament on the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) ticket, is on a US blacklist due to his ties with Mr Khin Nyunt, a once-feared former intelligence chief and prime minister.

But, after staking a part of his foreign policy legacy on supporting Myanmar's democratic transition, US President Barack Obama may now ease some of the remaining sanctions. Mr Khin Shwe said he expected sanctions to be relaxed.

"If they keep the sanctions on the people, who will they form joint ventures with when they come in?" he said. "The investors can't come and negotiate with a street vendor over business. They have to remove us from the blacklist."

With Western investors mostly on the sidelines, companies from Asia have led the charge into Myanmar, boosting foreign direct investment to US$8 billion (S$11.4 billion) in the 2014-15 fiscal period - more than five times the flows recorded just two years earlier.

That may now accelerate after the clear mandate for change delivered in the Nov 8 polls, the first free election in a quarter of a century.

The handful of Western multinationals that have set up in Myanmar include PepsiCo and GE, which are working with local distribution partners. More may soon follow.

Mr Khin Shwe is related by marriage to former USDP boss Shwe Mann, who was purged by President Thein Sein in August, and the two men have close business ties.

Like Mr Shwe Mann, Mr Khin Shwe is now distancing himself from the outgoing president, who he said became "afraid of the cronies", and is seeking to build bridges with the democracy champion, calling her "A ma gyi" or "Big Sister".

"This is an outcome vital for correcting our poor image as an investment destination. Everybody around the world knows her face, so we can't miss this opportunity," said Mr Khin Shwe. "That's why I put my trust in Aung San Suu Kyi. I am genuinely happy that the (National League for Democracy) is forming the new government."

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 19, 2015, with the headline 'Magnate ready to ride the Suu Kyi wave'. Print Edition | Subscribe