Myanmar launches $2b economic zone

Plans for Japan-backed project to host 100 factories with over 40,000 employees

THILAWA (Myanmar) • Myanmar's Vice-President has opened a US$1.5 billion (S$2.1 billion) manufacturing zone aimed at luring investments and creating jobs, in a bid to showcase the government's work on developing the economy in the run-up to a general election.

Mr Nyan Tun, a close ally of President Thein Sein, yesterday unveiled the first phase of the 2,400ha Thilawa Special Economic Zone (SEZ) at a ceremony at the site, an hour's drive from the commercial capital of Yangon.

The plan is for the zone to eventually host about 100 factories employing more than 40,000 people.

The second phase is due to be completed by next year.

"We have missed quite a few opportunities that the other countries in the region had enjoyed," Mr Nyan Tun said.

"Today, we are not only ready to take all opportunities we have missed, but also to give all the opportunities to investors."

The project has been backed by the Japanese government and its trading houses, including Mitsubishi, Marubeni and Sumitomo, as well as the Japan International Cooperation Agency.

Mr Nyan Tun said the zone would strengthen Myanmar's ties with Japan. The project's opening will also likely give a boost to Mr Thein Sein's ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party ahead of Myanmar's general election on Nov 8, its first since the end of military rule. The military-backed party has centred its campaign on showcasing investment, economic growth and reforms under the semi-civilian government it has led since reforms began in 2011.

Japanese Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso said in a speech at the ceremony: "Thanks to the leadership of President Thein Sein, Myanmar has been reformed in terms of democracy, national reconciliation and economic reforms step by step."

Myanmar has had close ties with China in recent years, and Japan has been seen as striving to build economic relations with Myanmar since the lifting of most sanctions by Western governments in response to reforms.

The government yesterday opened the zone's first 400ha, where more than 70 per cent of the land has been parcelled out to 48 companies from 13 countries.

Boasting rich natural resources and 51 million potential consumers, Myanmar has caught the eye of investors eager for a stake in Asia's next frontier market, after the installation of the quasi-civilian government.

Foreign direct investment in the impoverished country jumped to US$8.1 billion in the last fiscal year, from US$329.6 million in the 2009/2010 period before the military stepped back from power.

The International Monetary Fund forecast the Myanmar economy would grow 8.5 per cent this year.

The Thilawa SEZ is the first of three such zones.

The Chinese-backed Kyaukpyu project in western Rakhine state is yet to be fully operational, while the ambitious Dawei project in the far south has hit snags over funding issues.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 24, 2015, with the headline 'Myanmar launches $2b economic zone'. Print Edition | Subscribe