Myanmar first came on my radar as a child. I was peripherally aware of it through the bits of Rudyard Kipling that I had read in the school library. Though I was reading Kipling more for his use of words and compact style with which he wrote.
I had also read a book that made grim reading on jungle warfare from the perspective of Wingate’s Chindits. The Chindits that went into Myanmar were named after the Chindwin river that they crossed. They underfed troops often weakened by diseases such as malaria and dysentery and suffered an extremely high casualty-rate. It is one of them weird bits of history that the British celebrate, but in reality sound like one long slow train wreck. The closest comparison that I think think of is the Irish lionisation of 1798 rebellion exemplified by Thomas Flanagan’s The Year Of The French. My impression of Myanmar, was a country that is hot and hard to live in. Myanmar was also well known for rubies and sapphires.
I moved to Hong Kong in 2012, the year before a civilian government had come to power in Myanmar after decades of military rule. Things rapidly started to open up. I worked alongside Red Fuse the dedicated agency that WPP had put together for Colgate-Palmolive.
In reality, Red Fuse was pretty much the whole of the Young & Rubicam office in Hong Kong at the time. Colgate launched its oral health month campaign in Myanmar with the marketing material printed on the insides of the brown cardboard boxes that there products where distributed to retailers in.
My more adventurous colleagues took short breaks in Yangoon. Some bought locally mined jade to take back to Hong Kong. A colleague whose partner worked for an airline even moved to Yangoon as airlines set up new routes and hotels opened up catering for business and tourism. I worked on Telenor’s recruitment of of local resellers in Myanmar for its soon to start mobile network. We provided strategy for a local agency to implement.
Soon after I came back in 2014, I put together a presentation on the potential of Myanmar. But why Myanmar? Well from my perspective other markets were either already on their way or on their way to decline.
I had already seen that China was slowing down from a growth perspective. China was aging, the demographic dividend would last for only another decade or so. (Population growth stalled in China during 2020 according to government official figures. The FT reported that China’s population had gone into decline. I am inclined to believe the FT more.) The Chinese government are sufficiently rattled that they have introduced a three child policy.
Chinese markets for products were saturated, particularly in FMCG. Whole sections of the economy are still walled off from foreign participation. There is continued capital flight out of the country by local business people and government officials.
The most important factor that I didn’t put in my slide deck was the gradual Han nationalism tone that was rising in China at the time.
Vietnam well on its way
Vietnam was already on the rise and well known by this point. We were getting some of our online creative built in Ho Chi Minh city by staff who were better than Indian or Chinese development houses.
Myanmar looked like Vietnam in the early 1990s. It has proven oil deposits that are largely tapped out. The Burmah Oil Company and Standard Oil extracted oil from Myanmar from the late 19th century onwards. In 1991, Shell discovered natural gas deposits. By the time I went to Hong Kong, western companies were joining the Indians, Chinese and Malaysians in developing natural gas fields.
Like Vietnam, there was a large young population, the majority of whom still lived on the family farm. 70 percent of people worked on the land and just 7 percent of people worked in industry. Meaning that workforce could be turned to manufacturing. The population at the time was almost 51.5 million and would grow to 54 million in a couple of years.
Myanmar by numbers
In 2012 and 2013, internet penetration was in single percentage figures. That’s why Young & Rubicam were printing marketing materials on the insides of brown cardboard boxes.
The economy was growing from a low base partly caused by the financial crisis and international sanctions against the military rulers at the time. The economic growth had been stifled by 59 years of military rule.
Year on year growth looked like the go-go years of China. The average income of a Burmese person was just $10 a day. Although most of the senior business and military elites were very well off indeed with bolt holes for them and their family in Dubai.
- 119.8 million tons of copper available to mine
- 283 billion cubic metres of proven natural gas reserves
- Only 49 percent of the population had access to electricity
- At least four international tobacco companies had entered Myanmar and up to half of Burmese smoked. Of those who smoked less than 5 percent were smoking filtered cigarettes
- Distribution partners. Tobacco companies and Telenor were encouraging people to become retail entrepreneurs
- Infrastructure development had been prioritised for military rather than commercial needs. Those roads that are available are often of poor quality
- While half the population had access to electricity, the supply isn’t reliable
- Corruption is a major issue that I didn’t include in the presentation. The military and historic business elites didn’t get their Dubai penthouses through hard work and enterprise of their own.
Of course the military overthrow of the elected government through all that into chaos.