It is a privilege to be present at what is effectively the rebirth of a nation, and the Institute of Financial Accountants’ (IFA) recent visit to Myanmar was made at a time when, after decades of isolation, this beautiful country is emerging – not without a struggle – back into the international family.
There is no doubt that Burma or, as it is styled by its current rulers, Myanmar, is changing rapidly and dramatically. And with great change comes a great need for reform, especially in the country’s fledgling financial sector.
To illustrate how urgently an updating of the country’s regulatory and governance regime is required, one only has to consider that the Burma Companies Act was written in 1914 by the British, and its Edwardian precepts are wholly unsuited to the commercial world of 2014.
The IFA has had tuition providers in Burma for the past two to three years, providing the same sort of support to emergent professional structures that we were able to offer in Russia, when it went through the turmoil of post-Soviet change.
As a not-for-profit organisation, the IFA feels that it is of paramount importance to stand alongside the Burmese people as they come out of 60 years as a closed state. We can do this by helping with the skills, learning and training that they need to take their part in the world economy.
We have 100 students in Myanmar, mostly in the capital Yangon. They are some of the newest of our cohort of over 10,000 members and students worldwide, and we are able to offer them IFA qualifications and help them with support for their businesses.
There is a huge demand for IFRS education as the country opens up. Suddenly, there is an urgent need for credible, portable qualifications which will help people get a better job or establish an enterprise of their own and become employers.
Our specialism in small to medium enterprises is vitally important at this critical time in the business building process. We are the only institute in the country which is providing tailored qualifications to support the SME sector alone and, very specifically, we have qualifications in IFRS which clearly meet local demand.
There is a pent-up need for this type of programme. Myanmar is opening a stock exchange in the next few years, it is cautiously welcoming external influences, it is looking for inward investment, it is engaging with ASEAN and starting to trade with the rest of the world.
There is, at the moment, a local regulatory regime in place, but forward-looking Burmese are realising that they are going to have to commit to common international standards, and the movement towards this is picking up pace rapidly.
Any realistic assessment of Myanmar must accept that there are still considerable negatives as it embarks on the journey towards international inclusion.
Ownership structures of existing business empires are opaque, and in many cases linked to past and present leaders; corporate governance is rickety; there is still considerable uncertainty about the way the 2015 election will go; and, rather disturbingly, a bomb went off in the Rangoon hotel we used shortly after our departure.
But as things stand, the negatives are outweighed by the positives. These include the excellent and widespread use of the English language, which is the great facilitator of business; the openness for help of the people we spoke to; and the clearly evident cautious optimism.
Myanmar, and Yangon particularly, are also very open to tourism development. Many parts of Yangon have almost intact colonial architecture, which is run down, but not beyond saving. Unlike cities such as Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong, which have torn down much up of their late-colonial and Edwardian buildings, they are still extant in Yagnon and the Burmese have realised that they have a huge heritage asset and restoration is underway. It has the potential to be a real tourist gem.
This means projects that people can invest in, such as the infrastructure for a grand hotel, or business centres, shopping malls and new museums within a heritage set-up, rather than becoming just another high-rise Southeast Asian city like any other.
The Burmese are keen to join the rest of the world. I believe it is incumbent on organisations such as ours to offer them all possible assistance to mutual benefit.
David Woodgate is chief executive of the Institute of Financial Accountants, a professional accountancy membership body whose members work for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) or who run or work in small and medium-sized accounting practices (SMPs) that advise SMEs. The IFA is a full member of the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC), the global body for the accountancy profession. Founded in 1916, the IFA supports over 10,000 members and students in more than 80 countries with a programme of professional qualifications and education.