All Southeast Asian cultures are distinct from one another – and none more so than Myanmar’s: the multitude of ethnicities and prevalence of Buddhism, together with the country’s decades of isolation, mean that doing business in Myanmar is different from anywhere else. But Myanmar is also to a degree rooted in its colonial past, with some familiar customs and decent levels of spoken English.
What follows is an outline of the basics of doing business in Myanmar.
Introductions and business culture
Businessmen will typically greet each other with a handshake. If a businesswoman offers you her hand, it is acceptable to shake it, but you should not offer your hand to a woman – a small bow is enough. In general, male to female contact should be avoided in public.
The exchanging of business cards is commonplace in Myanmar. As a mark of respect, it is a good idea to take a short time to read a business card; some people use both hands to exchange cards (as in China), but the practise is not universal. If you have the flexibility to do so, ensuring your card designates you clearly as a key decision maker (i.e. ‘country head’, ‘country director’) is a good idea. Printing in Yangon is straightforward and inexpensive, although print and paper quality can be an issue - services are available downtown on 31st Street.
Business in Myanmar requires patience, as well as a willingness to build friendships and foster trust. Attempts to do business in a fast-track way, without sufficient regard for the local culture and procedures, may lead to frustration, and perhaps offence. Often a first (or even second) meeting will simply be an opportunity for parties to get to know each other, as a prelude to more serious or in-depth matters being discussed later.
Furthermore, people do not in general have a strict ‘yes is yes’ attitude; matters can initially seem ambiguous and you may need to make contact several times before a matter is finalised, which may include dealing with something as simple as admin or paperwork right through to large business deals. Of course this is not always the case, and matters are sometimes concluded more rapidly – but it is an aspect of society that should be born in mind.
Myanmar has a deep culture of hospitality and openness – for example, hotels are a relatively modern concept, as traditionally people visiting another part of the country would stay with friends or relatives for as long as they liked. This means the exchanging of gifts and favours is ingrained in society, and if a gift is received, it should always be repaid at a later date.
As in much of Asia, making the right connections can be crucial in networking and securing deals; being introduced by a mutual, trusted contact goes a long way. Golf has long been popular in Myanmar, and is an established means of networking.
Business and politics in Myanmar are dominated by men, but there are increasing numbers of women involved, from running small businesses to board level and cabinet politics – and of course democracy hero Aung San Suu Kyi is the most revered figure in the country and effectively its political leader. Also in keeping with other countries in the region, there is a strong tradition of respect for elders, throughout society and in business; when an older person enters a room, it is normal to stand up in deference. Perhaps more uncomfortably for some westerners, the opposite sometimes also holds true: more junior members of staff will enter a room and bow uncomfortably deeply as they pass you, to make as if they are not present at all.
But in general, the process of reform means that society is becoming freer – press freedom is incrementally being ingrained after years of harsh censorship, public gatherings and self-expression have less restrictions placed upon them than in the past, and trade unions are becoming established.
To find out more about the country, its history and its people, go to about Myanmar.
Systems, infrastructure and chambers
Myanmar’s physical and technical infrastructure, as well as its financial systems, are rooted in a different age. Decades of poverty and isolation mean that electricity supplies and mobile and internet networks are patchy, transport is unreliable, and banks are only just beginning to use electronic payment systems. It can be difficult to transfer money between Myanmar and foreign bank accounts, although foreign bank and credit cards are now starting to be accepted more widely.
With the lifting of sanctions, new laws have been drafted with the aim of simplifying and encouraging foreign exchange and investment and international financial institutions and trade organisations are returning: the World Bank opened an office in Yangon in August 2012; the Asian Development Bank now has offices in Yangon and the capital, Nay Pyi Taw; large international banks have opened representative offices; and, with the help of the Tokyo Stock Exchange, Myanmar’s first stock exchange was opened in 2015.
The UMFCCI (Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry) is the sometimes slow-moving non-governmental organisation that represents the growing business sector in Myanmar, and there are also a number of international chambers of commerce based in Yangon, including:
- British Chamber of Commerce
- American Chamber of Commerce
- Australia-Myanmar Chamber of Commerce
- German Myanmar Business Chamber
- Eurocham Myanmar
All have been set up to facilitiate market access and some put on business networking events and topical investment-related presentations; the British Chamber, whose membership is open to all nationalities, offers a particularly wide range of events.
Education, corruption and media
Another issue being addressed as part of the current reform agenda is the lack of education amongst the general population. Historical underinvestment – due to poverty and a wish by the ruling military junta to keep restive students in check – means that Myanmar’s workforce is lacking in technical skills compared to other countries in the region.
On the surface, corruption does not generally strike visitors to Myanmar as a major issue, but it remains endemic in some areas, and high-level business and political practices can be opaque. Entrenched interests also remain, and some businessmen were happier with how things were under the previous regime, because they had the set up and connections. However, these represent a minority, and as part of the government’s reforms efforts are being made to increase transparency and reduce the corruption levels. How corruption is dealt with by foreigners in Myanmar is down to the individual, but Hillary Clinton - who visited the country several times - perhaps put it best when she said, “Invest in Burma and do it responsibly; be an agent of positive change.”
Things are changing fast in Myanmar, and this website is continually updated with the latest travel and accommodation information. But to keep abreast of political and economic developments, keep an eye on these independent news sources:
Language and what to wear
Many business meetings in Myanmar take place in English; as a former British colony, this is the de facto second language. However, outside of Yangon, Mandalay and Nay Pyi Taw, and off the tourist trail, English is not widely spoken.
It should also be noted that while Burmese is the main language of Myanmar, there are many other ethnic and language groups. Of course, learning basic Burmese greetings, thank yous and so on are always highly appreciated. For more on this, as well a handy audio guide and naming conventions, go to language, place names and people’s names.
What to wear
The local attire for formal occasions, and that most often used by men in parliament, is a shirt with no collar and longyi (sarong); sometimes businessmen will also wear western-style tops with longyi, or a western-style suit. Businesswomen also wear longyi, usually with a dress or blouse.
For foreign businessmen, a suit or smart casual attire – a shirt or polo shirt – with smart trousers, is the norm for most meetings. Businesswomen should avoid clothing that shows their shoulders or legs. If you do take a suit, bear in mind the extreme temperatures and humidity you may find in Myanmar (go to climate and weather for more information).
It is common to take your shoes off when entering an office.
For more information on safe travel; medical care; weather; cultural differences; embassies; public holidays and more, go to essential information and tips.