Going Global With Us SERIES – Doing Business in Myanmar

Going to Myanmar with Sapiens Global

Myanmar is “the last economic frontier in Asia”. After almost 50 years of isolation, Myanmar has emerged as a land of opportunities and international firms must move fast. As in the majority of the emergent economies, doing business in Myanmar must consider partnerships with local companies.

Sapiens Global, a company created in Japan in 2007, has been developing business in Myanmar since January 2012, with specialized consultants based in its three global offices: Tokyo, Singapore, Curitiba (Brazil) and Jakarta.

“By 2025, over half of the world’s consuming class will live within a five-hour flight of Myanmar.”

The McKinsey Global Institute’s report:
Myanmar’s Moment: Unique Opportunities, Major Challenges

About Myanmar

  • The Republic of the Union of Myanmar has an estimated population of 51.4 million and the country is divided in seven states and seven regions, with 34 percent of population living in urban areas.
  • Officially, there are 135 ethnic groups divided into eight national races: Kachin, Kayah, Karen, Chin, Mon, Rakhine, Shan and the major one, Burman/Myanmar, with approximately 70 percent of its population.
  • The major business centers and approximately populations are outlined in the following table:
Main Cities for Business Population
Mandalay 1,200,000
Mawlamyne 300,000
Myeik 300,000
Naypidaw (Capital) 1,200,000
Taunggyi 400,000
Yangon 5,200,000

The climate in Myanmar presents three different situations: The highest humidity is during the Hot Season, from March to May. The Monsoon or Rainy Season, from June to October and the Relatively Cool, from November to February, that is normally the high season for Tourism.

Yangon, February 2012. (Photo H. Ciffoni)

Burmese is the official language. For business negotiations in Mandalay and Yangon is common to have people speaking in English, as well as at hotels and main shopping malls and restaurants. Business is conducted in English, contracts are signed in English and Myanmar language is not essential. The visitor does not need to learn to speak Myanmar language to get by the country as most understand basic English. Learning the language can be a tricky business as the different tones are hard to master.

Time Zone
Myanmar Time (MMT) has a single time zone, 6.5 hours ahead of GMT (Greenwich Mean Time) and 1.5 hours behind Singapore.

The Myanmar currency is the Kyat (pronounced chaat). As payment with credit card is being introduced now in the country, usually payments are accepted in cash only, with fresh bills, with no folds or marks. US dollars, Euro and Singapore dollars are normally accepted at hotels and for exchange at banks.

November 15th, 2015: SGD 1 = MMK 900; USD 1 = MMK 1280

Helio Ciffoni (Sapiens Global’s CEO) and Myanmar entrepreneurs. Yangon, 2012.

Business Dress
Professional business dress is expected for first meetings, contract signings and official events. In less formal situations, businessmen wear open collar and dark trousers. For the locals, Myanmar is one of few countries in Southeast Asia where traditional dress is used on a daily base.

Business Cards
As in almost all Asian countries, business cards are treated with respect. It is a good idea to take a short time to read a business card; some people use both hands to exchange the cards. It is recommended to carry enough cards to exchange when the opportunity comes.

Business Culture
Business in Myanmar is on a face-to-face basis and your counter-part has to see you before doing business. It demands patience, as well as a willingness to build friendships and foster trust. Attempts to do business in a fast way, without sufficient regard for the local culture and procedures, may lead to frustration and sometimes offence. Often a first meeting will simply be an opportunity for parties to get to know each other. After many years of being a closed society it is necessary to handle all formal introductions correctly.

Introduction and Greetings
Men shake hands when introduced to each other. Women may not shake hand with foreigners but if a businesswoman offers her hand, it is acceptable to shake it. Refrain from hugging people; maintain a certain distance from other people, for example an arm’s length of personal space is common between men and a more than it if you are talking with a woman.

Forms of Address
Honorifics vary according to the age and gender and may differ among different ethnical groups. The most commonly used forms, and sometimes applied on business cards, are:

  • U (pronounced Oo), means Mr. and is used by an adult or senior men.
  • Daw, Mrs. Or Ms., used by adult or senior women.
  • Ko, used by men of similar age.
  • Ma, used by young women or by women of similar age.

Importance of Relationships
The business culture in Myanmar is full of networks and it is very important for social relationships to be maintained and kept smooth at all times. Because family relationships are so extended, almost everyone is related by blood or marriage. Thus, the Myanmar can always find someone with the connections required for their purposes. No actual business deal may come about for quite some time but the point is that the connection has been made. One has to be flexible and open to opportunity.

The following are taboo in Myanmar Culture:

  • Crossing legs by men or women. It is indicated to keep feet flat on the floor.
  • Wearing shoes in an office when others have removed theirs.
  • Placing feet on a desk or table.
  • Indicating direction with your foot or shoe.
  • Passing objects or reaching over the head of anyone.
  • Touching a monk’s robe.

Bibliography and references:

  • Culture Shock! Myanmar: a survival guide to customs and etiquette. Saw Myat Yin. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2013
  • Doing Business in The New Myanmar. A Joint Publication of The Nation and Eleven Media Group. Yangon, Myanmar. Bangkok, Thailand. 2012.
  • Access to Asia. Sharon Schweitzer, with Liz Alexander.John Wiley & Sons, Inc. New Jersey. 2015
  • Doing Business. World Bank Group. www.doingbusiness.org. Accessed on November, 2015.
  • Business in Myanmar (Burma). Go-Myanmar.com Accessed on November, 2015.
  • Photos credits: Helio Ciffoni, 2012.