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Widening US sanctions make it harder to invest in Myanmar, but will not change much

Few expect the sanctions declared on Dec 10 to change the status quo in Myanmar's political crisis.PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK - Top United States diplomat Antony Blinken visited Indonesia and Malaysia this week after Washington announced sanctions on another list of military-linked entities and individuals in Myanmar.

Few expect the sanctions declared on Dec 10 to change the status quo in Myanmar's political crisis. But the growing list of targeted entities - and the threat of more - is narrowing the space for international corporations to invest in Myanmar, say consultants. Such concerns will also hang over companies in Singapore, from which many multinational companies invest in Myanmar.

To be fair, sanctions have played little part in Myanmar's slump so far. That has been the combined effect of the Covid-19 pandemic, Feb 1 military coup, civil disobedience movement, political violence and the junta's bid to control financial and economic instruments that may be used by those resisting its rule. Nearly half of Myanmar's population could slide into poverty next year.

Since the putsch, Singapore has also come under pressure to deploy what the US calls its "significant financial leverage" over Myanmar's junta, to limit its access to overseas assets.

Asked by The Straits Times last month if the Republic had frozen any Myanmar state assets being held in Singapore financial institutions (FIs), a Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) spokesman reiterated that FIs in Singapore "have been put on heightened alert in relation to risks emanating from the situation in Myanmar".

"MAS expects FIs to properly manage money laundering risks, and not facilitate fund flows that are related to illicit activities," she said. "MAS has reminded FIs to stay vigilant to suspicious transactions and take risk mitigation measures in higher-risk situations."

What constitutes "risk" is becoming increasingly amorphous as investors grapple with a Myanmar public upset about any deal with the junta but also desperately needing the jobs to survive.

Add to that the latest sanctions by the US, which include among its targets the Myanmar military's Directorate of Defence Industries and Quartermaster General's Office. The latter is a major landlord.

"If you are a business or embassy, the question about who owns the property or the land on which you are built is an important reputational and due diligence question. It's often quite difficult because land records are hard to access," said Mr John Bray, a Singapore-based policy specialist at Control Risks consultancy. "But a significant amount of prime commercial property in Myanmar is owned by the military, including the Office of the Quartermaster General."

Questions over dealings with the Quartermaster General's Office have already ensnared Singapore-listed developer Emerging Towns & Cities Singapore (ETC), which was targeted this year by human rights activists over the payment of multimillion-dollar land lease premiums to the agency.

Sule Shangri-La hotel and Sule Square development in the heart of Yangon have also been identified by a United Nations report to be sitting on land leased from the Quartermaster General's Office.

Mr Anthony Nelson, a senior director at Washington-based Albright Stonebridge Group advisory who formerly worked at the US-Asean Business Council, told ST: "There is no question that the increasing specificity of the sanctions is at least to a degree targeted at businesses in Singapore and elsewhere."

An empty street as demonstrators called for a "silent strike" in protest against the coup in Yangon on Dec 10, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

He added, however, that there is little headroom left for the US in terms of its economic pressure on Myanmar.

"We have hit the point where the returns on what is available to US policy are going to be relatively small," he said. "The current (Myanmar military) government has a long practice of maintaining its business connections through the worst possible situations…I just don't think economic tools are available right now to change the status quo."

Myanmar human rights activists argue that sanctions should target the country's oil and gas sector, a major source of funds for the junta.

"Without hitting that, the rest are all symbolic actions," Mr Kyaw Win, executive director of London-based Burma Human Rights Network, told ST.

Others counter that this may merely induce turmoil without creating a clear end game to the political crisis.

For now, foreign investors in Myanmar are simply concerned about survival.

"We are seeing very few inquiries, in fact almost no inquiries about new transactions. It's more a case of hanging on," said Mr Bray. "The international companies who are in Myanmar are hanging on. I don't think they are going to leave because of these latest sanctions. If they leave, the biggest reason would be that their businesses simply aren't viable."