Daw Thiri Thant Mon: 'Neither side has a long-term view'

Daw Thiri Thant Mon, 38, left Myanmar in the mid-nineties when the country’s universities were closed, to study economics at William and Mary in the US. She began working in finance at Capital One in the US and the UK before an MBA at the London Business School and joined one of the world’s leading investment banks, Morgan Stanley in London in 2006. Daw Thiri Thant Mon returned to Myanmar in 2013 as Head of Corporate Development for Yoma Strategic Holdings. Since September, she has been running a new company, Sandanila.

You had a successful career in investment banking. Why did you return to Myanmar?

I intended to come home right after my studies, but the after the 1997 Asian financial crisis the brief economic opening that had appeared in the mid-nineties in Myanmar closed. Due to Western sanctions, most of the investment had come from neighbouring countries that retreated to their home markets during the crisis. I monitored every year and in 2013, I happened to come home to take care of my father who was ill. This time, I could feel the change in the air and I decided to come home immediately because it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be involved in Myanmar at this time of change and I would not have forgiven myself if I missed it.

After two years in a management position at Yoma Strategic you launched Sandanila with Andrew Rickards. What does your company do?

The overarching aim of Sandanila is to bring financial capital and human capital into Myanmar to help transform the economy back to its once vibrant state. Both Andrew and I were in investment banking, Andrew at Goldman Sachs and Rothschild and me at Morgan Stanley. What I liked throughout my career was raising capital for companies and institutions so they can go on and provide products and services to society. It makes me feel like an enabler. We would like to use our skills to help Myanmar and become trusted advisors and financiers to the Government and businesses the way old-style merchant banks like Rothschild were. We also aim to make long-term investments and grow some businesses we can be proud of.

I am fortunate that Andrew is also passionate about Myanmar and about developing the country. It is all about the people for us and we hope to play a role in strengthening Myanmar institutions and organisations to help drive large-scale employment opportunities. We need good schools to educate our children, hospitals to keep our people fit and productive, and physical infrastructure to increase connectivity for trade and commerce – only improving the economy will improve the lives of people. For all that investment, we need capital. Sandanila would like to help bring some of that capital into the country.

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Who is investing in Myanmar?

There are different types of investors in the world, with different objectives, risk appetite and regulation. You have the frontier investors, who focus on new markets and want to be there early. You have strategic investors, like Coca-Cola who want to be in Myanmar as part of a regional strategy. You have infrastructure investors, people who might build a power plant.

Then there are investors who can only invest when the market matures. They want to form a diversified investment portfolio, they want benchmark indices and so on. This group, the largest pot of money in the world, the asset managers, the pension money, they’re still a few years away from entering Myanmar directly but listing a Myanmar company on an international stock exchange, such as London Stock Exchange or Singapore Stock Exchange, will enable these investors to invest in Myanmar companies even now.

Both the capital-only investors and the strategic investors that set up operations are important. For example, Telenor sets up here, and they are teaching our people how to operate as professionals in an international organisation. That is real skills transfer and it’s great for the country!

How is it being a woman entrepreneur in a male-dominated society?

I’m always surprised when people say Myanmar is a male-dominated society because I never felt this. All the women in my family are very strong. My mother and my grandmother ran businesses, wielded a lot of power, and managed a lot of people. Them and similar women around me lead me to believe that Myanmar is a very equal society. Perhaps this is a unique view and the gender situation might also be deteriorating because of lack of employment opportunities in the economy. I was raised to have demure manners of a Myanmar girl but also to believe that I can do anything and be anyone. Despite growing up in socialist isolation, my parents told me I could be an astronaut going to the moon, if that’s what I wanted to do.

What is your opinion about sanctions?

In my younger years I actually welcomed sanctions. It felt like the world cared enough about Myanmar to do something. As my experience and thinking matured over the years, I have come to realise that sanctions are so not effective as a tool to bring about positive change and even if they are, they come at a high price. They usually intend to punish a small group at the top and typically that group does okay. What sanctions end up doing is punishing the many people at the bottom, those whom you are trying to help in the first place. They get poorer and poorer, because sanctions limit economic activity. Crucially, they also result in underinvestment of critical institutions and infrastructure as a poor country cannot afford many things. Left long enough, this creates a vicious cycle that the country might not recover from.

Even in Yangon we have schools with no light bulbs, classes with a hundred children, and no running water in the toilets. To me that is the impact of sanctions no matter what we want to say about allocation of funds within the government budget. If the pie is small, even the biggest slice will be small.

I would call on the US to scrap all remaining sanctions or sanction-like tools and engage instead. Even the SDN (Specially Designated Nationals) list makes it very difficult for US companies to do business in the country. If I were an American company I would think long and hard about coming to Myanmar. The fines for breaching US rules can be detrimental and the money to be made in Myanmar is small in comparison. Why should a US company take this risk? Even for non-US and local companies, it’s hard to make US Dollar payments in and out of the country. I would even go as far as to say that the US has a moral imperative to engage and ensure ease of doing business in Myanmar because of the power they wield due to the US dollar being the global reserve and trading currency.

What are your expectations about the next government?

I think whichever government comes into power needs to lay out a holistic medium-term and long-term policy that articulates clear goals for the country. Go back to the core of the reason a nation is formed – to collectively create wellbeing, security and continuity for its population. We should talk about rebuilding institutions to create development and prosperity. When I say policy, I don’t mean a rigid top-down ‘central plan’. There should be a framework and goals for the country, then plenty of room for private individuals and private institutions to exercise their own goals and pursue economic incentives.

Right now we have a population with an average schooling of 3.9 years. I cried when I heard this for the first time. This generation is going to teach the next generation. What will happen to us as a nation if this goes on for one more decade?

So we need to take care of education, healthcare and importantly, know how to fund it all. It is easy to say: free education and free healthcare. What will pay for it? If I look at the country like a company, we have assets on one side, and liabilities and equity on the other side. We need a plan that looks at both sides of the equation. The equity that we want to create as a nation is productive capacity, both physical and human, that creates more assets for us in the future. In the interim we may need to borrow money, creating liabilities. On the asset side, until we build up productive capacity, we have natural resources that we can leverage. Resources need not be a curse as long as the extractive process is managed well. There should be a national resource strategy that is sustainable and also considers how competitive we are in the global commodity markets. It is okay to take resources out of the ground as long as we channel the proceeds to building the nation and educating the population.

Do the political parties seeking to form government have such a plan?

I have not heard a coordinated long-term view from either side. The NLD (National League for Democracy) ran on a platform of change. It has not articulated exactly what we will change into and how. The USDP (Union Solidarity and Development Party) ran on a platform of stability. Neither side has articulated how they will lift people out of poverty, or how Myanmar will compete in a globalised world. For me, that is incredibly disappointing.

Women are under-represented in Myanmar politics. Do you envisage a political role?

I don’t want to go into politics, because I always speak my mind and politicians are supposed to be tactful. Also, I’m scared of jail! When I left the country, I left plans to become a doctor. I studied development economics instead, because I believe we can only thrive as a country with the right economic policies in place. As an altruistic young graduate, I wanted to come home and become a policy maker. Maybe at some point I can realise that desire in a small way and play some sort of a technocratic role.

By Hans Hulst

By Hans Hulst

Hans Hulst has been writing about Myanmar since 2000. He wrote three books on the country and published widely in European newspapers and magazines.
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