Government to charge wine distributor

Executives of wine importer Premium Distribution will stand trial and face a possible prison term after a government investigation revealed the company was unable to produce an import licence for about 80,000 bottles of wine stored at its warehouse in Yangon, officials said.

On December 4, a task force from the Ministry of Commerce raided the Premium compound in Thaketa township, netting about 90,000 bottles of wine as well as tonnes of imported luxury foodstuffs as a part of continuing efforts to crack down on illicit alcohol imports.

Officials claim to have given the country’s largest wine distributor ample time to produce the appropriate documents, but as of December 12, the paperwork was not forthcoming, they said.

“The company directors cannot substitute managers or others to face these charges,” deputy director U Soe Aung of the mobile team told The Myanmar Times.

Premium did produce licences and ID for about 10,000 bottles of wine and 37 tons of food, he said.

“We waited a week, and we accepted the licences they produced, but now we will follow procedure,” he said.

Nobody from Premium Distribution could be contacted in time for this report.

The commerce ministry’s hard line, following its raid last month on food and wine importer Quarto Products, has unnerved the hotel and restaurant industry and raised questions about the clarity of Myanmar’s laws on importing alcohol and tobacco.

Quarto’s managing director, Daw Htay Htay Mar, is now on trial for allegedly importing the items without a licence and illicitly using licences from hotels to import alcohol on Quarto’s behalf. The trial opened on November 22.

As a result of confusion in the service industry, several supermarkets and shops have withdrawn imported alcohol stocks from their shelves, making it largely inaccessible to consumers except for at certain hotels.

“There has been no transparency in the retail sector since we started in 1996. It is difficult for us to check how the products from our suppliers have been imported … This situation has cost the country a lot of revenue,” the country’s largest supermarket chain, City Mart, said in a statement earlier this month.

Alcohol raids began in September after the government opened investigations against distributors suspected of illegally importing goods.

Earlier this month, the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism announced that hotels must import alcohol products to be sold to customers directly, and the Ministry of Commerce issued a warning to airport duty-free shops in November not to resell alcohol stocks to unlicensed businesses, he said.

U Win Lwin, another member of the government task force responsible for the recent raids, said that distributors would have the opportunity to buy back confiscated goods from the government before they go on the auctioning block.

“We organised auctions of some frozen goods from Quarto Products immediately as these are not durable,” he said, adding that the customs department is considering a change in policy to prevent buyers of auctioned goods from reselling them commercially.

He said that despite the confiscation, Premium could continue to import alcohol, providing they had an import licence.

The ministry task force comprises of about 280 officers charged with inspecting imports throughout the country, though U Win Lwin claims it was not enough to begin investigating retail shops. For the time being, he said the government is still working from tips given by good Samaritans.

“If we get any information [about the sale of illicit alcohol], we follow up immediately,” he said, adding that his ministry was working with the Ministry of Home Affairs on the matter.

The Myanmar Retailers’ Association (MRA) has called on the Ministry of Commerce to clarify import policy. Daw Win Win Tint, MRA chair, said tobacco, beer, wine and spirits had entered the country for years despite the absence of a specific trade policy, and cracking down on distributors was not a long-term solution for illegal trade. Retailers and restaurants are, meanwhile, worried about mobile team raids and confiscations.

They also warn that the current climate could induce forgers to fake popular international brands of alcohol and tobacco to meet the high demand.

Commerce department director U Win Myint said the mobile team had found equipment for bottle-washing in some warehouses. “We assumed the company might be filling old bottles with their own products, at the consumer’s expense. We did not take any action, but just confiscated the products. There will be a lot of fake products on the market,” he said.

Parliament is considering introducing trade liberalisation measures early next year, and the commerce ministry will review trade policy in March to bring it into line with international standards during the next fiscal year, he said.

Source: Myanmar Times

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