Myanmar’s reformist business tycoon leading economic evolution

Zaw Zaw, the chief of Max Myanmar group, a major conglomerate in Myanmar, has become the poster boy for the country’s uphill battle to outgrow its past and build a democratic society and a fully modernized economy.

About half a year since the U.S. lifted economic sanctions against the Southeast Asian nation, which was under military rule for decades, Zaw Zaw is attracting international attention as a major driving force of the country’s transformation.

Besides being the popular president of the Myanmar Football Federation, Zaw Zaw, the executive chairman of the business group, is seen in the international community as a paragon of ethical and transparent corporate governance. With his long and solid commitment to governance reform becoming widely recognized, he is now receiving a flood of partnership proposals from foreign companies.

Myanmar’s economy, which is still dominated by corrupt moguls with cozy ties to former military rulers, needs strong reformist business leaders like Zaw Zaw.

His ability to inspire people was on display at an event held on Feb. 17 at the Thuwunna national stadium in Yangon, which was packed with young people wearing the uniform of the country’s national soccer team.

It was a ceremony to mark the opening of the National Football Academy, an institution formed to train promising young players — teens from around the country who have the potential to make the national team.

Some $2 million has been spent on the academy, which has modern training and other facilities in addition to two international-standard fields.

The academy was created to help Myanmar regain its past soccer glory. The country’s national team won the championship of the Asian Games in 1966 and 1970. But Myanmar’s soccer might dwindled during the ensuing era of military rule.

At 5 p.m. that day, a white Rolls-Royce arrived at the stadium. Zaw Zaw, a youthful man dressed in a tight black suit, emerged from the car and into a flood of camera flashes.

Standing at the podium, the business tycoon delivered a passionate speech in fluent English.

Zaw Zaw stressed the importance of human resources for the development of Myanmar’s soccer and pointed out that the soccer academy has been founded for the future of talented children. He also referred to new FIFA President Gianni Infantino’s move to expand the World Cup and encourage co-hosting of the global soccer event. Zaw Zaw said Infantino’s agenda has increased Myanmar’s chances of taking part in the event and opened up the possibility of Southeast Asian nations co-hosting it.

His uplifting speech whipped up excitement in the crowd.

Soccer is the most popular sport in Myanmar. Since Zaw Zaw took the helm in 2005, the country’s soccer federation has enhanced the national youth player development system, giving top players opportunities to take part in training programs in Europe.

His efforts are beginning to pay off. In 2015, the country’s Under-20 national squad qualified for the FIFA U-20 World Cup.

With his contribution to the rise in the country’s international soccer status widely recognized, Zaw Zaw is often greeted with loud chanting of his name when he appears at a national team match.

Zaw Zaw is also contributing financially to the sport. Most of the money to found the academy was provided by his charity foundation.

Zaw Zaw was born in the southern Ayeyarwady region in 1966, when the country was governed by a socialist regime.

In 1988, when he was a student at the University of Yangon, a military coup took place in Myanmar, prompting him to become a crew member of a ship operating on international runs. As he traveled to countries like Thailand and Singapore, he picked up the English language.

Zaw Zaw’s business career started in the early 1990s when he was living in Japan. Starting with a part-time job washing dishes in Ginza, he gradually built up a foundation for his career while learning to speak Japanese.

He founded Max Myanmar in 1993 initially as an exporter of used Japanese cars to his home country. His venture took off, enabling him to return home to expand the company into such businesses as operating gas stations, developing real estate and running hotels. His business steadily grew and joined the ranks of new conglomerates in the country.

But Zaw Zaw’s business career suffered a major setback in 2009, when the U.S. slapped strict economic sanctions on Myanmar in response to the military junta’s move the previous year to establish a new constitution that allowed the army to get involved in politics.

Because Max Myanmar was involved in construction work building the new capital, Naypyitaw, it was regarded as a business with close ties to the military government and put on the U.S. Treasury Department’s blacklist. Both Zaw Zaw and his conglomerate were banned from conducting business with U.S. companies.

Zaw Zaw was “shocked” by the imposition because he believed he had been contributing to society through not only his business operations but also such humanitarian activities as supplying aid to victims of cyclones. He said he wondered, “Why me?”

However, the sanctions prompted the Myanmar magnate to embark on corporate governance reform and social contribution on a greater scale. In 2010, he established the Ayeyarwady Foundation to provide funding for charity projects such as building schools and medical institutions.

Zaw Zaw also took a series of steps to improve the image of his conglomerate, including disclosure of investor relations information and participation in a corporate social responsibility program promoted by the United Nations.

These steps set Max Myanmar apart from the rest of the business community in the country, where few companies bother to publish earnings reports.

As Max Myanmar has gained an international reputation as the leader of modernization of corporate management in Myanmar, the group constantly receives partnership offers from all over the world.

When Zaw Zaw visited Japan in November 2016 to attend a symposium on Myanmar’s economy, dozens of Japanese companies asked for a meeting with him.

“Even though the economic sanctions against Myanmar have been lifted, well-connected businesses in the country are suspected to be involved in drug dealings and arms trade with North Korea,” said a senior executive at a Japanese trading company. “Our compliance rules make it difficult for us to do business with such organizations. Max Myanmar stands out in this business environment because of its high levels of governance transparency. Zaw Zaw’s ability to communicate in Japanese is another factor that is boosting his popularity among Japanese companies.”

In concluding his address at the opening ceremony for the soccer academy, Zaw Zaw stressed that a soccer team needs to keep fighting irrespective of the outcome of the battle. Soccer is just like life in that the 11 players have to perform their own roles, he said.

His speech echoed his own experience in the ongoing battle to help Myanmar shed the negative legacies of the past and carve out a new future for its economy.

Source: Nikkei Asia Review

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