3. Legal Regime
Transparency of the Regulatory System
Burma lacks regulatory and legal transparency. In the past, all existing regulations were subject to change with no advance or written notice, and without opportunity for public comment. While there is no legal requirement to have public consultation, 75 percent of parliamentarians are elected representatives of their constituencies and respond to public engagement. In addition, many Ministries now engage in public consultation before promulgating bills or issuing new regulations. For instance, the 2016 Investment Law was presented to the public and open for comments, including the drafting of the rules and regulations, which went through three rounds of public consultations. An active and vocal civil society, alongside advances in press freedom, also results in more public discourse about proposed legislation and regulations than in the past. The government of Burma publishes information online on government websites and has established websites through which businesses can access trade information. The Ministry of Commerce publishes a weekly Commerce Journal and a monthly Trade News booklet, providing trade-related information, and in May 2016, launched the National Trade Portal and Repository . In the past three years, the government of Burma has also published new regulations and laws in government-run newspapers and “The Burma Gazette.” Burma issued the Citizen’s Budget in September 2016, and provided a six month overview of budget execution in February 2017 for the 2016/17 fiscal year.
As part of the government’s commitment to transparency of its regulatory system, Burma became a candidate country in the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative in 2014, and on January 2, 2016 Burma’s Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) National Coordination Office, a global standard for the promotion of revenue transparency, submitted the country’s first EITI report covering three sub-sectors for 2013-2014 – Oil and Gas, Gems and Jade, and other minerals. The government announced its new EITI administrative body for the second and third reports of EITI process, in December 2016. Although the transition in government caused a delay in its next EITI report, it will publish its second report in March 2018. (See https://eiti.org/myanmar )
International Regulatory Considerations
On May 26, 2016, the Ministry of Commerce launched its new National Trade Portal and Repository, an online platform that has all of Burma’s Laws, processes, forms, and points of contact for trade. This portal meets Burma’s requirements under Articles 12 and 13 of the ASEAN Trade in Goods Agreement. While Burma is not in compliance with WTO notification requirements, the government developed a WTO notification strategy, which will go into effect this year. This should increase the number and quality of notifications. More information on the Portal can be found at: http://www.myanmartradeportal.gov.mm/index.php .
Legal System and Judicial Independence
Burma’s legal system is a unique combination of customary law, English common law and statutes introduced through the pre-independence India Code, and post-independence Burmese legislation. Where there is no statute regulating a particular matter, courts are to apply Burma’s general law, which is based on English common law, as adopted and molded by Burmese case law. Every State and Region has a High Court, with lower courts in each district and township. High Court judges are appointed by the President while District and Township judges are appointed by the Chief Justice through the Office of the Supreme Court of the Union (Burma). The Attorney General’s Law Officers operate sub-national offices in each State, Region, district, and township.
The Attorney General enforces standards of due process in the criminal justice system and provides the government’s Law Officers (prosecutors) with a mandate to act as an independent check in the criminal justice system. The Ministry of Home Affairs, led by a minister appointed by the Commander in Chief, but reporting to the President, retains oversight of the Myanmar Police Force, which files cases directly with the courts. While foreign companies have the right to bring cases to and defend themselves in local courts, there are concerns about the impartiality and lack of independence of the courts.
In order to address the concerns of foreign investors regarding dispute settlement, the government acceded, on April 16, 2013, to the Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards (New York Convention.) On January 5, 2016, Burma’s parliament enacted the much-anticipated Arbitration Law, putting the New York Convention into effect and replacing arbitration legislation that was more than 70 years old. Since April 1, 2016, foreign companies can pursue arbitration in a third country. However, the Arbitration Law does not eliminate all risks. There is still little track record of enforcing foreign awards in Burma and inherent jurisdictional risks remain in any recourse to the local legal system. The new Arbitration Law, however, brings Burma’s legislation more in line with internationally accepted standards in arbitration.
Laws and Regulations on Foreign Direct Investment
The MIC plays a leading role in the regulation of foreign investment, and approves all investment projects receiving incentives, except those in special economic zones, which are handled by the Central Working Body, set up under the existing Special Economic Zone Law. Joint ventures between foreign investors and SOEs are the responsibility of the relevant line ministries. There is no evidence that the MIC discriminates against foreign investors.
The MIL outlines the procedures the MIC must take in considering foreign investments. Investment approvals are made on a case-by-case basis. The MIC evaluates foreign investment proposals and stipulates the terms and conditions of investment permits. To obtain an investment permit, the investor must submit a proposal in the prescribed form to the MIC, together with supporting documentation including details of intended activities and the financial credibility of the company/individual; an undertaking not to engage in trading activities; and annual reports for the last two financial years, or copies of the company’s Head Office’s balance sheet and profit and loss account for the last two financial years, notarized by the Burmese Embassy in the country where the company is incorporated. The MIC accepts or rejects an application within 15 days, and decides whether to approve the proposal within 60 days. In November 2015, the government’s Cabinet approved an Environmental Impact Assessment Procedure. The Chairman of the MIC gives the final approval.
The MIC does not record foreign investments that do not require MIC approval. Joint ventures with military controlled enterprises require MIC approval and abide by the same rules as other investments. Many smaller investments may also go unrecorded. Once licensed, foreign firms may register their companies locally, use their permits to obtain resident visas, lease cars and real estate, and obtain import and export licenses from the Ministry of Commerce. Foreign companies may register locally without an MIC license, in which case they are not entitled to receive the benefits and incentives provided for in the MIL. Many import and export licenses requirements have been removed since 2014; for more information see http://www.myanmartradeportal.gov.mm/?r=site/display&id=13
More information on the MIC and DICA can be found at: http://www.dica.gov.mm/en/apply-mic-permit
Competition and Anti-Trust Laws
A Competition Law was passed on February 24, 2015, and went into effect on February 24, 2017. The objective of the law is to protect public interest from monopolistic acts, limit unfair competition, and prevent abuse of dominant position and economic concentration which weakens competition. Specifically, the Competition Law sets a foundation for creation of a regulatory body with investigative and adjudicative powers, addresses the three standard pillars of competition law (agreements that restrain competition, abuse of dominance, and mergers) as well as unfair trade practices, and establishes a comprehensive penalty regime.
The law classifies four types of behavior as sanctionable violations: acts restricting competition (applicable to all persons); acts leading to monopolies (applicable only to entrepreneurs); unfair competitive acts (applicable only to entrepreneurs); and business combinations such as mergers. The law also restricts the production of goods, market penetration, technological development and investment, although the government may exempt restrictive agreements “if they are aimed at reducing production costs and benefit consumers,” such as reshaping the organizational structure and business model of a business so as to improve its efficiency; enhancing technology and technological advances for the improvement of the quality of goods and service; and promoting competitiveness of small and medium sized enterprises.
Burma is not party to any bilateral or regional agreement on anti-trust cooperation.
Expropriation and Compensation
According to the OECD’s 2014 IPR, Burma’s “expropriation regime . . . does not appear to protect investors against indirect expropriations.” In addition, it reports that Burma has not incorporated the principle of non-discrimination into its investment framework. Other than a constitutional safeguard that states that the government will not nationalize economic enterprises, there is no specific provision in Burma’s legislation against expropriation without compensation. The 2016 MIL prohibits nationalization and states that foreign investments approved by the MIC will not be nationalized during the term of their investment. In addition, the law guarantees that the government of Burma will not terminate an enterprise without reasonable cause, and upon expiry of the contract, the government of Burma guarantees an investor the withdrawal of foreign capital in the foreign currency in which the investment was made. Finally, the law states that “the Union [Burma] Government guarantees that it shall not cease an investment enterprise operating under a Permit of the Commission before the expiry of the permitted term without any sufficient reason.”
The new Company Act under review by Parliament is planned to replace a colonial-era Myanmar Companies Act from 1914 that is replete with antique stipulations – companies have to seek presidential approval to change their names, and court approval to change business objectives. In addition to simplifying requirements for small and family-owned businesses, improving corporate governance standards, and removing outdated regulations, the act also is expected to allow foreign investors to hold a certain percentage of shares in Burmese firms. The authorities hope this will make it easier for local companies to attract international funding and expertise. The new legislation will not automatically treat companies with a degree of foreign ownership differently. The Director General of DICA said foreign-owned companies will be defined as those where foreign ownership exceeds 35 percent, but that the Ministry of Finance and Planning can change this ratio as the economy develops. This law would also allow foreigners to buy shares on the new Yangon Stock Exchange for the first time.
ICSID Convention and New York Convention
Burma is not a party to the 1965 Convention on the Settlement of Investment Disputes between States and Nationals of other States (ICSID). On January 5, 2016 the Burmese parliament enacted the Arbitration Law, putting the 1958 New York Convention into effect (see international arbitration below).
Investor-State Dispute Settlement
To date, Burma has not been party to any investment dispute. In addition, Burma has not been party to any dispute settlement proceeding at the WTO.
International Commercial Arbitration and Foreign Courts
The new 2016 Arbitration Law is based on the UNCITRAL Model Law (Model Law), addressing arbitration in Burma as well as the enforcement of a foreign award in Burma. For example, the provisions relating to the definition of an arbitration agreement, the procedure of appointing arbitrator(s) and the grounds for setting aside an award, are mirrored in the Arbitration Law and the Model Law; however there are some differences between these two laws. For instance, while parties are free to decide on the substantive law in an international commercial arbitration, the Arbitration Bill provides that arbitrations seated in Burma must adopt Burmese law as the substantive law if those arbitrations do not fall within this definition. This may create uncertainty as to what can be defined as an international commercial dispute, such that parties are allowed to adopt any foreign law as substantive law under this provision. According to the Arbitration Law, foreign arbitral awards can be enforced if they are the result of a commercial dispute and were made at a place covered by international conventions connected to Burma and as notified in the State Gazette by the President. If the Burmese court is satisfied with the award, it has to enforce it as if it were a decree of a Burmese court. While observers note that there are still issues to be ironed out, the Arbitration Law brings Burma’s legislation much closer to international arbitration standards and legislation.
There is no bankruptcy law in Burma. Existing, antiquated insolvency laws – such as The Insolvency Act of 1910 and The Insolvency Act of 1920 – are rarely used.
5. Protection of Property Rights
The MIL provides that any foreign investor may enter into long-term leases with private landlords, or—in case of state owned land—the relevant government departments or government organizations, if the investor has obtained a Permit or Endorsement issued by the MIC. Upon issuance of a Permit or an Endorsement, a foreign investor may enter into leases with an initial term of up to 50 years (with the possibility to extend for two additional terms of ten years each). Longer periods of land utilization or land leases may be allowed by the MIC to promote the development of difficult-to-access regions with lower development.
However, a continuing area of concern for foreigners involves investment in large-scale land projects. Property rights of large plots of land for investment commonly are disputed because ownership is not well-established, particularly following a half-century of military expropriations; it is not uncommon for foreign firms to face complaints from communities about inadequate consultation and compensation regarding land that they are seeking to lease from the government or private parties.
In January 2016, the government published the approved National Land Use Policy. The policy includes provisions on ensuring the use of effective environmental and social safeguard mechanisms; improving public participation in decision-making processes related to land use planning; improving public access to accurate information related to land use management; and developing independent dispute resolution mechanisms. The policy is to be updated every five years as necessary and stipulates that a new national land law will be drafted and enacted using this policy. This policy will also be used as a guide for the harmonization of all existing laws relating to land in the country.
Burma’s parliament passed the Condominium Law on January 22, 2016. The law states that up to 40 percent of condominium units can be sold to foreign buyers on a building’s sixth floor and above. As per the new law, condominium owners shall have the shared ownership of both the land and apartment. However, new residential condominiums built in Rangoon will not meet the criteria stipulated in the law as most of the projects were built by foreign investors on government land under build-operate-transfer (BOT). Such private-public partnership investments cannot be considered condominiums under the new law. The Ministry of Construction is drafting rules to clarify the new law.
In accordance with the Transfer of Immovable Property Restriction Law of 1987, mortgages of immovable property are prohibited if the mortgage is held by a foreigner, foreign company or foreign bank.
Intellectual Property Rights
Burma is in the process of improving intellectual property rights protection. Patent, trademark, industrial design, and copyright laws and regulations are antiquated and deficient, and there is minimal regulation and enforcement of existing statutes. Consequently, there is no legal protection in Burma for foreign copyrights. In addition, Burma has no trademark law, although trademark registration is possible. Some firms place caution notices in local newspapers to declare ownership of their trademarks. After publication, the owners can take criminal and/or civil action against trademark infringers. Title to a trademark depends on use of the trademark in connection with goods sold in Burma.
Burma does not have in place a judicial court specifically dealing with intellectual property rights. Disputes related to the infringement of intellectual property rights are governed by common rules of civil and criminal procedure. Similarly, there is no institution in charge of supervising the administration, registration and enforcement of intellectual property.
Burma is attempting to address these legal deficiencies and the high level of piracy within Burma. After Burma joined ASEAN in 1997, it agreed to modernize its intellectual property laws in accordance with the ASEAN Framework Agreement on Intellectual Property Cooperation. The Ministry of Education, with advice from external stakeholders and experts, drafted four new intellectual property bills – on trademarks, copyrights, patents, and industrial design – with the aim of creating a modern, comprehensive legal framework for intellectual property rights and improving Burma’s business climate. In anticipation of the trademark bill passing, Burma has established a single national Intellectual Property Office with USAID assistance that will monitor compliance with intellectual property laws and be responsible for further developing intellectual policy and regulations. In addition, the WTO has delayed required implementation of the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPs) Agreement for Least Developed Nations – including Burma – until 2021.
For additional information about treaty obligations and points of contact at local IP offices, please see WIPO’s country profiles at http://www.wipo.int/directory/en/ .
Resources for Rights Holders
For Intellectual Property Rights issues in Burma, please contact:
Peter N. Fowler, Regional IP Attaché
U.S. Patent and Trademark Office
American Embassy Bangkok, Thailand
Tel: (662) 205-5913
Information on the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) Myanmar Chapter can be found at: http://www.amchammyanmar.com/
Information on legal service providers available in Burma can be found at: https://mm.usembassy.gov/u-s-citizen-services/attorneys/