Legal tales from ‘mad’ Myanmar

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Chris HughesLive for nothing or die for something. These famous words come from what is easily American film’s most brutal portrayal of Myanmar, a 2008 work of fiction in which gangs of thugs pillage huts, civilians dance in mine-infested rice paddies and pirates with mounted machine guns populate dingy swamps.

That film was Rambo 4, at the time, the most violent movie in cinema history. And while no one would vouch for the credibility of such a depiction, it would be hard to deny that such images linger in the western imagination. Myanmar is little understood. After enduring close to 50 years of military rule, communist style economic planning and international isolation, the country retains a cloak of mystery. Few people have gone there.

That is, until now. Thanks to a process of political reforms first enacted in 2011, the country is opening up. Multinationals have sniffed the opportunity to engage the local business community and many are exploring their investment options.

The feeling is that times are a-changing, but the old perceptions of the country – rumours of its backwardness and violence that have been flamed by the media – still linger among those unfamiliar with the country. Perhaps that is what makes Australian lawyer Chris Hughes so remarkable.

Hughes is one of the lawyers spearheading the evolution of Myanmar’s legal industry. The Baker & McKenzie partner has been managing the international firm’s fledgling Myanmar office in Yangon – the country’s former capital – since December last year.

He says that the country’s rumoured backwardness, coupled with its room for growth, was what appealed to him. It is the very reason he has come to live and work in the country.

“I’d been looking for opportunities outside of Bakers in Sydney and wanted to live in Asia,” Hughes says. “I didn’t want to work in Hong Kong or somewhere like that and liked the idea of working in a developing country… the opportunity to start the Myanmar office was circulating the firm.”

Hughes says he and his wife, along with their young family, had wanted to explore opportunities to live and work outside Sydney for some time. They especially wanted to try something different. A prior experience in the UK had been professionally and personally rewarding for the family and they felt they ought to work overseas again before Hughes hit 50. When the opportunity to lead his firm’s new Myanmar office came up, Hughes eagerly put forward his interest.

“We did a lightning due diligence,” Hughes says. “We spent about 36 hours on the ground in Yangon basically to answer two questions: could we find a place where we could live and could we find a school to send our seven-year-old?”

After being taken around to houses in various states of disrepair, Hughes says that his initial experiences were ‘sobering’, but the couple eventually found an area they could imagine themselves living in. They were happy with the international schools on offer and decided that working in Myanmar would be a great adventure.

“We told ourselves to ignore the mangy dogs walking the streets, the crappy old cars and the horrible traffic, tap water you can’t drink and all the rest of it.  You take that on the chin as part of the rich experience of living somewhere like this, but it was something we could do. The secret was to focus on the big picture – the opportunity.”

Deciding that it was the right opportunity for him, Hughes set about convincing Baker & McKenzie that he was the right man for the job. They agreed and the rest, as they say, is history.

A year in Yangon
The Hughes family’s experiences since moving to the country last year have been, not surprisingly, very colourful, Hughes admits.

He says that the country is culturally fascinating and that his family is still at a chapter in their stay where the novelty of the experience is enough to make up for the day to day challenges of living there.

Such hardships include an intermittent electricity supply, which is amplified by the country’s lack of many modern technologies. Infrastructure is deteriorated or often non-existent and the local currency, the Kyat, suffers hyper-inflation pressures.

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