“Things are a bit different. You can’t pop into Westfield Bondi Junction and have 100 shops at your disposal. Here you go to the wet market to buy your fish and chicken. It’s a simpler life. Even something like getting a vacuum cleaner is a two day adventure for us. My wife will go to half the stores, trailed by their employees, as something bought in one place is rewired in another.”
Myanmar also has plenty of contrasts with Australia from a legal point of view.
“The biggest difference is trying to work out what the law is,” Hughes says, adding that the Myanmar legal framework isn’t as documented and institutionalised as lawyers in other jurisdictions would be used to.
Part of the challenge is political. Leading up to the early 1960s – before the country’s military coup in 1962 – Myanmar had a fairly sophisticated legal framework. As the country became more isolated, that framework began to atrophy. Today, five decades after the coup, the country is governed by a mixture of old common laws and practices that were pursued by a centralised and controlled economy.
“When businesses ask us relatively simple questions, you can look to how the law is written but inevitably you have to deal directly with the ministries and officials. You almost have to sit down and talk through the problems with them and get an answer on how they are likely to respond. It’s a totally different way of doing things.”
Hughes says that language is also an inevitable barrier. Even in his own office, English proficiency varies greatly and there has been little exposure to it.
This theme of isolation carries through further to commercial practicalities. The local business and legal community is unfamiliar with many of the kind of investments that international businesses are looking to make. Many of the projects they want to undertake haven’t been done in Myanmar at a large scale in decades.
Hughes says this requires a massive education process. Firm management has to explain what the issues are for international investors and how the regulatory framework is going to need to respond to them. Then the firm has to work out how it needs to translate such issues to the ministries in order to move forward.
“The capabilities and skills around these things are pretty mixed. We are working on that a lot in the office. It’s hard. It’s a country that’s been out of the loop for a while and it has to catch up real quick.”
Despite the immense legal and business challenges within the Myanmar market, Hughes says the opportunity makes up for it. He senses that the country is in a transition phase that puts it ahead of many other developing markets.
“If you can navigate the issues and successfully do business in this market there’s a lot of opportunity. The mood here among locals is optimistic. They are welcoming of the changes that are happening. They see this as something that will bring direct improvements to their lives.
“For me as well, we’re doing projects that are incredibly stimulating. I’m loving it. It’s a terrific life experience. When I came it was not on a term contract. It was a one way ticket to come and build something out of the office. I’m enjoying that responsibility.”