Reinvesting Myanmar cash in Central

Otago hotelier Anthony Alderson is divesting himself of Myanmar businesses but says the country...
Otago hotelier Anthony Alderson is divesting himself of Myanmar businesses but says the country has a bright future if its people are patient. Photo: Bruce Munro.

Profits from the sale of a popular Yangon restaurant will likely be reinvested in tourist accommodation in Otago.

Otago businessman Anthony Alderson (51) is in discussions to sell 50th Street Bar and Grill, as well as two other eateries in the Myanmar capital, to Serge Pun & Associates (SPA).

Speaking to the Otago Daily Times in Yangon, Mr Alderson said he planned to buy more property to supply the booming Central Otago tourism market.

Mr Alderson has owned the downtown 50th Street Bar since early 1997, first as a partner in a small Indo-China investment company, and then sole owner in 2009 after buying out the other partners  for $450,000.

Myanmar investment laws meant he could get a business licence but could not own the building. Ownership was vested in a local lawyer. The laws have since changed, requiring foreigners to make a much larger capital investment.

"I’m the only foreigner in this country who has a business licence to operate a restaurant," Mr Alderson said.

The 1906 building is thought to have originally been the royal mint for the British colonial government of the nation then known as Burma. Remodelling the old building revealed bricks imported from England and steel from Clyde, Scotland.

As 50th Street Bar, it became the first stand-alone bar and restaurant in Myanmar. Six months after opening, economic sanctions were imposed by the United States and European Union, resulting in the exit of most foreigners and foreign money. That changed in 2008, when Myanmar’s new constitution and the urgent need for international aid after devastating cyclone Nargis, drove a new influx of people and cash.

50th Street Bar became a popular venue for locals and foreigners. The Lonely Planet guidebook describes it as "a handsomely restored colonial building" that "continues to draw in the crowds".

Mr Alderson, originally of the United Kingdom, was living with his New Zealand wife and their three sons in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where they owned businesses. The family moved to New Zealand in 2011, where Mr Alderson had bought the Lake Hawea Hotel.

The downtown cafe and bar, an Italian restaurant and another cafe - plus an apartment being bought by a different party - is being sold for a total sale price of $1.42 million.

Mr Pun (64), a Myanmar national who grew up in China, established SPA Myanmar in 1991. SPA Myanmar is now one of the country’s largest corporations. SPA Myanmar has manufacturing, financial, real estate, technology, construction and healthcare divisions. Mr Pun’s net worth has been estimated at more than $700million.

"The reality of living in Central Otago is that it makes far more sense to utilise that capital there [Central Otago] than trying to do anything here.

"Ideally, it will be reinvested in some sort of rooms in Central Otago, due to the lack of rooms and the growing tourism in the region."

Mr Alderson said he had seen an enormous amount of change in Myanmar during the past 20 years.

The country was under harsh military rule from 1962 to 2011.

In the late-1990s, he would send faxes that would take up to an hour to arrive and would turn up with sections blanked out, having been through the censor’s office. Mr Alderson knew several members of the armed ethnic minority opposition groups as well as members of the main political opposition, the National League for Democracy.

Mr Alderson once delivered a secret message intended for Aung Sun Suu Kyi, who was then under house arrest in Yangon and is now the political leader of Myanmar. He also smuggled raw video footage out of Myanmar that was then used in the 2011 documentary Dancing with Dictators about the editor of The Myanmar Times, Ross Dunkley.

The country is opening up to investment and development, but faces the challenge of an inexperienced government. The people of Myanmar would need to be patient, he said. If they were, the country had a positive future.

"Myanmar is the largest land mass in Southeast Asia; it has more oil and gas than Indonesia  ... the population of about 65 million could get up to close to 100 million within the next 20 years.‘‘The potential, through its natural resources and its domestic market, is huge."

● Bruce Munro travelled to Myanmar with the assistance of the Asia New Zealand Foundation.

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