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Date: 2022-05-27 Page is: DBtxt003.php L0900-TPB-TI-Burma-Myanmar-01a
Burma (Myanmar)
Remembering a World Bank assignment in the 1980s
Schwedagon-Paya Pagoda Around Rangoon
I was part of a World Bank team that travelled to Burma in the early 1980s to plan a project in support of the fishing industry in Burma. I was charged with assessing the economic and financial situation in the fishing sector, and bring that into the World Bank's investment decision.

Rangoon (now Yangon) is one of the most interesting cities in the world. The city is full of amazing Bhuddist temples. The Irriwaddi River flows through the city and adds more character to the city. A fascinating place.

At the time Burma was being run on very authoritarian lines by a military junta committed to state ownership of everything. In spite of this, the country / government was attracting substantial flows of investment money ... and the World Bank (WB) had joined the line to put money into the country, specifically into the fishing sector. Part of the WB's reasoning was that fish exports would strengthen the balance of payments and the country's ability to service its debt.

Part of my role in the WB project team was to review the financial situation of the government owned fishing company ... the People's Pearl and Fishing Company (PPFC) that owned and operated all the fishing assets in the country. They had a huge accounting department with several hundred accounting clerks doing the bookkeeping. It was impressive, but something of a challenge to make any sense of it all. With the help of the PPFC's Chief Accountantant I was slowly able to understand both the operating realities of the whole of the Burmese fishing industry (the P&L and cost accounts, if you will) and the financial condition of PPFC and the industry (that is the balance sheet). PPFC's Chief Accountant was able to demonstrate that the whole of the fishing sector was essenetially bankrupt and in a massive financial crisis ... enabled in large part by foreign lenders who had not understanding of the situation !!!!!!!!!
Some years before this WB assignment I had been the CFO of a fishing company ... Continental Seafoods ... based in the USA, but operating in 26 different jurisdictions around the world. I had learned something of the behaviors associated with this industry, and was not at all naive about how the industry operaterd.
Inya Lake Hotel The Strand Hotel
Inya Lake Hotel Inya Lake Hotel
As part of our analysis work, the WB team took a field trip from Rangoon down to the mouth of the Irriwaddi River delta on a government vessel. While Rangoon ws quite 'safe' much of the countryside was not with around 13 major groups fighting for local power, and the government not very much in control. Accordingly our team was protected by a contingent of armed police and a contingent of soldiers from the army. When we asked why two groups of armed guards, we were told that if we got killed and the police were in charge of protecting us, the army would make demands on the government, and if it was the other way round then it would be the police making demands. The solution was to have both responsible ... and therefore no problem. Perfect logic!

Our team was surprised to see thousands of very small fishing vessels operating near the mouth of the delta. Thse fishing boats were powered by outboard motots, and the big question was where was the fuel coming from? We got the answer when one of PPFC's large foreign financed fishing trawlers came on the scene. The fuel intended for the trawler's fishing cruise was carefully delivered to hundreds of thes small local fishing boats. No wonder the trawler was getting very poor fishing results when we had been looking at their performance in the accounting office in Rangoon.

It should also be noted that in response to a very serious shortage of fuel in the country, the government had imposed price control on fuel. The official price was 3 chats/viss and to nobody's surprise the black market price was 30 chats/viss. A huge amount of 'leakage' was going on as people with some official position bought at the official price and then resold at the higher market price. The lesson here is that markets actually do work!

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