Myanmar to allow foreign ownership of firms: minister

Myanmar will allow foreigners to take full ownership of local firms under a new investment law expected to be approved by parliament soon, a senior official said Wednesday.

"Foreign companies will be allowed to invest to own from 35 to 100 percent" of domestic firms, said Kan Zaw, deputy minister for national planning and economic development.

"We will scrutinise carefully those who want to invest 100 percent," he told reporters on the sidelines of an investment forum in Yangon

Myanmar's reform-minded President Thein Sein said in a televised speech on Tuesday that economic development would be at the centre of his next phase of reforms, aiming to lure foreign investors.

"Laws, rules and regulations are important and need to be flexible for investors as they will come and invest only when they are protected by laws," the former general said.

The new investment law will give a five-year tax holiday to foreign investors, an increase of two years from the current rules, Kan Zaw said.

"Our investment policy should be competitive," he added, noting the growing interest in investing in Myanmar as it opens up.

Other measures included in the planned legislation are steps to allow foreign investors to lease privately owned land. At the moment they can only lease land from the state.

Energy is one area where foreign firms such as Total and Chevron have a presence in partnership with the state. In recent years Myanmar has also increasingly opened up areas to foreign oil and gas companies for exploration.

State-owned Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise has inked nine agreements since early March to allow firms from Asia and Europe to explore for oil and natural gas, the Myanmar Ahlin newspaper reported on Wednesday.

"It was the first time in the history of Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise to sign nine agreements within such a short period," the report said, without giving financial details.

It said 10 foreign companies were exploring for oil at 24 offshore energy fields, while eight overseas firms -- as well as seven joint ventures with local companies -- were exploring 20 inland fields.

Critics say the rewards of the nation's energy bounty have so far been shared among foreign investors and the regime, rather than its impoverished people.

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