Cablegate: Burma's Businesswomen Knocking On Teak Ceiling

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.





E.O. 12958: N/A

1. (SBU) Summary: While striving to retain its political
independence, the Myanmar Women's Entrepreneur Association
(MWEA) has had some success helping established Burmese
businesswomen climb the business ladder. Though it has had
less success building economic capacity at the lower rungs of
the ladder, MWEA continues to run a small micro-credit
program in several Rangoon markets. All in all, we are
encouraged that a large, but neglected, portion of the
Burmese business community is being exposed to important
international business principles. End summary.

Stanford in the Lead

2. (SBU) The Myanmar Women's Entrepreneur Association (MWEA),
founded by a Burmese graduate of Stanford University's MBA
program, is focusing on a neglected element in Burma's
atrophied economy -- women. Women often do not have access
to as much capital as men, and social norms frown on young
women (under 40) being too ambitious or aggressive in
business or elsewhere. However, Burmese tradition does not
prohibit women from entering the workplace or running a
business. In fact, women dominate certain, mostly retail or
brokering, sectors of the economy. Though girls still face
educational discrimination at the lower levels, the country's
relatively new MBA program has gone from 1/3rd women to about
40-50 percent women in about five years.

3. (U) MWEA, now with approximately 1,200 members, was
founded in 1995 and has managed to steer a tenuous path
between government approval, a necessity for survival, and
co-option -- the death knell for creativity and independence.
Unlike other women's "NGOs" in Burma, MWEA does not have any
grande dame (usually the wife of one of the State Peace and
Development Committee's Big 3) at its helm -- instead it is
chaired and co-chaired by senior Burmese businesswomen.
Likewise it is not directly affiliated with any government
ministries, nor does it receive any GOB funding. After some
debate, MWEA decided against affiliating itself with the
government's mass member political organization the Union
Solidarity and Development Association (USDA).

Going Low...

4. (SBU) To try and boost up women on the lowest rungs of the
business ladder, MWEA is running an income generation program
in several Rangoon marketplaces. MWEA is reluctant to call
its work "micro-credit," as such a program would fall afoul
of Burma's archaic banking laws. However, MWEA is providing
very small loans (usually about US$5) and charging 3 percent
monthly interest over 12 months. Interest is plowed back
into a revolving fund, allowing larger loans (up to US$10).
Even in Burma, though, there is not much that can be done
with such small sums. The ultimate objective is to gradually
expand the amounts available and then teach participants how
to borrow from the official banking system.

5. (SBU) Though micro-credit has had success in Burma, under
the auspices of UNDP or large foreign corporations, MWEA has
thus far been frustrated. The founder commented that most
small businesswomen in the markets are ignorant and
suspicious of formal banking and are thus reluctant to do any
paperwork or take on any formal responsibility -- even for a
larger sum of money. MWEA's micro-loans are now all done
informally. She also blames a lack of managerial resources
and vision at her own organization for the program's poor
results. The larger internationally funded micro-credit
projects in Burma, she argues, benefit from a large support
infrastructure, including education for borrowers and regular
assistance from project staff, that MWEA cannot muster.

Going High...

6. (SBU) The MWEA has had more success working with its
membership, generally women already firmly on the ladder.
MWEA's founder told us she is encouraged to see more and more
young, technically savvy women joining the organization. She
credits regular seminars and workshops, many of which are
funded by foreign governments and foundations, for inspiring
some members with new ideas about sound business practices.
She is pleased that younger women, both MWEA members and at
the country's MBA program, seem to be absorbing concepts of
accountability and corporate responsibility that are not part
of Burma's traditional business culture. Likewise, she said,
the notion is sinking in that there is a linkage between
national economic growth and a positive business climate -- a
concept quite foreign to the current regime and its cronies.

Comment: Building Capacity

7. (SBU) Because women are not generally commanding
large-scale manufacturing or construction companies, they are
perhaps less susceptible to government pressure and the
allures of corruption and cronyism. We don't want to
overstate the role of these entrepreneurs in the current
economic system, or the ability of the MWEA to work miracles.
However, it is encouraging to see a business organization
dedicated to spreading the gospel of corporate governance,
accountability, and entrepreneurship among Burma's relatively
independent businesswomen.

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