Managing an international business in Myanmar through a military coup and the COVID-19 pandemic, with J. R. Ching ’01 of Yoma Strategic Holdings

We’re launching our fall season with J. R. Ching ’01, the chief financial officer for Yoma Strategic Holdings. We asked J. R. to join the show to help us understand the military coup in Myanmar and to hear how his company has managed the ongoing crisis as the Delta variant continues to surge throughout the country. 

Listen to the episode

Episode Credits

The music for this episode was produced and contributed by Nicholas Byrne ’19 of Arts + Crafts.

Nicholas is a producer, guitarist, and singer, and a graduate student at the Parsons School of Design in NYC. The alumnus earned his bachelor’s degree from the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media with a minor in music. 

Follow Nicholas @art.sandcrafts on Instagram or on Spotify.

This episode also featured intro music by Scott Hallyburton ’22, guitarist of the band South of the Soul.
An audio clip of protests used in this episode was contributed by YouTube user Bendobrown. You can watch the full video here.

How to listen

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Catalyze is hosted and produced by Sarah O’Carroll for the Morehead-Cain Foundation, home of the first merit scholarship program in the United States and located at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. You can let us know what you thought of the episode by finding us on Twitter or Instagram at @moreheadcain or you can email us at communications@moreheadcain.org.

Episode transcription

(Sarah)

Welcome to Catalyze. I'm Sarah O’Carroll.

We're launching our fall season with J. R. Ching from the class of 2001 and the chief financial officer for Yoma Strategic Holdings. We asked J. R. to join the show to help us understand the military coup in Myanmar, and to hear how his company has managed the ongoing crisis as the Delta variant continues to surge throughout the country.

(Broadcast anchor #1)

The crackdown after Myanmar’s military coup claimed hundreds of lives in just two months. But there are also many unseen casualties of this rapidly escalating crisis.

(Broadcast anchor #2)

Now, anti-coup rebels, made up of villagers, students, young workers, are taking matters into their own hands in an effort to restore democracy.

(Sarah)

J. R., thanks for speaking with us.

(J. R.)

No, certainly—it's great to be back in touch with the Foundation.

(Sarah)

Typically, you're based in Singapore but because of the situation in Myanmar and the COVID-19 pandemic, you've been in the U.S. Catch us up on the past year and a half for you and what conducting businesses has look like.

(J. R.)

The past year has been somewhat of a whirlwind. I usually travel quite a bit around the Asian region but I think—like the rest of the world and like a lot of people—I was pretty much trapped during 2020. I spent a straight nine months in Myanmar during the COVID period. And I came back to the States at the end of last year to celebrate the year-end holidays.

I had planned to return back to the Asian region sometime towards the end of January, but I was anticipating the vaccines. So, I had stayed here for about a month beyond the holidays. And that's when the military coup happened in Myanmar on February 1.

Now, over the last six months, I've been still stateside, unable to get back into Myanmar. And, unfortunately, because of most of those COVID travel restrictions still being up in the rest of Asia, I haven't been able to get back to Hong Kong or Singapore either.

(Sarah)

For anyone who hasn't lived or spent a significant amount of time in Myanmar, I think it can be difficult to understand the deep-rooted grievances that really propelled the coup in the first place. Can you help us put the coup into context?

(J. R.)

The military has had a very large role within Myanmar’s society since its independence from the British in the 1940s, and it was Aung San Suu Kyi’s father who was the leading general who led that independence movement back in the day.

In the 1960s, the military executed its first coup and took control of the country in the 1960s, and then ran the country for fifty years until they started that process of transitioning to democracy in 2012, which then culminated in those Democratic elections in 2015 when Aung San Suu Kyi and her party were elected into power.

But I think we also have to remember that there's always been a delicate balance between the civilian government and the military even since 2015. And that's because the military has constitutional control over three key ministries. The civilian government does not control their internal affairs, their border, and their defense ministries.

Overall, the military has still maintained a very, very large say in what happens within Myanmar. It has a very, very large interest in the economic structure of the country, meaning it has investments in lots of different companies. It controls most of the extractive sector in mining and timber. It's always had that sort of role within the country and within the economy.

You can say that the coup that happened on February 1 is very much of a struggle for power between these two different forces: one, an established institution that was losing its grip on both power but also its influence in where the country was and was headed, as well as those nascent Democratic forces that were clearly pushing to open up Myanmar to the rest of the world and engage, both economically as well as politically.

We would say that the coup is not something that is ideological. It's not something where you would think that there was going to be a significant change in policy per se, but it's clearly a competition and a situation where you have two parties that are competing for power of who can actually then control the events going forward.

(Sarah)

Now that we have this broader view of how something like this occurred, I'd like to return to the days leading up to February 1 from the perspective of your team. How did the company start preparing for disruptions once it was clear that an attempted coup might be in the works?

(J. R.)

For a week prior to the coup itself, we had been hearing some rumblings that the military was just not happy with the negotiations that were going on with Aung San Suu Kyi’s Democratic party and the formation of the new government. And February 1 was the first day of the new parliamentary session when the government was supposed to be formed.

I think most experts and we ourselves thought all of this was just a bit of posturing, that the military was trying to jockey for a better position as the new government was being formed.

The coup started on Monday morning in Myanmar, which was the evening time here in the States. The first indications that we had came from my managers who were on the ground. I was getting messages on WhatsApp as well as on our internal messaging system that there were news or announcements that Aung San Suu Kyi had been detained. So that was Sunday evening my time.

And as it became clearer and clearer that a coup was underway, the first thing that we knew that was going to happen was communication lines were going to be cut. Internet was going to be shut down because that's generally the first thing that one of these militaries wants to do, is cut the lines of communication so that the population is unable to have full information flows, and also prevent any sort of resistance or organization arising.

The military did pull the Internet down, but they only pulled it down for about 12 to 18 hours, and then they put it back up, which was a very interesting strategy because it then did allow for people to start communicating, sharing on social media, posting videos of what was happening on the ground in terms of the protests and the crackdown. We at least were able to start communicating with our staff and our people on the ground again because the Internet did go back up pretty quickly.

(Sarah)

Knowing that losing access to Internet would be a likely scenario, did Yoma have any backup systems in place for this kind of a crisis?

(J. R.)

We had to work very closely with our IT consultants and advisors, who were able to create some sort of bilateral link between our office building in Yangon and our office building in Singapore using the fiber optic phone lines to be able to at least have some level of basic communications between the two offices. And that's how we were able to manage in the event that the Internet was going to be kept down for an extended period of time.

(Sarah)

That's interesting. In addition to making sure communication structures and other contingency plans were in place, I'm sure you were also already thinking of the impact the coup could have on the many sectors that Yoma is involved in: agriculture, real estate, equipment manufacturing, tourism, and others. What sort of ripple effects did the team project within its investment focus areas?

(J. R.)

Yeah, the first and foremost priority was going to be the people and ensuring the safety of, again, all of our staff and, of course, their families. But I think we knew that this would instantly change the business and investment landscape within Myanmar. We as a group had spent the previous eight to ten years really focusing on opening up the economy, attracting foreign investment, and becoming a partner of choice for a lot of multinationals or investors who are looking to enter into the country. And part of that was also building up the human capital and human capacity that the country needed.

With the military coup and the future trajectories for Myanmar, given where free speech is going to be headed, given where potential sanctions regimes could be headed, we knew that this would all be radically, radically different going forward. I think first and foremost, the landscape is going to change just purely from an investment perspective, but also attracting talent to come into the country for years ahead.

On the operational side, I think, as you rightfully highlighted, we do have a lot of different businesses across many different sectors. All of them were severely disrupted for several, several months so, whether it was from the fact that we had to deal with the ongoing street protests and tear gas being fired at those protesters—where they were then running into some of our restaurants or our dealer showrooms—that was one thing we had to manage.

The other was we had to manage the civil disobedience movement that the protesters came up with, where they were trying to shut down not just public sector activities and asking employees in the public sector to go on strike, but trying to extend it to private sector employees in both the healthcare as well as the banking sectors to go on strike. Effectively creating a general strike, which shut down the economy for significant periods of time. All of those various factors really did disrupt a number of our businesses, for months and months right after the coup had happened.

(Sarah)

And of course, Myanmar has also been particularly hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, and its healthcare system has struggled to keep up. It seems that the military has been exploiting these vulnerabilities by controlling vaccine distribution, prioritizing their soldiers and punishing dissenters. What else can you share with us about how the regime has weaponized access to care and the vaccine?

(J. R.)

Yes, as you rightfully point out, Myanmar has a relatively underdeveloped healthcare infrastructure in the first place. It does rely on the goodwill and the donations from more developed nations.

There was a vaccination effort that started at the end of December or beginning of January where there was a batch of vaccines that were donated by India to Myanmar on a limited basis. When the military took control of the country in February, that entire vaccination effort came to a grinding halt. And in a sense, as part of the civil disobedience movement, a lot of the population refused to take vaccines from a military administered program, which is what it became once the coup had happened.

All of those vaccines that had come from India at the beginning part of the year were then wasted because they were not able to be used by most of the population. In this most recent third wave where the Delta variant is sweeping through the country, people are quite desperate for any sort of solution to the problem.

There has been a renewed sense of engagement where people are willing to take whatever vaccine they're able to find. That's an interesting trend that people are in this situation re-engaging and looking to see whatever vaccine they can get.

In terms of weaponizing COVID-19 and what the military has done, they have prioritized oxygen supplies as well as vaccination supplies first and foremost for themselves and for their frontline soldiers. The general population is what is suffering because oxygen has been taken from suppliers as well as machines that have been taken from private hospitals and redistributed to military institutions or military hospitals.

(Sarah)

With these major crises happening concurrently, how is the Yoma team strategizing to maintain investors under these increasingly dire conditions?

(J. R.)

I think in some ways we've been extremely lucky. A lot of our partners and a lot of our investors who came into Myanmar over the last ten years have shown their support through this coup situation and have committed or remained committed to investing in the country alongside Yoma Strategic.

I think with that being said—one of the biggest changes is that previously we had been in expansion mode. We've been diversifying across a number of sectors, we have been continuously looking for and seeking new investment partners and new investment. Now, going forward strategically, it looks very much like we're going to be in a situation where we shrink today to grow tomorrow, in a sense.

The level of foreign direct investment into the country will substantially reduce, or it may even become much more focused from Asian countries like China, Thailand, and the like, rather than Western nations coming into the country. But I think one of the biggest effects that we’re going to see, and I kind of mentioned this earlier, is the effect on human capital.

Over the last ten years, there has been a significant return of Myanmar people who had gone abroad to be educated and to get work experience in other countries, and we call them re-patriots back into Myanmar.

And there has been that trend where people wanted to come back to the country to help its reopening process, to help rebuild the country after so many years of isolation and neglect, and that was something that Myanmar needed, which was it needed significant investments in education and really a step up in its human capital and human capacities. And I think that's one of the things that the country is going to see, but also we as a group are going to see going forward, is that a lot of people are leaving. They are going back abroad because the opportunity set within Myanmar is going to be radically different going forward, but also the educational system and the futures, especially for families and for their children, is dramatically different in this environment once the coup has happened versus where it was prior to February 1.

And I think that's probably going to be the biggest change and shift that we're already starting to see, and that's going to permanently affect the trajectory for Myanmar for the near to medium term.

(Sarah)

This is making me wonder about if there are any parallels between what Myanmar has experienced and what could happen to U.S. companies. Myanmar, of course, has a very distinct political environment and history, as you've gone into. But a year ago, it'd also be hard to imagine a mob storming our capital building. So are there lessons to be had here for business leaders in the U.S. and analogous countries, from the perspective of crisis planning and management?

(J. R.)

It’s interesting, I actually had a conversation with another Morehead recently on a topic like this. Yes, there might be some areas where the experiences in Myanmar and some of the challenges that we face might be applicable to more developed markets, companies, or situations.

And let me just give one example. And it was an interesting phenomenon that occurred for a couple of months just after the coup happened. And that's where we had a physical shortage of cash in the market. And it was interesting because it wasn't a liquidity crisis within the financial system.

In a sense, the financial system had sufficient deposits, it had sufficient foreign currency reserves. But it was a consequence of the policies of the government over the last eighteen years where there was a push to dematerialize money and really focus on the banking system, interbank transfers, as well as digital payment transactions, so building an ecosystem like you've seen across many of the other Asian countries where you hold and store money and value in a digital format rather than in a physical format.

But when the coup happened, there was clearly a panic amongst most people and they reverted back to wanting to hold physical cash, number one, and two, when the Internet goes up and down at various points in time, or whether there's a threat that the Internet may go up and down at various points in time, people clearly can't rely on digital payment methods and systems to be able to transact.

All of those combined to have a run on physical cash and really a shortage of the physical cash supply within the economy. The discussion I was having with this other Morehead was that that could be interesting for how even developed markets would need to address some of these really unprecedented or unparalleled or non-textbook type of situations where, for instance, if cybersecurity issues become inherent within the financial system, what would happen if ransomware attacks brought down part of our transactions, payment systems, banking systems, et cetera., and how would we all look at functioning if that actually did happen? I think these are just some interesting questions of where we're able to take some lessons and think about some of the implications and consequences for developed markets and developed countries that we've seen in Myanmar that we would never have thought of or planned for prior to crisis like this.

(Sarah)

We've been talking about work from the context of the team, of the company. But I'd also like to hear a bit about how you're thinking of the future and organizing your work life amidst all of this chaos.

(J. R.)

I still have my travel plans a little bit up in the air. It does look like that Asia might be releasing or reducing a lot of the travel restrictions in the coming months. Clearly that would be beneficial if I can get back into the region at some stage. But for the time being, it has been a challenge to work remotely here. My days basically start around 9:00 p.m. They last until around three, sometimes six in the morning, depending on when my board calls are scheduled and finish.

But it has been, again, an interesting nine months where I've had to learn how to manage a lot of crises remotely, in a sense.

(Sarah)

Well, although this has been an extraordinarily challenging time, you've also somehow climbed the equivalent of Mount Everest. Tell us about that experience.

(J. R.)

This kind of came by a little bit by chance, but because I had so much free time during the days here since I was working through the nights, at the other part of this year, I signed up for an endurance challenge, which was 29029 Everesting. And there you climb the equivalent vertically of Mount Everest. So you have to climb 29,000 vertical feet in less than thirty-six hours. They host the event at a couple of ski resorts around the country, and the first one that they did this year was in Idaho in June.

So I challenged myself to that in June, and I had to climb Bald Mountain fifteen times to get that vertical equivalent of Mount Everest. So that was something that I guess was able to fill my time during the days because otherwise I would be just working at night and keeping those Asian schedules, so that was able to distract me a little bit whilst I was here.

(Sarah)

Well, that is quite inspiring. J. R., thank you for your time and helping us understand what's been happening.

(J. R.)

No, thanks very much for taking the time to do this and clearly trying to highlight some of the issues that we're facing, and by that I mean what Myanmar is going through right now. I know most people probably aren't familiar with the dynamic that's happening all the way out there. And clearly the news stories have hit the headlines, but they've kind of faded over the last couple of months since the coup has happened. It's just always really good to keep some of these issues at the forefront of people's minds and making sure that everybody understands some of the challenges that we're really facing in that part of the world still.

(Sarah)

Well, we really appreciate your insights, and I'm sure our listeners will, too.

(J. R.)

Certainly, thank you.

(Sarah)

Thank you for listening to Catalyze. I'm Sarah O’Carroll, and that was J. R. from the class of 2001. You can let us know what you thought of the episode or who you want to hear from next by emailing us at communications@moreheadcain.org or by finding us on Twitter or Instagram at Morehead-Cain.

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