Digging deep – An interview with Ophir Energy

Published in Mizzima Weekly on 23 July 2015

Ophir's senior adviser in Myanmar, Andrew Chapman
Ophir’s senior adviser in Myanmar, Andrew Chapman

Ophir Energy plc is an upstream oil and gas exploration company which is listed on the London Stock Exchange and is headquartered in London, with operational offices in Australia, Tanzania, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and Kenya. Ophir Energy was awarded the AD-03 offshore block in Myanmar’s Rakhine Basin and signed a Production Sharing Contract (PSC) with Myanmar’s Ministry of Energy in December 2014. Andrew Chapman is Ophir Energy’s senior advisor in Myanmar and he talks to Mizzima Weekly’s Jessica Mudditt about the company’s progress to date.

What do you attribute Ophir’s Energy’s success in being awarded a coveted production sharing contract?

Our success is due to a number of factors: our track record in deep water gas plays – [exploration activities elsewhere in the world] and our industry-leading deepwater drilling time and costs – we’ve always been very competitive as compared with other operators. We also have a very strong commitment to ensuring that local communities benefit from our investment. We decided to partner with the local Myanmar company Parami Energy Group, which has strong social and environmental engagements, which is aligned with Ophir’s values.

How would you describe the tender process itself?

The entire tender process from our perspective was excellent. It was carried out in a very transparent and efficient manner and compared favourably with other jurisdictions. The process was very smooth and it was undertaken without any suggestion of impropriety on any level. We were very happy with the speed in which it was carried out, which from start to finish was 12 months.

Please provide an update on Ophir Energy’s activities in Myanmar.

Last week we completed our 3D seismic data acquisition programme. It went without incident and was finished on time and under budget, so we’re very happy. The survey was carried out by [Norway-based] Dolphin Geophysical across the entire 10,000 square kilometre block. The results from the survey will tell us what’s possibly there, but we don’t know at this stage of course. The next step will be the interpretation of the data that’s been collected and that’s a process that will take several months. The data will be sent to either Perth or London for interpretation.

What are Ophir’s Energy medium and long-term goals in Myanmar?

The entrance of Ophir Energy in Myanmar two years ago was its first step in a Southeast Asian footprint. We see our investment in this particular block as a platform from which we hope to build up interests in additional acreage in Myanmar over time.

How is Ophir Energy ensuring that its presence in Myanmar is a positive one?

Ophir regards the local communities where we operate as valuable stakeholders and we treat them responsibly, with sensitivity and respect. Contributing towards the development of the economic and social conditions of these local communities is a key commitment of ours.

We will be funding the doctoral studies of a Myanmar geologist at Oxford University, who will begin her studies in October. Ultimately the idea is that what she will learn will benefit the country.

We are also evaluating a number of corporate social responsibility (CSR) projects in Rakhine State, as our block is located in offshore Rakhine State. The CSR component of Ophir’s activities is a very important one and will be ongoing; whether that means further scholarships or CSR-related projects.

To what extent, if any, has the drop in global oil prices affected Ophir’s enthusiasm for exploration in Myanmar?

The drop in global oil prices is of course affecting Ophir; as it as affecting all oil and gas companies. However our commitment and undertaking to Myanmar remains strong and intact. We have to ride through the storm – as everybody does – and take whatever measures we can to make sure that our costs are managed properly.

Are there any inherent challenges in doing business in Myanmar?

Naturally, each country and region has its own specific challenges. However Myanmar has undertaken a series of remarkable reforms over the last five years which have made doing business here significantly easier than it was previously.

For more information, visit www.ophir-energy.com

The Clouds Below

Published in the July 2015 edition of Myanmore

Trevor Jenson, Chief Executive Officer of FMI Air.
Trevor Jenson, Chief Executive Officer of FMI Air. Photo credit: Hong Sar

Despite the abundance of domestic airlines in Myanmar, there’s surprisingly little variation between them. Aircraft models, flight routes, fares and schedules are virtually indistinguishable, and the onboard service is often mediocre.

However one of the newest of the 10 airlines, FMI Air, is making a concerted effort to stand out from the pack.

“We’ve remodelled the whole experience of flying: we provide a business class service on all our flights,” said Trevor Jensen, the Chief Executive Officer of FMI Air.

The airline was launched as a charter flight service three years ago and began offering scheduled flights on May 4.

It boasts a fleet of three Canadian-made Bombardier jets, which seat 50 passengers and reach significantly higher speeds than the ATR turbo props used by other operators.

“Our jets are very comfortable, fast and modern. The CRJ100 has been used extensively throughout Europe and the United States as a city commuter jet and it’s a well established aircraft,” said Mr Jensen, whose career in aviation began in the 1960s as a captain at Australia’s Qantas.

FMI Air pilots
FMI Air pilots

The Bombardier jets are also comparatively quieter and fly at higher altitudes: while the ubiquitous ATRs fly at around 14,000 feet, the Bombardiers cruise at 22,000 feet.

“This means that it’s a more comfortable flight because the aircraft gets above low level turbulence,” Mr Jensen said.

“Quite frankly, at this time of year, you can’t out-climb all the turbulence, but it is definitely smoother on a Bombardier,” he added, referring to Myanmar’s powerful monsoon season.

The airline’s 12 pilots are expatriates, although a Myanmar national is in the process of being recruited, while the 22 cabin crew staff have undergone an extensive training programme and some having prior experience on top tier airlines such as Qatar Airways.

“In my whole career, I’ve never worked with a more professional and well trained group of people. Our cabin crew are absolutely fabulous,” Mr Jensen said with a grin.

FMI Air currently operates five flights a day between Yangon and the administrative capital of Nay Pyi Taw, where the airline is based.

“We offer businesspeople better frequency. If a person has a meeting in the afternoon, they don’t have to fly up in the morning and waste time waiting around in a coffee shop or the airport. And you have to bear in mind that communications in Myanmar aren’t all that good, so it’s not always possible to whittle away the time by working on emails.”

Time is money, after all.

A one way flight between Yangon and Nay Pyi Taw costs between US$120 and $180, which makes it pricier than its competitors.

However Mr Jensen maintains that FMI Air offers excellent value for money. A complimentary invitation to a business lounge is provided with every boarding pass, which means that passengers can avoid the dreary and noisy departure lounges in Yangon’s domestic terminal (not to mention negating the need for the airline colour-coded  stickers passengers don to ensure they are herded onto their respective flights).

FMI Air cabin crew
FMI Air cabin crew

FMI Air’s seats are of business class proportions and the onboard meals are provided by two five-star catering companies. The juice served is seasonal and freshly squeezed and meals are rotated frequently to avoid boring the palates of its passengers.

FMI will start operating flights to Mandalay on July 1, with Sittwe following suit in mid-July.

Plans are also in the pipeline to launch international flights, with the ambition of becoming “the region’s premier airline,” Mr Jensen told Myanmore.

To date, FMI Air is the only airline that allows flights to be booked online using credit cards and its operations control room is the most sophisticated in the country.

“We always know exactly where our planes are in the sky, which cannot be said of other local airlines,” said Jeremy Kingston, FMI Air’s manager of system operations control.

Mr Jensen told Myanmore that FMI Air is also “in total support” with the Ministry of Transport’s ambition to restore Myanmar as a regional aviation hub.

“Our main contribution is to raise standards across the board. In line with that, we invited other domestic airlines to take part in a seminar about the use of Maestro. Some companies don’t believe in sharing knowledge, but we do.”

For those uninitiated with aviation technology, Maestro is a web based application designed to enhance personnel and management systems and help airlines better achieve compliance with safety and operational standards, which in Myanmar have known to be sadly lacking.

However it seems that with FMI Air raising the bar, things are on the up in Myanmar’s aviation industry.

For more information, visit http://www.fmiair.com

Myanmar’s book trade on the up but challenges persist: publisher

Published in Mizzima Weekly on 18 May 2015

Dr Thant Thaw Kaung, CEO of Myanmar Book Center Ltd
Dr Thant Thaw Kaung, CEO of Myanmar Book Center Ltd

Dr Thant Thaw Kaung is the CEO of Myanmar Book Centre Co., Ltd and has more than two decades of experience in Myanmar’s book trade. He talks to Mizzima Weekly’s Jessica Mudditt about the problems facing the industry and why he remains optimistic about its future.

Until strict censorship laws were abolished in 2012, every title imported to Myanmar required the approval of the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division. Many were banned, such as the biographies of Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama – and of course, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Are book sales benefitting from a new era of liberalisation?

Certainly – sales are on the up. When my wife and I started our business in 1995, censorship was extremely strict, so we were so happy when the situation changed and we no longer had to obtain permission to import every single title.

Nowadays, political works which wouldn’t have seen the light of day are best sellers. There’s been an emergence of new writers, particularly in the Myanmar language, and many are the memoirs of former political prisoners. Ma Thangei and Ma Thida come to mind – and they’re very talented writers. Just last night I read an excellent book in Myanmar by Kyaw Zwa Moe, the editor of The Irrawaddy, which is titled You Need to Apologise to the People. He recounts a wide range of fascinating interviews he carried out – including an unnamed person who attempted to assassinate the former head of Military Intelligence, Khin Nyunt, as well as monks who were imprisoned for many, many years. I hope it will be translated so that English readers can also enjoy it.

Do you feel that writers practice self-censorship in any way?

No, I don’t. In fact what I would say is that things are completely different now than they were before 2010, but of course, not everyone is completely satisfied with the speed of progress. I think that some people may be expecting too much too soon, and that change needs to be gradual –Myanmar will eventually become fully democratic. Some feel that after living under oppression for so many years, now is the time to speak up – whenever they like, and sometimes in an extreme way. It’s usually in the form of personal attacks or hate speech – the former of which I read in the media and the latter, on Facebook. I think it’s a very big problem, but it’s not one I’ve found in books.

What types of books dominate Myanmar’s book trade?

If you think of it as a pie chart, books on English Language Teaching (ELT) take the biggest chunk. Myanmar Book Centre is the official representatives of the ‘Big Four’ – Oxford University Press, MacMillan, Pearson and Sage, the titles of which we print locally. Second to that are education titles for basic and higher education – it’s quite big business here. The reason why is because there is a huge appetite to learn English – just look at the British Council, which is always full. Our society’s aptitude for English is generational – those who are over 70 speak excellent English as many attended convent or missionary schools, while those born following 1960 lived in Ne Win’s era and cannot speak English well because the language was deliberately suppressed and everything was Burmanised. The young generation – and their parents – understand the value of learning English. But the problem is that there is a lack of skilled teachers in public schools, as they come from the previous generation. It’s a big problem, but the benefits of the government’s new policy towards the teaching of English will be seen in four or five years.

Another genre that’s doing very well are English language books that relate to Myanmar – whether it be guide books, historical fiction or biographies, as well as the political works as I mentioned. This is largely driven by the recent influx of tourists.

Pondering a vast second-hand collection
Pondering a vast second-hand collection

Is there are a shortage of quality translators as a result of past education policies?

Yes, there is most definitely a shortage of translators, which means that many talented Myanmar writers are unknown in the West, while many contemporary classics are inaccessible to Myanmar readers. There are so few reputable translators that they are overloaded and we sometimes have to wait a few months before they can take on a project.

There are also some inherent difficulties in translating Myanmar to English – the languages are totally different. Translating from Myanmar to English is more difficult, because the translator must be very good at English and be highly familiar with the subject matter. Many translators write well in English, but often their style is more like news reporting than literary.

Since setting up a publishing wing five years ago, Myanmar Book Centre has published ten books translated into Myanmar, including Dr Thant Myint U’s River of Lost Footsteps and Where China Meets India. We’re selective about the books we choose – only titles which will work here in Myanmar in that they speak to a local audience.

Is piracy a problem?

It’s a huge problem – particularly for us, as our main line of business is in imports and distribution. In Myanmar, only books published which are published locally are protected by the Copyright Law of 1914. These pirate guys are clever – they don’t bother pirating local language books because they know it’s against the law – plus the prices of such books are so cheap that it wouldn’t be profitable. I heard recently of a local publisher who published a map that was pirated by a foreign company. The local publisher tried to sue the company but he couldn’t – they simply ignored him because they know there’s no legal remedy.

Piracy is divided into two sectors – the first is books on Myanmar aimed at the tourist market, and the other is English Language Teaching (ELT) and education books. As I mentioned, education is a big industry, so our business really suffers.

We’re literally losing money every day. There’s a guy who owns his own shop and comes to Myanmar Book Centre on a daily basis to buy single copies of our best-selling education books. Then, about two weeks later, we see those titles being sold for 20 percent less than ours. There are a number of people doing this – I know them well but we can’t take action against them because there’s no law against it. It’s terrible.

Could you not refuse to sell books to this person?

There’s no point – it would be too easy for him to just send someone else and I can’t refuse a customer.

With so much undermining the profitability of your business, how does Myanmar Book Centre manage to retain its viability?

We’ve developed close relationships with many private and international schools, such as Yangon International School and Myanmar International School. These institutions strongly support original books, so we import books on their behalf. We also work hard to provide excellent customer service at the retail level, such as by providing catalogues and free samples.

I’d also say that the mentality towards piracy is changing – of course there are still those who just want cheap books – but many now want quality. Fortunately there is a growing middle class who feel this way. We also work hard to offer the most reasonable prices we can. In this regard we’re very lucky, because as we’ve been in the book trade for many years, we’re fully supported by international publishers and they provide us with good discounts. We also source a lot of books from India as the prices there are very reasonable prices – we work with over 50 different publishers in India.

Browsing on 38th Street can be sweaty work!
Browsing on 38th Street can be sweaty work…

Are you confident that if the Intellectual Property Law is passed, it will put an end to piracy in Myanmar’s book trade?

I’m very confident in the draft law because it really supports investors and importers. It will be drive our local publishing industry to new heights and it’s expected to come into effect in 2016. I have given input into the draft during regular meetings with a committee which is led by the Ministry of Science and Technology, which is involved in design and trademark aspects. The Ministry of Information is handling the copyright side.

Do you think there will be any practical challenges in terms of the law actually being enforced?

Well, it will of course be the responsibility of the government to enforce it. But luckily for our industry, the pirating of books is done by small-scale players who own shops downtown. This is unlike the pirating of music, which is done on a mass scale and is linked to members of the military.

But when the law is passed, we will have to take action, whether we like it or not, because we are the official representative of various publishers and they will pressure us to do so. Many of the people involved in piracy are my friends – I’ve already spoken to Bagan Book House to ask them to reduce the number of pirated books. I offered to supply them with our imported books to avoid prosecution. However they didn’t really listen to me, because the law isn’t yet in force.

Are local writers and publishers familiar with contractual rights?

In general, knowledge is very low on both sides. My authors, such as Dr Thant Myint-U don’t need anything explained to them – in fact he himself secured personal copyright for each of his books, which was a very clever move.

But in the majority of cases, authors simply trust their publishers and don’t even discuss who will own the copyright – so the publisher takes everything. Nor are digital rights discussed, though they should be, because eventually e-versions will appear and the rights to them should belong to the author.

Is Myanmar ready for an e-book market?

It’s not the right time to introduce e-version of books. This is because they are already available online, free of charge. As soon as a book becomes popular or famous it is scanned and appears on one of a variety of sites in the Myanmar language. No one can take action against this, so as a business model it wouldn’t be viable. The people who are uploading scanned books aren’t doing it to make money and they don’t see any problem with ‘sharing’ free content – so a lot of education is needed to change such attitudes. The maximum number of copies of any single title published is just 1,000 because there is no demand, no market for more when a book can be downloaded for free. As a result, the writers are dying and the publishers are bleeding a lot. We cannot survive if it continues.


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