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Ambassador pitches for stronger ties between India and Myanmar
 
GUWAHATI: Indian ambassador to Myanmar, Gautam Mukhopadhyay, advocated strengthening of economic ties between the two neighbouring countries during his visit to the northeast recently.

He stressed the need to improve air and land connectivity with Myanmar and increase academic cooperation through student-teacher exchange programmes.

"Air connectivity between the northeast and Myanmar would throw up possibilities for major business cooperation between the countries. It would pave the way for a potential tourist circuit encompassing NE and Myanmar. Cultural exchange programmes and research-based projects on the shared history of the two countries should be initiated," he added.

He touched upon issues relating to border trade and tried to ascertain the economic feasibility of opening the Stilwel Road facilitating investments between the two countries.

Myanmar shares over 1,600 km of its border with northeast India. He visited several academic institutes like Dibrugarh University, Tezpur University and Assam Agricultural University. He discussed the scope of cooperation between the two countries in research, language-study, history, geosciences and skill development.

The ambassador interacted with members of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, the North Assam Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Federation of Industry & Commerce of North Eastern Region.

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Serious thought needs to go into AEC integration
 
Thailand is looking to engage in a more seamless region as the deadline for Asean Economic Community (AEC) integration approaches.

All sorts of ideas have been floated but what this means in real terms is still up in the air for many people.

To welcome the AEC, the national flag of each of the 10 Asean members have been put up in many public schools and more and more people are taking a closer look at the various languages used in the region.

Malay, for example, is seen as the language of commerce, as more than 50 per cent of people in Southeast Asia speak the language in various dialects and forms.

People-to-people contact is expected to be more vigorous with the AEC, although much, much more can be done in this matter judging from the kind of insults and abusive language we throw out at our neighbours.

While the social-political sphere of the region may move closer at its own pace, the country's business sector, on the other hand, is working hard to make sure that they are not left behind by the rest of the region.

Reducing costs and risk while improving efficiency appears to be the theme and strategy the business sector is looking for.

In this respect, some are calling for the business sector to concentrate more on cross-border and trilateral trading among countries with connected borders under the AEC.

Under the supposedly seamless market, it is predicted that Thailand's border trade with neighbouring countries is expected to double to Bt2 trillion after regional integration.

Niyom Wairatpanij, chairman of the Economic Cooperation with Neighbouring Countries Committee under the Board of Trade, predicted that border trade between Thailand and its four immediate neighbours, as well as trilateral trade among countries such Singapore, China and Vietnam, should increase significantly once full integration is achieved.

While physical infrastructure like paved roads are ready to link Thailand to its immediate neighbours and beyond, regulations and specific details surrounding customs and border trade have yet to be worked out.

Bilateral and trilateral trade should be one of the country's key priorities as it costs less and can help ease local companies' entry into international commerce.

One not need be reminded how corruption and the lack of law enforcement around the border areas, as well as along remote roads linking Thailand to China via Laos and Myanmar, have hampered trade.

Handing over a pack of cigarettes used to get people past these checkpoints, but not any more. With more trade going along these remote roads, one can be sure the "tea money" will also go up.

It's easy to paint a nice and rosy picture about the region and use fancy words like 'connectivity' to describe the task at hand. But Thai goods

will be transported through some lawless regions ripe with human trafficking, smuggling, the illicit drug trade and arms smuggling.

Have you ever wondered how hundreds of Chinese prostitutes ended up in the Sadao district bordering Malaysia? Or about the difficulties behind attempts to crack down on foreign crime syndicates in Phuket and Pattaya because they don't have the cooperation of local police?

In some ways, these crime syndicates appear to be more efficient than legal entities.

What the Asean leaders agree on paper is one thing. Perhaps these officials should visit trade routes and see what people will be up against when they move their goods through these areas.

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Dana.io set to shake up the crowdfunding world with donation-based payments

Alan Clements begins the story of his new crowdfunding platform more than 30 years ago, when the Internet as we know it today was just beginning to take shape.

“It all came from my initial entry into Burma in ’79,” he recalled. “It was born from the inspiration of seeing perfect strangers offer food, lodging, medicines, and essentially giving me everything I needed, eventually, as a monk.”

It’s a long story, conceded the Buddhist and long-time campaigner for human rights in Burma (also known as Myanmar). But, Clements said, it’s finally culminating in the launch of a free service that’s going to challenge for-profit crowdfunding giants like Kickstarter and Indigogo.

“When I went underground into the country and met with Aung San Suu Kyi and later out into the killing fields of northern Burma, I saw people who were giving their lives and giving their last morsels of food to friends and perfect strangers like me,” he continued. “That’s how we came up with a crowdfunding platform that is driven exclusively by the concept of dāna. It all came down to what she [Suu Kyi] told me was the essence of spiritual revolution, which is the courage to care.”

A long time coming, Dana.io is scheduled to launch on May 14, the birthday of Siddhārtha Gautama, or Buddha.

Clements explained dāna as "'the practice of generosity", and "io" as inflow and outlfow. "Thus the name," he said.

Scott Nelson, Dana.io’s cofounder alongside Clements and the company’s chief technology officer, told the Straight a more concise version of the tech start-up’s origins.

Clements had encountered a number of challenges with a crowdfunding campaign related to a book he was working on, Nelson began. Every time the word “Burma” came up—which was often, as the project was about Burma—Indigogo, PayPal, or both, would shut the campaign down.

“They have it on a government list of countries you’re not supposed to do business with,” Nelson explained.

The biggest and most reputable crowdfunding platforms also carry fees that are not inconsiderable, Nelson added, especially considering that many of the projects using donation-based funding models are labours of love and operating on a shoestring.

Kickstarter charges fundraisers five percent of total money raised plus three percent per pledge in payment processing fees, according to its website. Indigogo charges four percent or nine percent of total money raised (depending on the plan selected), a three-percent processing fee per pledge, plus a $25 wire fee on each donation made to a campaign based outside the United States.

Nelson said it all left Clements searching for a better way to crowdfund. “And then I think Alan said he put in the search term, ‘number one Buddhist developer’, and Google served me up,” he added with a laugh.

A couple of characteristics make Dana.io fairly unique among crowdfunding platforms, Clements noted.

The first is obviously Dana.io’s biggest draw: it doesn’t cost anything, if nothing is what fundraisers decide they want to pay.

“It’s really built on the pay-it-forward model,” Clements said. “We want to lower the threshold completely as much as possible for people, artists, authors, activists worldwide, to believe in their dream.”

Users will be encouraged to “gift” up to 15 percent of the contributions they receive to keep the site running and to fund future projects launched there. But Dana.io can be used for free.

The site is also notable for accepting Bitcoin, a cryptocurrency that’s quickly growing in popularity as a means of online financial transaction.

According to Nelson, Dana.io might be the first crowdfunding platform in the world that accepts both fiat currencies (money backed by a government) and cryptocurrencies (which utilize decentralized exchange systems).

Clements listed a number of projects he’s excited about that are scheduled to begin fundraising campaigns alongside Dana.io’s launch on May 14.

They range from a movement for a GMO-free world, to a law project for Lakota Indian peoples, to support services for whistleblowers of the Hanford Nuclear Facility in Washington.

There are also a number of Vancouver-based campaigns ready to go. They cover such issues as urban farming, skills training for recovering addicts, and a new hot yoga centre for Chinatown.

“Anyone who has an interest in cowdfunding based upon this dāna principal, go to our site, Dana.io, and we’ll get right back to you,” Clements said.

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Leading the Way: Vietnam’s Push for Gay Rights

Ngan and Huong have been together for 10 years. Although both are originally from the countryside, each moved to the more liberal Ho Chi Minh City for university. It was here, over an iced coffee between lectures, that they first met.

“We realized there was a spark straight away,” Ngan, aged 31, says. “It was like everything suddenly clicked into place.”

After secretly dating for a year, both eventually summoned the courage to come out to their respective parents. Ultimately, a lack of understanding from loved ones forced the couple to move in together in 2005. But despite living together for the last nine years, their relationship isn’t recognized under Vietnamese law.

This could all change come May, when Vietnam’s National Assembly concludes two years of deliberation on amendments to the Law on Marriage and Family. Legislators are set to make national history by enshrining into law provisions acknowledging the existence of gay couples for the first time. Although the government withdrew an option on marriage equality last year, the National Assembly may end up removing its current ban on gay marriage.

These developments have delighted and shocked gay rights advocates and made Vietnam a surprising torchbearer for LGBT issues in Southeast Asia. This is particularly remarkable when you consider that until 2000 it was illegal for gay couples to even live together.

“We were really surprised [the Communist Party of Vietnam] were putting LGBT issues on the agenda for public consultation,” says Mr. Huy, the legal officer at Vietnam’s peak social research body, the Institute for Studies of Society, Economy and Environment (iSEE).

“It just shows the incredible progress that has been made in this area, even if it is less about providing rights for LGBT couples and more about making a legal headache go away.”

The legal headache that Huy is referring to would be the courtroom battles that have played out between separating same-sex couples. The judicial system has been flummoxed when it comes to resolving disputes over child custody, property and inheritance when there are no laws even recognizing the possibility of same-sex couples.

The nation’s judiciary demanded that the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) provide guidance on how to resolve these disputes. The opportunity arose during the Ministry of Justice’s review on the Law on Family and Marriage, which Vietnam’s legislative requirements stipulate must be revisited every ten years.

Behind the scenes, there has been tussle within the CPV over how to respond to gay rights issues. There is general consensus that the country’s Ministry of Justice and, to a lesser extent, Ministry of Health have been the most progressive. In 2012, Justice Minister Ha Hung Cuong spoke in support of same-sex marriage saying it was “unacceptable to create social prejudice against the homosexual community.

Observers say the most vigorous opposition has come from the Vietnamese Women’s Union, which perceives same-sex marriage as a threat to traditional family ideals. But the biggest challenge for the gay rights campaign is perhaps the most difficult: overcoming the status quo.

Homosexuality remains a taboo topic in the largely Confucian Vietnam and even some gay rights advocates accept that it may be too soon to legislate for marriage equality. Thuan Nguyen, Director of Hanoi’s LGBT Inclusive Business Development Initiative, argues the focus needs to be on changing traditional Vietnamese attitudes first.

“Many still believe it’s a mental illness or something to be ashamed of,” Thuan says. “And it was taken off Vietnam’s official list of mental illnesses in 2001.”

In 2002, Vietnam’s State-run media were describing homosexuality as a “social evil,” a description that was controversially rebuffed by a communist youth newspaper when it declared that “some people are born gay, just as some people are born left-handed.” A survey published in 2011 found that 87 per cent of respondents thought that homosexuality was a transmittable disease.

The first nationwide survey into public attitudes towards LGBT issues was published just two weeks ago. It showed that although there has been a reduction in opposition to same-sex partnerships, there is still a long way to go with half of survey respondents against both gay marriage and any legal recognition of same-sex cohabitation. The survey does show a shift in public sentiment, however, with the youth and college-educated firmly in favor of marriage equality.

The gay rights lobby accepts the fight for marriage equality needs clear majority support from the public before it receives CPV endorsement, which according to Thuan is more focused on shoring up its legitimacy. “LGBT rights are not seen as an urgent problem by the government. They are more concerned with economic growth, poverty reduction, jobs and stability.”

But that doesn’t mean that the CPV isn’t using a debate over same-sex marriage to its advantage. For a country often regarded as Southeast Asia’s most repressive state, there are advantages in having a very public conversation about a controversial issue.

“Over time the Vietnamese government has realized that this issue is scoring them points on the international stage,” according to Huy from the gay rights lobby iSEE.

Indeed, international human rights groups acknowledge that the CPV may be trying to exploit recent progress on gay rights as a means of “rainbow washing” its questionable record. Gay rights parades and public campaigns on marriage equality are allowed to occur, making this the one prominent area where there is substantive progress on freedoms of speech and assembly. All this is generating international goodwill, which pro-democracy advocates say the CPV is exploiting in order to distract from a recent crackdown on bloggers and dissidents, as seen with numerous high-profile arrests over the past year.

In the midst of this, gay rights campaigners are an unintended beneficiary of the communist regime’s suppression of organized movements and religions. Traditional opponents of marriage equality, such as religious groups, have been silenced over many decades. Despite the presence of nearly six million registered Catholics across the country, there have been no organized campaigns against gay rights that one would usually see in a liberal democracy.

Vietnam’s progress on gay rights stands in stark contrast to the retrograde laws adopted by its more conservative neighbors, such as Malaysia, Singapore and Myanmar, and the nation should be applauded for advancing the conversation, according to Boris Dittrich, Advocacy Director for LGBT Rights at Human Rights Watch.

“To take such a step [of recognizing domestic partnerships] would really help LGBT groups in surrounding countries – including China – that can point to this progress as an example. There would definitely be spillover effects in the region,” he says.

Although the National Assembly won’t legalize gay marriage this year, civil rights groups believe any legal recognition of gay relationships is a step towards greater understanding of LGBT issues, according to Tung Tran, who heads the “I Do” campaign by gay rights lobby ICS.

“We want the legalization of same-sex marriage to be taken into consideration but in the meantime we need some forms of legal protection for cohabiting same-sex couples,” says Tung.

“At the grassroots level we are getting strong support for equality but it isn’t clear from our sources [that this extends to] the higher levels of government. I would hope that they take the right step and provide the legal foundations for cohabiting couples.”

Having this legal recognition means a great deal for couples like Ngan and Huong. They don’t want to be trailblazers – all they want is to be treated the same as any straight couple.

“We’ve lived together for nine years now and we want to be together forever,” says Huong. “I want our love to be recognized as equal.”

While Vietnam is making strides on LGBT issues, it doesn’t appear that lawmakers will take the bold step of endorsing marriage equality. Couples like Ngan and Huong will have to fight that battle in 10 years time, when the National Assembly next reviews the Law on Marriage and Family.

David Mann is a Hanoi-based freelance journalist.

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Myanmar: economic opportunities continue to grow

Business opportunities in Myanmar have been growing, economic sanctions have been receding and the doors have been opening further for foreign investors since May 2013, when we last issued a bulletin on Myanmar. This bulletin provides an update on the significant changes the country is experiencing in government, legislation, trade and tourism and outlines the opportunities in this growing country.

With a population of more than 60 million people, opportunities in Myanmar are not limited to extractive industries, but also exist in manufacturing and the domestic market for consumer goods. Even so, Myanmar’s natural resources should not be underestimated: natural gas, petroleum, timber, zinc, copper, lead, coal, precious stones, and agricultural land exist in abundance.

Political and Legal Reforms Could Open More Doors for Foreign Investors

A general election is set to be held in Myanmar in November 2015. These elections could see Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel laureate and leader of Myanmar’s main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (“NLD”), brought to power. Her release in 2010 after almost eleven years of house arrest imposed by the previous military regime, was instrumental in opening up trade relations with the West. Regardless of whether the current ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (“USDP”) or the NLD forms a government next year, it is expected that political and economic modernization efforts begun in 2010 by current President, Thein Sein, will continue.

However, it is important to note that at this time, Aung San Suu Kyi is barred from becoming President of Myanmar by virtue of the country’s Constitution, which prohibits anyone with family members who are citizens of another country from holding the country’s highest office. This provision did not prevent her from being elected to Parliament in 2012, when vacancies in 8% of the seats (46 out of 664) were filled following by-elections, with the NLD capturing all 43 seats in which they ran candidates. Another round of by-elections are anticipated late in 2014, to fill approximately 30 more vacancies. It remains to be seen whether the Constitution will be amended to enable Mrs. Suu Kyi’s candidacy for President prior to the general election expected in late 2015.

Other legal reform is ongoing, making it more practical for multi-national companies to invest in Myanmar. It is anticipated that a new Companies Law will be introduced in 2014, to replace the current law that dates back 100 years. A draft Trademark Law is before Parliament and a proposed Condominium Law, that will allow foreign citizens to own a form of property for the first time, was also placed before Parliament in November 2013.

New Incentives Draw Foreign Investment Despite Trade Restrictions

As noted above and discussed in our previous bulletin, the government of Myanmar places restrictions on foreign investment within the country. The State-Owned Economic Enterprises Law (1989), Foreign Investment Law (2012) and the Foreign Investment Rules (January 2013) restrict certain types of business activities from occurring without government approval. Foreign investment is monitored and approved by the Myanmar Investment Commission (“MIC”) which has published a list of activities in which foreign investors are prohibited from participating or which require a joint venture with a local business.

At the same time, the country is also providing incentives to foreign investors. In January, 2014 a new Myanmar Special Economic Zone Law (“MSEZL”) was enacted, repealing earlier legislation regarding special economic zones. The MSEZL offers up to seven years of income tax exemptions for foreign investors, with further 50% discounts on income tax for another five years. Currently, this law applies in Myanmar’s three Special Economic Zones: Kyauk Phyu, Dawei and Thilawa (discussed below). The MSELZ provides for the establishment of additional zones and contains dispute resolution procedures.

Economic Sanctions

Domestic strife and ongoing corruption issues have certainly not disappeared. While Canada’s Special Economic Measure Regulations (sanctions) have been relaxed in recent years, Canadians are still prohibited from dealing with certain businesses and individuals, including the state banks of Myanmar. Military shipments are also prohibited. These sanctions are enforced by the Export Controls Division of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada, the equivalent of the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control. It is worth noting, however, that the Canadian list of restricted persons is more limited than comparable U.S. prohibitions.

While Japan did not impose economic sanctions against Myanmar, there was a pronounced slowdown in government aid and private sector investment during the years that Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest. China expanded its economic and political influence during this period, but faces greater competition now that other countries, including Japan, are investing heavily. The Japanese Government has pledged almost U.S. $2 billion in loans and grants since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was elected in December 2012.

Japan and Myanmar are jointly developing the ambitious Thilawa special economic zone just outside of Yangon, the country’s largest city. Plans call for a deep sea port, a power plant and waste water treatment facility, all in support of a 2,400 hectare industrial park. Construction began in November, 2013 and commercial operations are expected to start in mid-2015.

Financial Growth: Foreign Banks Increase Presence in Myanmar

Despite some remaining trade restrictions imposed by various countries, growth of foreign investment in Myanmar has been substantial. At least 14 banks in Myanmar now permit foreign currency accounts. Even though foreign banks are currently permitted to only conduct research in Myanmar, 35 foreign banks have opened representative offices and it is expected that some licences for foreign branches may be tendered within the year. Daiwa Securities from Japan is one of the interested foreign financial firms.

In late 2012, automated teller machines (“ATMs”) linked to the international payment system were introduced in Myanmar. There are now hundreds of ATMs around the country, and while not as reliable as similar-looking ATMs in North America, they are providing much needed convenience and liquidity. On a visit this year, one of the authors of this bulletin found it’s possible to access funds held in Canadian accounts using some ATMs.

Further bank reform is needed and is on the way, with the IMF assisting in changes to the central bank and the launch of the Yangon stock exchange planned for 2015. Myanmar has also acceded to the New York Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards, as of July 15, 2013. This will allow multi-national companies to settle commercial disputes outside the domestic legal system. Myanmar has also drafted a new arbitration law, expected to be enacted in 2014, which is required to allow for the enforcement of foreign arbitration awards by the courts of Myanmar.

At the end of 2013, Myanmar became the 180th member of the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (“MIGA”), meaning MIGA guarantees are now available for foreign direct investments. The US Ex-Im Bank also opened in Myanmar on February 6, 2014, offering financial support for short and medium-term US export sales to Myanmar.

Industrial Growth: Global Brands Eye Untapped Potential

The country is endowed with hydrocarbons. The first barrel of oil was exported in 1853 but little production or exploration took place during the past 50 years of military rule. However, Myanmar has 50 million barrels of proven oil reserves and 280 billion cubic meters of natural gas. This is expected to increase with the recent arrival of foreign oil and gas companies. After a tender process for 16 on-shore blocks, Canadian company Pacific Hunt Energy won two oil concessions in Myanmar last year.

Even more recently, in March 2014 the government announced the awarding of 20 offshore oil and gas blocks. Majors such as Shell (in partnership with Mitsui) British Gas (with partner Woodside Petroleum), Total, Chevron and Statoil (in partnership with ConocoPhillips) were among the successful bidders.

In the manufacturing sector, GM and Ford have both entered Myanmar. Coca-Cola re-entered the country in September 2013 after an absence of more than 60 years. GE, VISA, and MasterCard are all increasing their presence in Myanmar.

Telenor (Norway) and Ooredoo (Qatar) both received investment permits after winning a tender in June 2013 for provision of telecom services. Significant investment and rapid growth is expected in the wireless sector.

In the garment industry, H&M has started placing test orders to explore possibilities, and a group of 12 Hong Kong garment manufacturers look to be the first to invest in the Thilawa special economic zone.

To sustain ongoing investment in Myanmar, parallel growth in infrastructure is required. In addition to the ambitious Thilawa special economic zone project already mentioned, two other major port development projects are planned: a deep sea port at Dawei, 300 km west of Bangkok, supported by Thailand and a smaller port on the Bay of Bengal, a joint project between India and Myanmar. Completion of these projects may not be imminent, but the need for related bridges, roads, highways and water systems are major opportunities.

The electricity grid is inadequate by western standards. Companies offering a distributed power generation model are taking up the challenge, particularly outside Yangon. Large scale thermal and clean energy projects are also expected over in next few years. In March, 2014 the Japanese government pledged approximately US $450 million in new loans to help finance additions to Myanmar’s electrical system. Mitsubishi, Marubeni, Fuji Electric, Toshiba and Hitachi are among the foreign firms already involved or actively pursuing involvement in this sector.

The Environmental Conservation Law was passed in 2012, but implementing rules to govern environmental impact assessments are still being drafted. More specific criteria from the government is eagerly awaited.

Tourism Growth: Influx of Travellers Bring Economic Opportunities

The tourism industry is growing at a rapid pace. Myanmar is welcoming almost two million tourists each year. While this is less than 10% of the number of visits to neighbouring Thailand, this gap is starting to narrow. Those plane loads of tourists are looking for a place to stay, and hotel chains such as Hilton, Pan Pacific, Peninsula, Accor and Best Western are responding to the opportunity presented by nightly rates that have tripled in recent years.

This also creates strong opportunities for airlines flying into Myanmar. Expansion of the country’s largest airport, Yangon International, has been announced, with a goal to handle 3.3 million passengers per year. A new international airport is expected to open in Bago in 2018, and expansion projects at other airports are expected. The private sector has been encouraged to participate but delays have hit some projects, particularly the planned new US $1.1 billion Hanthawaddy International Airport, 100km from Yangon International Airport.

There are eight domestic air carriers operating in Myanmar, with at least four more preparing to launch. However, these carriers only operate a combined total of 40 aircraft and only two, Myanma Airways and Air KBZ, operate more than five aircraft. Consolidation of domestic airlines seems probable, even as growth in domestic air travel continues.

Myanmar is also looking outwards and is playing a more active role in the international economy. The country hosted the East Asia World Economic Forum in its new capital city, Nay Pyi Taw, in June 2013. Myanmar also hosted the Foreign Ministers Meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (“ASEAN”) in January 2014, and for the first time ever Myanmar is now chair of ASEAN. The biggest newsmaker, however, was when the 27th Southeast Asian Games were held in Myanmar just before Christmas 2013.

Other Information to Consider

For those considering doing business in Myanmar, the cost of leasing office space or renting reasonable accommodation in Yangon can be daunting. Rents currently surpass $100/square foot, which is higher than the average rental rate in Manhattan. Relief may be on the way, however, as construction cranes are sprouting across the city.

Although the tight real estate market seems to have delayed the promised opening of Canada’s first embassy in Myanmar (it was intended to open in mid-2013), Mark McDowell was named last year as Canada’s first ambassador to Myanmar. He and a small contingent of staff are currently working out of the British Embassy, but for now Canadian citizens requiring consular services are still required to seek assistance at the Australian Embassy. Canada’s Embassy is now expected to open in mid-2014.

Myanmar’s rich resources and untapped market and labour potential have made it a hot bed of new international economic development. Still, there remain significant challenges in navigating the emerging financial and legal systems. Caution and careful planning is recommended.

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Sunday, April 20, 2014
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