Interview with Yuwadee Thean-ngarm
Director of Tilleke & Gibbins Myanmar Office, IP Law Expert
Could you please introduce yourself and your background?
I work at Tilleke & Gibbins. Our head office is in Thailand, where we have been operating since 1890, so it has been about 130 years since our establishment. Tilleke & Gibbins expanded to Vietnam in the 1990s, and subsequently expanded to Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, and Myanmar in 2013. Our Myanmar office is a full service legal practice, or law firm. We engage in many kinds of practices, especially in intellectual property (IP) protection. We also handle company establishment and corporate services and provide other wide-ranging legal advice to clients.
As for myself, I am the director of Tilleke & Gibbins in Myanmar. I have been here since 2013. Before we came to Myanmar, we had already been cooperating with local associations for more than 20 years to support clients. But when Myanmar was opening the country around 2010 or 2011, we came and considered how we might directly support our clients in Myanmar and other countries. Now, we are able to take a truly regional approach, which means that a client might have a matter that involves many jurisdictions in Southeast Asia, and we can support them directly with our services in CLMVTI (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia)—as well as our close connections with firms in other jurisdictions throughout Asia and beyond.
How did you end up in current position?
Initially I was working with Tilleke & Gibbins in Thailand for nine years as an IP litigator. Then, in 2013, I was assigned to work in Myanmar. At that time I had to learn a lot about Myanmar, such as understanding legal practices and traditions that would apply to our services in Myanmar. And finally in 2016, I was promoted to be the director of Tilleke & Gibbins’ Myanmar office. Through my work I have had the pleasure of helping clients invest in Myanmar, taking care of IP protection and related work—really offering all kinds of legal services. For example, sometimes we cooperate with the police on matters. Tilleke & Gibbins lawyers can also be found in court, as our licensed Myanmar lawyers go to the court to represent and act for clients there. Currently, I am the Secretary-General of the Thai Business Association in Myanmar (TBAM) as well. Through this role I not only help, support and provide legal information to Thai investors but also cooperate with the chambers of commerce as well.
Can you tell us more about Tilleke & Gibbins?
We are the largest law firm in Thailand, and we established an office in Yangon to serve the Myanmar market. Since opening this office, we have grown from small to medium-sized—we now have more than ten lawyers and consultants, plus supporting staff of about the same number. It’s a great team, and we plan to expand further to support our clients’ work. At Tilleke & Gibbins, we are proud that clients rely on us for support on their urgent requirements, whether it’s about legal advice, advising or acting to strengthen their business operations, or engaging in legal practice to represent them in all kinds of matters.
What do you think are the legal systems for the rule of law?
I think the regulatory environment and the law in Myanmar is quite challenging. Since the beginning, when I arrived here in 2013, I found that the laws are quite old. Many have not been updated for a long time. However, when we have the new government, especially from 2016 until now, we have been quite surprised and very pleased that the government issued many laws supporting foreign investment and also updated laws to be more accommodating to foreign investors in Myanmar. I think these things are a positive development. At Tilleke & Gibbins, we understand the background of these laws, and the existing laws, so we can inform and clarify for our clients so that they can understand the issues pertaining to a given law.
What are the main issues you have encountered in your work?
The main issues for each company may be different. For us, we cooperate a lot with government officials. Because we also work on the online sites, we need to undertake a lot of different legal work. Sometimes when it involves the use of the local language, we need Myanmar locals to help and support when dealing with every project. Just because I have been staying in Myanmar for about six years, it does not mean I do not have any significant obstacles. I may understand some of the language, but I still need to learn more. So, the most challenging obstacle for me is the language because it can easily lead to misunderstandings, and we need to find and see how to improve our understanding for our own benefit and for that of people who want to invest in Myanmar.
Besides learning the language, investors who come to Myanmar need to learn about the government officials here, because many laws have just started or been renewed, and all of us need to get experience to understand. Some may have never faced this kind of issue, so they also need time and consultation at high levels. However, I think this will be sorted out very soon as we all gain more successful business experience in Myanmar.
What do you think are the challenges that the lawyers have to face the most in Myanmar?
The challenge for lawyers is none other than experience. Legal practice—you need to collect a lot of experience to understand it. In many subjects, you just need to know the theory; you follow the book or follow what they say. But for legal work, you need to also understand how to apply the theory. For me, as a foreign lawyer who has to start working in Myanmar, it took me two years to understand the law here. That is why I said experience is important.
For Myanmar lawyers, adapting to the new laws, complying with the legal advice, and facilitating foreign investment could present special challenges.
Could you please share the success that Tilleke & Gibbins have had so far?
For us, the greatest mark of success is when we see our clients achieve their objectives. But one we can highlight our success to others is by showing our awards and rankings. In September 2019, we were nominated by Asia IP to win their award for IP Firm of the Year in Myanmar. And in the recently released rankings by Asialaw, a guide to Asia-Pacific’s best law firms, Tilleke & Gibbins earned a ranking in every available practice area and industry sector in Myanmar. I am also honored that they selected me as a Distinguished Practitioner in intellectual property. I have received many awards or recognitions in the area of IP. At Tilleke & Gibbins, we are able to accomplish much and succeed at a high level in any area, but we cannot stop developing and improving ourselves. So we also send our lawyers and staff to a lot of trainings so that we can always go beyond where we are at any given time.
Could you also please tell the readers about what you have discussed in the Anti-Illicit Trade Forum which was held in Nay Pyi Taw?
I attended the forum as an external expert for Southeast Asia IPR SME Helpdesk, an organization that provides advice on intellectual property for European SMEs and how to protect IP, as well as helping to foster cooperation among relevant professionals. My part was also in the roundtable discussion on intellectual property and I had my own presentation about the IP protection in Myanmar. As you may know, this year, Myanmar issued new intellectual property laws, made up of the trademark law, copyright law, industrial design law and patent law. These four laws are really important for Myanmar because the illicit trade of IP-infringing goods happening here can be solved with these laws. And we expect to see its implementation start this year continuing into the next year. Organizations will also take responsibility for intellectual property, such as the IP departments of the Myanmar police and the courts. These laws will provide protection not only for foreign investors but also for domestic entrepreneurs looking to protect their IP rights.
What plans does Tilleke & Gibbins have in order to eliminate the illegal trades in Myanmar?
We have been working with our clients countering and spreading awareness of illicit trade activities, such as by offering seminars with government officials and also in universities. We have also led campaigns with more than 700 university students from Myanmar, under the International Trademark Association. We were able to explain the importance of trademarks, how to identify fake products, and how IP rights need protection against the illicit trade of these fake products. One of our key missions in coming to Myanmar in the first place was to increase support not only for IP rights but also for clients to take action with the police as well. I am very proud of our work in this area, and I am also very happy to be here on behalf of international groupings such as Southeast Asia’s IPR SME Helpdesk.
What plans does Tilleke & Gibbins have in the next 3 to 5 years?
We hope that the illicit trade will decrease, because the IP laws are going to be implemented soon and the government officials will pay more attention to this matter. As I discussed in the Anti-Illicit Trade forum,
involved in the cross-border illicit trade as well as the governments of countries that this trade goes through.
If you could change a government policy, what would it be?
That is not a very easy question to answer. I think instead of trying to change it, I support the government’s policy and I want to help investors and other people understand it clearly so that everyone can achieve the greatest mutual benefit. So for me, instead of reforming a government policy, the more important thing is building cooperation between government officials in each department and people in the private sector who have problems—like in the Anti-Illicit Trade Forum mentioned earlier. That forum was a very good event because it was organized by EuroCham, who represents those in the private sector who want to come and invest in Myanmar, and they act on behalf of the private sector to cooperate with government officials. This kind of comprehensive service and cooperation-building is very beneficial, and I try to be a part of these kind of efforts.