Let’s start with recent developments in Myanmar and your success in hosting the SEA Games in December. Please tell our international audience about some of the challenges of organizing this complicated process.
I was the Chairman of the transport committee for these games but we were ready because we started more then 2 years ago with the preparations. We had international flights coming in to Yangon and then charter flights to Nay Pyi Taw. All together there were about 8,000 passengers using air transport to arrive for the games. For the local transportation, we were able to provide enough vehicles for officials, athletes and visitors.
Union Minister U Soe Thane said that the past two years have been about the paperwork and the foundation for the reform process but now we are seeing the implementation. How is that affecting you?
My Ministry is responsible for aviation, both domestic and international and maritime transport. I was transferred from the Air Force in 1998 and came here as DG and then Deputy Minister. In 2010 I was elected as an MP with 92.55% of the vote and promoted to this Ministry. I have almost 12 years experience in the same Transport Ministry so I am familiar with the problems and challenges here. I was already preparing for the transition when I was Deputy Minister.
My Ministry is really involved in services and needs to meet the demands of domestic and international passengers. Every year now, growth is at 34% for international travel and 10% for domestic travel. Previously our infrastructure was not up to these demands. We are working also on our HR in order to train Myanmar pilots to fly our planes instead of having to recruit foreigners. Now there are many additional airlines allowed to fly here and we are encouraging that growth and competition. Starting from next year we will be using Boeing 737 new generation, which will be added to our fleet at the rate of two per year.
Air transport is therefore seeing the most dramatic transformation as a result of the reform process and the lifting of sanctions.
Regarding airport infrastructure, Yangon airport has the capacity for about 2.7 million passengers per year. We have given the tender for a company to extend the terminal to a capacity of 6 million per year. Another airport is the Hantharwaddy airport, which will have an initial capacity of 12 million but will be phased into even more. We are currently negotiating these deals. We expect Hantharwaddy to be a regional hub. Another is the airport at Mandalay, which has been granted to Mitsubishi.
There seem to be many opportunities for international investors to participate in these processes.
All three of these airports have international investment. We have also called on foreign companies to express their interest in developing domestic airports but we have to balance the needs of the different ethnic areas and possible domestic investors with those of the international companies.
What does ASEAN economic integration mean for transport? Are you positive about the possibilities that are opening up?
Regarding air transport, our neighboring countries are very strong: Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, all of which have their own international fleets. In the past they controlled 90% of our international travelers. My concern is that we need to compete more effectively in the future. One essential part is human resources, not the pilots, which definitely know what they are doing, but in marketing and sales, which we do not do well. GE is working with us on training staff. We are recruiting the younger generation trained by American companies.
The other challenge is that to acquire these new aircraft we need money. We cannot buy them, but lease them, which is more cost effective. Still it is a large initial investment. Another option was to make a JV between Myanma Airways and other foreign companies, but that is not possible at the moment.
You have set yourself so many goals to achieve in such a short time. What are the concerns or challenges that make it difficult for you to sleep at night?
H.E. I have always slept like a baby. We are pilots, which means that we have to put all worries out of our heads and sleep or we cannot make good decisions.
Sometimes, though, it is difficult for us to explain to foreigners how things work here. We do need help explaining the realities of Myanmar today. There are also so many challenges in the financial industry. We even have problems paying for our planes to Boeing because we cannot transfer to dollars from kyat.
Please do tell us what goals you want to achieve in the next two years of your term as Minister?
My dream is for Myanma Airways to become an international airline, competitive with other international airlines. I am also striving for the commercialization of the system to become more efficient, so that people can buy tickets online and access schedules and compare prices and choose the best option for their plans.
Regarding airports, I am sure that Yangon and Mandalay will be finished within two years. Hantharwaddy implementation should be on the way. Another dream is to have the boat facilities at Thilawa economic zone finished. Another concern is that the Ayeyarwaddy river is becoming more dry every year but we would like to have a multi-purpose function for the river by building low dams along the river, which will make it navigateable year round. This would help the economy of these further regions. This will not materialize in the next two years, but I would like to put the plan in action before I leave.
Last question – what is your advice to the American investors who are looking to your country now?
Please come to Myanmar more often. I don’t think that you need to try to understand our people because you will certainly understand them when you meet them in person. Visit the whole country, or as much as you can. Do not just go to Nay Pyi Taw. Go to different areas in the country and see how our people live.
Every day I see how much we have lagged behind. Reform was already rooted in my mind many many years ago because I knew that we needed to change in order to compete.