You said in a recent interview “Myanmar’s Moment is Now.”
Last year I created the “new Myanmar,” which incorporated the idea of not just rebuilding what Myanmar used to be, but actually creating this new country. The definition of the new Myanmar is as an “all-inclusive, democratic, dynamic developed nation” – that is our national goal.
You have also said that this is the year of implementation. The past two years were preparation and this year is about implementation. Please explain to us how you are prioritizing sectors.
We began with very little idea of how to build a democratic government. Then after three months of meeting with international consultants, thinking about and discussing reforms… The idea we had as soon as the President got the responsibility, was the reduction of poverty and rural development. Then we began to build the framework for economic development reform strategy, which is what we have been working on for the past year and a half. The other thing was to address political reform while maintaining political stability – meeting with the different actors from the regions and ethnicities. The main thing lacking was trust in the Myanmar government. We began with these political reforms. Now economic reforms are being undertaken. As you know, economic reforms are difficult and must be carried out step by step.
The third major challenge is that people need to change their mindsets and we need to build capacity for a democratic culture and a democracy scheme. We need to build capacity through public administration reform. Another aspect of these changes is that government cannot do it alone. For this reason we need to broaden the private sector involvement, include more civil society organizations. So now, in the budget year beginning April 1, 2013, all of the preparations is nearly completed, so now we need to implement the plans that we have. The next three years are the implementation time.
We understand that you would like to encourage investment in agro-based industry and manufacturing. What kinds of facilities are you granting to companies from those industries to encourage them to engage?
The main economic development concern is to take into consideration our existing infrastructure and human resources. This is why we are welcoming investors from low-cost industries and labor intensive industries: garment, textiles, shoe-making etc. These are industries that can exist with lower levels of highly-skilled labor and can deal with electricity shortages. I want to do a lot of things, but infrastructure and institutions are limited and we have limited numbers of skilled workers. Another thing is that the existing agricultural sector is very strong, but needs to be modernized. The supply chain for the agricultural sector can be strengthened and we can boost and develop agro-industry and benefit the local people quickly. Their incomes are already increasing quickly.
In the “Taking Myanmar to work” session at the World Economic forum, a discussion ensued regarding vocational training vs academic degrees.
Training is easier said than done. Abrupt change of the Myanmar educational system is impossible; you need to move incrementally. I have encouraged vocational training, especially in my role as Minister of Industry, in several sectors. At that time we decided to open the vocational training sector to private investment, in order to increase the possibility for greater training to happen. Last month when the President of Singapore visited, we decided to have a Singaporean training center in Yangon. We cannot have so many centers set up by the government, so we need great private sector involvement. We also need to change mentalities, because Myanmar people are not accustomed to certification processes. Now we are working a lot with SME sector, and SME banks. In this we are cooperating to a large extent with the German agencies. We want to copy the Singaporean education system, but I cannot, because there are so many changes that we need to make, in the legal system as well. As Tony Blair said to me “Reform is difficult; democracy is difficult. We campaign in poetry, but we govern in prose.” Even regarding Yangon city traffic – we built an overpass which took 4 or 5 months, and we have two more in process but they are taking time. We also like the idea of the Norwegian tram system.
This is an extraordinary time for Myanmar. You seem to have such a clear vision of the steps to take, yet there must be concerns. What are some issues?
The main problem is linked with financial sector reform and tax collection reform. Building a new house is easy, but rebuilding an old house is difficult. We have inherited problems which we need to address. Kurt Campbell told me, for example, that “people are expecting too much.” We need to take back our responsible membership in the international community.
As revenue begins to flow from the energy sector, some have recommended the establishment of a sovereign wealth fund.
We are really in the dark ages. The former government wanted to do good for the people, but as a father and son, not as a partner. Now, as this new government, we have met with the Norwegians and the EITI initiative. We have spoken about a lot of these issues, with regard to mining, forestry, timber, etc. We are determined to be completely transparent and the EITI is key for that. We take this very seriously.
How have you kept yourself moving forward against considerable resistance from your colleagues and friends?
I have the will to reform and my will is very strong. Also, the President and I have been together for a long time. We even stayed in the same platoon at the academy. He trusts me and together we have the energy to reform. We also point to freedom of expression, which cannot be reversed. This is an example of the reforms that should make people see that the process is irreversible. The Lady is my friend as well, but she is doing her job and I am doing mine. It has indeed been difficult to appreciate tangible results but one standard is that you are here, with me. Two years ago you would not even have been able to get a visa, and now we are sitting here together.
Klaus Schwab from the WEF brought up the concept of “trust.” And his point was that with the broadening of civil society and democratic process and freedom of the press – doors have been opened that simply cannot be closed.
That is why in the debate, when I was asked about the reforms, I told them: ‘We created a new Myanmar; freedom of expression; responsible membership, reconciliation; rule of law….you cannot go back from this.
Myanmar: it has been called a “final frontier”, and a “rising star”….as the conductor of this orchestra. What would you call it?
We are talking about the “New Lion.” People should think of 60 million people in socio-economic development, and democracy for them….the rest will come. Peace for the people has to be all-inclusive and that should be reflected in the constitution.