In our interview with U Soe Thane he said that the past two years have been about socio political reform and that this is the year for implementation of financial reform. Some people seem to think this is moving too quickly, whereas others are impatient that it is too slow. Where do you stand on this spectrum?
Firstly, the people’s expectations are the most important. Our people are anxiously looking for a better life together with democratization and the reform process. It is fair to say that those who are impatient as well as those who are concerned with the pace can be determined according to their readiness for change. The government must develop what the people need.
One of the topics covered recently, and in the President’s address regarding the next 30 months, was the development of agriculture as well as SMEs. You represent a cross-sector of business sizes here. Do you feel like big business is being neglected?
We have over 97-98% of businesses are SMEs. The President realizes that and is addressing the fact that SMEs are the driving force of the economy of the country. I completely agree with the President. More than 70% of the population is in some way involved with agriculture, which is why it is so important to our country’s development. But the President does also appreciate the importance of the flagship carriers.
The reforms to the financial sector are particularly vital. Will the sector continue to be an impediment to growth for SMEs and others?
The financial reform is truly very important. We are anxiously awaiting the reforms and would like them to move quickly. However, this is not a simple process and needs to be handled with care. For this reason the government is requesting ADB, World Bank and IMF input to the process. When we performed the managed float on the exchange rate, the process went quite well and the exchange rate did not suddenly fluctuate wildly because we went through the process cautiously and deliberately. Without international financial standards in place we cannot compete, so we are anxious for the process to move forward.
At the “Taking Myanmar to Work” session at the World Economic Forum there was extensive discussion of how to move people forward more quickly in terms of education and the benefits of vocational training.
This is not just help, this is essential. Capacity building is the most important issue that we need to address. We are providing some training courses here at the UMFCCI and we sensed from the beginning in 1999, that one of our goals was to have our own building so we would have room for providing courses and building human resources. At present, even under our Chamber management, we have the human resource development training institute where we can do training in 8 different rooms. We also organize and train with JAICA and we now have the Myanmar-Japan center on one floor of this building. We knew that our businesses were going to need more and more well-trained people. We also have an MBA program with the University of Thai Chamber of Commerce. We do deeply believe that HR is the most important issue to confront.
You hosted a delegation from the US earlier this year but we are noticing that US companies are still slow to come in. What did you tell them when you saw them? What were some of their doubts?
Our FDI law was only enacted at the end of November 2012 and rules and regulations have only been put into place in February. So American companies are not slow to move, they are simply waiting for the mechanisms to be put in place. Just after sanctions were suspended they were already here! We are already drinking Coca Cola! Although we have geographical distance, you already have good Chambers of Commerce which are active in the region, such as Amcham Thailand or Singapore.
Should companies start preparing for GSP? What kind of companies will benefit most from this with the US?
The GSP is not just for a group of people or a company. We want to see it spread down to the grassroots and throughout the supply chain. Everyone should benefit from this development.
Another common topic of conversation is the revamping of the Company’s Act which has not been touched for 99 years. What kind of changes need to happen to this Act and how will it benefit the members?
We would need several years of seminars to discuss this in its entirety. Most important, though, is that we need to respect the companies which are going to invest in our country – both domestic and international. The law must therefore be acceptable by international standards. We must also think about national treatment for our investors. We must also take Corporate Social Responsibility into account. We are involved in the law drafting process.
In terms of the special economic zones, is this something that the local business community supports?
We must be careful not to neglect the existing industrial zones. The SEZs are a new development and are attractive for new investment in our country. I maintain that we need investors in manufacturing instead of just extractive industries and that SEZs help to do that. However, we must also think of our domestic and international industries already here and functioning. We must provide for their needs as well.
When we conducted the interview with your President in Paris he was very enthusiastic about chairing ASEAN next year. In terms of the business community though, the opening of the AEC at the end of 2015 is a looming process. We are getting mixed signals. Where do you stand?
Actually I am sometimes positive and sometimes negative. If we think about the immediate outcome, we are definitely going to face some strong challenges. With our present readiness, the majority of our businesses will face challenges. But, and this is a large but, this is the only way that we can progress, by building connectivities and partnerships with international companies. We will need to compete by joining. Our Chamber was trying to push for much stronger JV possibilities in the FDI law precisely so that they can compete. We must also think about how we can take advantage of trading into those countries, not just accepting goods. We will have a broader market and we will be able to compete. There is some disagreement within the Chamber on these issues but this is a democracy and we are working together. We are trying to lift the capacity of our people in order to compete within a more open business climate.
You are a bridge between the business community and the government, as well as between the business community and the international community. How would you see Myanmar branded to the world?
We were just discussing this question within the context of ASEAN and our slogan is “The New Gateway of ASEAN” with regard to the economy.