Burma Govt Wants Investment Focus Away from Natural Resources

Burma's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, pictured on Friday at the World Economic Forum in Bangkok. (PHOTO: Reuters)

BANGKOK—Burma’s Energy Minister Than Htay on Friday told a Bangkok audience of international business leaders and government officials that the government wants to change the country’s foreign investment focus away from oil and gas toward more job-intensive sectors.

“Huge amounts of foreign investment are likely to come,” said the minister, but nonetheless “the government wants to replace resource-based foreign investment with production-based investment.”

With Western sanctions relaxed or suspended, the Burmese government is hopeful of coaxing a variety of investors into Burma with a proposed new foreign investment law and special economic zones tied to seaports at Dawei, Thiliha and Kyaukpyu.

Reading from a prepared statement to the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Bangkok, the minister expounded on “The Promise and Future of Myanmar,” talking-up the country’s recent political reforms and urging investors and tourists to put Burma on their to-do lists for the near future.

Minister Than Htay said that investment needs to create jobs for ordinary Burmese, adding that “the government wants to improve living standards for all Burmese and is not just trying to improve GDP.”

For that to happen, however, will take time and work, say analysts. In a press conference at the WEF earlier Friday, Nobel economics laureate Prof Joseph Stiglitz cautioned that Burma “needs the creation of a whole set of legal frameworks to get plugged into the global economy,” mentioning land law and intellectual property rights.

Burma is rich in gas, oil, gemstones and hydropower, and investment to date has largely focused on these extractive sectors, prompting fears that Burma could succumb to a “resource curse” that has seen resource-dependent economies elsewhere fall prey to corruption, civil conflict and poverty.

Prof. Stiglitz, who visited Burma in February, warned that “Myanmar needs to make sure that natural resources are used in ways to avoid the resource curse and make it a blessing.”

Burma’s landscape and physical beauty is a largely untapped resource that the government hopes to capitalize on. With a minuscule few hundred thousands tourists visiting each year, the Burma government hopes to eat into a market that not only sees neighbouring Thailand attract between 15-20 million visitors per annum, with other countries such as Vietnam and Philippines pulling in 4-5 million each.

“Myanmar is an exceedingly-attractive tourist destination,” said the minister. “We have historical monuments, rivers, beaches, flora and fauna, and unique to southeast Asia, have high mountains for adventure-seeking tourists.”

Aung San Suu Kyi sat quietly in the front row during the minister’s speech, which was not followed with a question and answer session aside from a couple of issues raised by WEF head Klaus Schwab.

Earlier, at a press conference on Friday morning, Suu Kyi said she was looking forward to the minister’s speech, in the wake of mass candlelit protests in Burma in recent weeks over ongoing electricity shortages.

Despite billions of dollars in gas, oil and hydropower revenue, an estimated 75 percent of Burma’s people do not have electricity. With that in mind, Suu Kyi recounted how she was invited to the cockpit by the pilot during her flight to Bangkok on Tuesday evening, telling that she was captivated by the canopy of lights beneath as the flight approached the vast Thai capital. Noting the contrast with dimly lit Rangoon, she said that “the difference is considerable,” alluding to the disparity in development between the two cities.

Than Htay listed Burma’s political reforms to the WEF, citing four separate amnesties for political prisoners, the creation of laws that “protect the right of citizens to peaceful assembly, and the beginning of peace processes with Burma’s armed ethnic groups that the government hopes “will bring eternal peace.”

In the wake of these reforms, Western economic sanctions on Burma have been relaxed or suspended. Speaking on Friday morning, Suu Kyi said, “I support suspension of sanctions as it shows that reforms will be rewarded,” but warned that the government and investors must be transparent about investment in Burma in future. “The reason we had problems with Dawei and other projects is that the people of Burma were kept completely in the dark,” she said.

Minister Than Htay spoke at the WEF in place of President Thein Sein who postponed his visit to Thailand until next week in the wake of the announcement that Suu Kyi would travel to Thailand for the WEF. The minister relayed an invitation from President Thein Sein for the WEF to stage its 2013 Asia event in Burma, which was accepted by WEF head Klaus Schwab.

16 Responses to Burma Govt Wants Investment Focus Away from Natural Resources

  1. Very good piece of news. Thanks to Irrawady. Please write more news like this one to educate our newly formed government and the citizens. Please encourage our government to preserve natural resources and protect the forests of Myanmar. Ask the citizens to plant trees every year.

  2. If it is all about the statement made, then it is very much surprising that the Energy Minister did not speak anything about energy matters for the country. But he did just about investment which needs enormous amount of energy for which he should have elaborated further in details.

    We are in the deep mist wondering about the length of time we still need to live in the brown if not in the dark in future. With more and more investment coming into the country the need of energy will continue rising in future and we are keen to know when we will live worry free about electricity or potable fuels for our daily survival.

    There is so called Energy Planning Department under the minister. With the help of the EPD the minster should have explained about requirements, availabilities, sustainabilities, analyses, philosophies, strategies, policies and planning for the future for Energy needs in the country for the benefit of its own people as well as for the inverstors.

  3. Great to know that Burmese government does not think that people are not resources.

    Squeeze them hard. Keep them ignorant. keep up the good work. Hard manual labour, sex workers.

    And tell them to be grateful.

  4. It is significant that the energy minister addressed the Forum as though he was representing the President. He said nothing about his ministry (but of course that would be irrelevant, wouldn’t it?).
    I, for one, welcome and support the policy change: relying on manufacturing and other service industries rather than the extractive industry. But the government would do well (i.e. for the nameless people) if they would listen to the cautionary voice of Prof Joseph Stiglitz.

  5. Should we start celebrating for future lives as slaves right at home now?

    The country Burma will never be peaceful and prosperous and happy so long as there are 400000 soldiers and their armed adversities driving away productive manpower as well as reducing land ability by mines and battle zones.

    Imagine there are say only 150000 well trained and disciplined soldiers like in old days, there are no more battles as people are truly good to each other,

    All efforts are used for traditional production keeping millennium old tradition and social cohesion.

    Then gradually start to help the young to get full, useful education to make a peaceful and progressive country.

    Now, ther is desperate desire to sell out one or the other or bag for hand out because that is all they can think of.

    Hey Than Htay,

    To improve the living standard of the people is simple. Ask your masters to put Tayza, Zaw Zaw, Steven Law, Khin Shwe, Aung Ko Man, etc in jail for theft, give back the loot from the people by them and you military thieves and hang themselves for their crimes as Awizi always welcomes monk killers.

  6. It is a welcome policy change with proper awareness of the people’s need.
    But why reveal it only at the Forum?
    Doesn’t the Burmese population deserve a direct communication with the Government? Doesn’t the Government think so?
    This is part of the the government’s duty and responsibility, and not to intimidate them when problems arise. This is a big step in winning public confidence.

  7. I believe in sustainable economic growth and in the protection of the natural environment (not just in Burma), but here’s the problem:
    Places like Singapore and Hongkong are just cities without any natural resources and they got very rich. How? By greedily exploiting the natural resources of other (corrupt) countries like Burma! Many Burmese look up to places like Singapore as models (I don’t!) and rich “upper-class” Burmese business tycoons have close ties to Singapore and Hongkong (in fact, they kow-tow to the Chinese business community there).
    Hopefully Burma can free itself economically and politically, not only from Mainland China but also from these Chinese city-states.
    Freedom comes with a price but most Burmese people, I think, prefer to live in harmony with nature and Burma has enough natural resources, land, water, forests, even gas to provide all the people of Burma with basic necessities if the economy is run in a more efficient, sustainable and knowledge-based way (knowledge includes also the traditional knowledge that people have about nature, food, medicine etc.). Just get rid of this evil corruption which is eating away Burma’s soul and its landscape. Peace and happiness has many different facets (Singapore is only one way) and I hope the ordinary Burmese people can now decide what they really want and what they really need (Don’t rush I would say!)

  8. I like to discuss about culture of corruption in Burma. I believe, Aung San Suu Kyi will never discuss this topic as a responsible leader at er position. Majourity of the people will agree with me if I argue that majourity of the Burmese government members including civil servents are crocket and corrupt especially military personals. Most civil servents, government members, and military personals believe that corruption is the way of life and it is becomming dark culture. No one ever argue that corruption in Burma is culture base and it is time to fight this dark culture disease if we willing to develop Burma make a place for every Burmese to have equal oppotunities without bribing to the authorities.

    Burma as a country lasted in history for so long since it was Pyu Kingdom. Along the history of Burma, Burmese society believe that Kings and govenment own everything including it’s citizens. There is a Burmese word saying “Thet Oo San Pai”, which means a citizen life from the tip of the hair until to the tip of the toe nails are own by the kings or the government. Many of those believe come along with religion stories. However, I do not dare say that Burmese society is corrupted by religion. Does many of those believes changes in modern time? I don’think so. Some of the history or story rather, such as “U Paw Oo’s story” “Sa Ka Taung Sar story” “Chi Par Thar, Pa Khan Thar story” and even “Ka lauk Noe villger story of Karen people” are guding the youth of Burma to the wrong direction. However, I do not say that those stories should be stop to publish, but it should be publish responsible way. However, the reader may ask, how does corrupt culture and literature relate to the article? First, How would MP Than Htay transform Burma to a productive country where there are lack of basic requirement such as “Power, Transportation, Education, Corrupt Judiciary”. Those are facts and requirement to start productive society. How much MP Than Htay know about industrial revolution in the west countries, so that Burma will not get into the same mistakes that those develop west countries went through. Will Burma lead the way that China is heading? If Burma is adopting Chinese way, we should stop instantly and rethink a new way.

    To become a successful industrialize country, first step and as well as very basic step is that we must fight corruption and go after corrupt bureaucrats. Second step is that government and government members must be transparent for every business deal. It is ashame that Burmese natural gas flow to China cheaply while Burma is under power hunry. Third step is to built infrastructure to sustain Businesses and for easy access. Industrialize society start from local production. How friendly are Burmese government to the local entrepreneur?

  9. I am inclined to agree with the suggestion that corruption in Burma is culture-based, by some funny books at least, but not to the assumption that it is religion-based.
    Smartness in our culture, as U Paw Oo and others, particularly Sakataunmgsar and some folktales, is to one-up the next person by a play of words and cheating, not by outsmarting by mere intelligence, truthfulness and goodwill.
    Our national culture as a whole, is founded on the Mingala Sutta, the Discourse on the 38 aspects of virtue and blissful happiness. There are also the five rules of personal conduct that reflect metta or loving kindness advising no corruption of the mind and action such as killing, stealing, lying, sexual abuse and non-intoxication. Putting it in a nutshell, all the past Buddhas preached avoidance of all evil deeds, observance of all goodness in personal conduct and up-keep of purity of the mind.
    But of course, the corrupt people, particularly some government and public officials, put these blameless advices aside and go on their own way in view of their own convenience an expediency out of greed, hate and ignorance. This corrupt crowd, as I gather, is a minority. The majority, the voiceless and the innocent, are the victims.
    Yes, there is a lot to be done for improvement. Outright and immediate elimination of the bad sort my be difficult, but not impossible if we pursue the matter by sheer dint of determination and hard work. And without despairing!!!

    • If you accept that religion as well as corruption is a human construct, it appears to be the only link between the two since all religions make corruption a vice. Our 38 Beatitudes and above all the Eightfold Path explicitly teach us to think, speak, behave and act properly.

      The enduring eastern tradition of deference to age and position as well as bearing gifts and tributes is what’s compounded the issue.It’s a very fine line between a gift and a bribe, hence limits to the value of the former have been set for parliamentarians and it’s a taboo for govt servants and state officials in countries with proper standards, not that they have managed to wipe out bribery and corruption altogether since it happens when it comes to big bucks especially with major arms deals that involve massive sums of money.

      Only ,in a country like Burma where everything seems to be a privilege and never a right, you need to grease your way through for everything under the sun all along the way from one desk to the next. And on the part of the govt servants and most of the rest of us for that matter, when your day job earns way below the standards you keep or worse a living wage, what can you expect? Depend on charity?

  10. Moe Aung has reasoned well and all true.
    But there has been a rule in the pre-1962 days, which forbid officials, low or high, from taking “gifts” that is obviously offered to do favor for the giver. Of course, it is a matter of conscience that should take good care of the public service, not of a personal obligation. Officials were trained to think of every thing they did in terms of public service, nothing else.
    As it stands nowadays, we are a long way from the past as well as to go forward. The damage has been too big to take good repairs so soon.

    • Unfortunately it’s become pervasive and ingrained as the norm, standing morality as we know it on its head.The one expression from the BSPP’s “Correlation between Man and His Environment” which struck a chord and stayed in our collective head is:

      One can afford to be moral only on a full stomach.

      Only, they were the ones who presided over a system that ensured the majority of the country go hungry. Now they are set on the road to make the rich richer and the poor poorer. What chance morality?

      • Wrong!

        If you guys are really serious, there is ALWAYS a place for decency.

        Remember, now that we are in the land of Burmese literature, but some of them like the very first Burmese novel is a translation as well as some works of U Pho Kyar,the story of “A mee pauk thu”.

        For the uninitiated, it is a story of a man who one day found out he overnight grew a tail which he immediately put it down to the dirty works he did for his boss over the years. But when his boss found out about it, he then learned that all his boss’s ill-deeds were fully paid by his own tail several feet long whereas the man’s tail indeed was because he stole his boss’s money for his own “Business” deals.

        U Moe Aung, your point, used popularly, is really as that Nuremberg defence, “I was forced to”.

        Not just money, Burmese currently are in serious shortage of Bya-ma-so tayar. People should not be treated like money bucket or dirt in hospitals, private and public, airport, offices, schools, court of law, anywhere.

        Unless the Burmese populace change their attitude towards each other and start to be kind to the others genuinely, all their “Ka=thein” offerings, pagoda buildings, releasing fish, which was caught first of course, would means squat.

        Popular use of the word “Metta” by everyone nowadays disgraces the word.

        Unless people really care for each other, renounce greed and keep the Five Precepts all the time which ever religion they are, people may become filthy rich with yachts, planes, ski holidays, polar cruise, miss universe pageants, etc., as they are desperately wanting to be, they will forever be condemned to living hell.

        See, paradise on earth is not there to take but one has to build it oneself.

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