NGAPALI, Rakhine State — State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on Friday invited responsible and sustainable investors from home and abroad to back projects in Rakhine State and help one of Myanmar’s poorest and most troubled regions turn a corner.
Speaking in the beach resort town of Ngapali at the state’s first ever investment fair — which is running with the tag line “Rakhine is open for business to the world” — she said she and her government recognized the “grave challenges” they were facing.
The state counselor said her government was doing all it could to meet the area’s security and humanitarian needs, in line with the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, which had been led by the late U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. While doing so, she added, “we have to address economic issues in Rakhine, that we may achieve the progress and development needed to sustain stability and prosperity.”
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said her administration has made the rule of law and sustainable development in Rakhine a priority from the beginning. But she added that much of the state’s potential remained untapped.
“For too long the international community’s attention has been focused narrowly on negative aspects related to problems in north Rakhine rather than on the larger picture that shows the immense potential of this state [for] peace and development,” she said.
“Every kyat spent by this government, every dollar disbursed by our development partners and every dollar invested by the private sector is a vote of confidence in the resilience and potential of Rakhine and its people,” she added.
The Rakhine State Investment Fair follows the Invest Myanmar Summit in Naypyitaw in January, the government’s first move to reverse a significant decline in foreign direct investment (FDI) over the past two years. Facing an ongoing civil war and a tarnished international image following the Rakhine crisis, the government is desperately seeking more FDI in hopes of achieving peace through economic development.
The government is running the fair in cooperation with the Japan International Cooperation Agency and the Japan External Trade Organization. Before the event, South Korean Ambassador Lee Sang-hwa said his country was also in strong support, with a particular interest in the state’s fishery and tourism sectors.
More than 200 people are attending from Myanmar and 10 other countries, mainly Japan, South Korea and Thailand.
The fair is focusing on three major areas: agriculture, livestock and fisheries; tourism; and small and medium enterprises (SMEs).
Rakhine’s state government showcased six priority projects: the Kyaetaw-Mingan project, which includes a port, trade zone, apartments, supermarket and a SME zone in Sittwe, the state capital; construction of a new airport in Mrauk-U; the upgrade of Ngapali Airport; an eco-tourism project on Man Aung Island; the Ponnagyun industrial project in Sittwe; and a new city project in Mrauk-U.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said special economic zones managed with efficiency and probity can stimulate growth, create jobs, spark offshoot industries and renew hope for communities. She assures investors that such projects would open the way for homegrown Rakhine firms and SMEs in their supply chains.
“Most important of all, we must ensure that the benefits obtained from these and other projects are shared equitably amongst all communities,” she said.
Rakhine is one of Myanmar’s poorest states despite occupying a western coastline rich in natural resources, oil and gas in particular. Sixty-nine percent of the population lives in poverty. Many lack access to public services and struggle with poor infrastructure, unemployment, meager living conditions and a lack of legal support.
“We would like to focus on foreign and domestic investment which, when made with imagination and foresight and implemented with responsibility and dedication, could play a crucial role in putting Rakhine’s development trajectory on track,” Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said.
Rakhine hosts the western terminus of a Chinese-owned pipeline that has been carrying oil and natural gas across Myanmar from the Bay of Bengal to China’s Yunnan Province since 2010. Amid Western rebuke of Myanmar over its handling of the Rakhine crisis, China also inked a framework agreement with the government for the Kyaukphyu Deep Sea Port last November. The port will give China access to the Bay of Bengal and enhance its regional connectivity as part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Since the National League for Democracy took power in 2016, the government has made several economic reforms. Following the outbreak of the Rakhine crisis in late 2017, however, foreign investment has declined significantly, most of all from the West. Last year, FDI dropped to its lowest level since 2013. Rakhine State has had an especially hard time attracting interest.
At the Invest Myanmar Summit last month, Union Minister for Investment and Foreign Economic Relations U Thaung Tun pushed investors to invest in Rakhine instead of blaming and shaming the country. He told them the violence had affected only three of the state’s 17 townships and that the rest of Rakhine was safe to invest in.
The Rakhine government itself is also making efforts to attract investors to the peaceful south of the state, according to U Kyaw Aye Thein, its minister of finance, revenue, planning and economy.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi presented potential investors with a long list of sectors open for business: ecotourism, agriculture, livestock breeding, aquaculture and forestry, manufacturing, textiles and garment manufacturing, power generation and distribution, education, health care, infrastructure, real estate and oil and gas.
Adding a note of caution, she added, “I am confident that all of you understand well the necessity to ensure that investments do not aggravate a fragile environment already vulnerable to natural disasters and climate change.
“I mentioned earlier the potential for aquaculture in Rakhine. But we would wish to avoid the unchecked expansion of commercial fishery projects that could degrade our precious mangrove stock.”
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said Myanmar’s economy was projected to grow 6.2 percent in 2018-2019 and that the growth was spread across all sectors but driven to a large extent by energy and private enterprise.