Late last year, Khin Hlaing was part of a pioneering group of four candidates to win elected office in a Rangoon municipal poll that saw the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC) gain a semblance of accountability to voters for the first time.
Less than a year later, the businessman turned city official has his sights set on a seat in the Union Parliament, and on Nov. 8 will contest as an independent candidate in the Lower House constituency of Rangoon’s Kyimyindaing Township. The owner of the Zawtika Group of Companies speaks to The Irrawaddy about the economic record of the current government, and discusses the challenges still facing the country.
The U Thein Sein government has talked up its economic reforms since it came to power and claims that it has initiated many positive changes. But reports from international organizations like the World Bank say Myanmar’s economic growth is slowing. As a businessman and candidate contesting the election, what is your assessment of the economy at present?
In the past, the country’s economy was monopolistic; there were people who monopolized the industries alone or together with other businessmen. There were many people who got rich doing so. You will know how much Myanmar people are rich if you go abroad [and observe their spending habits]. They can spend a lot. In the post-2010 election period, businessmen have gotten involved in all fields. They have joined political parties and parties have also accepted them. [The government] has called on Burmese expats to come back, but those who had made sacrifices [for the country, living in the country] are ignored. I mean, Myanmar’s economy is just like that. It has deviated from the right track. So, those who do [business] honestly feel disheartened.
From 2010 to 2013, the government said it would make a lot of changes and the Parliament has passed a lot of laws. But they all came in vain because those laws could not be enforced. If you ask me whether I am satisfied [with the changes], I would say I am not. Nothing has changed.
But then again, if we take a positive point of view, the government faces lots of difficulties. There are tough challenges when changes are initiated. I can understand that. I heard that the military would take part in ensuring a fair election, which is a positive sign, I think. One good thing in the term of the current government is that it has had patience. It is difficult to predict how the Myanmar economy will be beyond 2015. The World Bank has said Myanmar’s economic growth has declined. I want to ask them: When in the world has the country’s economy ever grown? When in the world have they ever got accurate data from Myanmar?
You mean to say the data released by the World Bank are not correct? You doubt their accuracy?
I’ll give you an example: Who can say the exact population in Myanmar? Can the [ward] administrator know exactly how many people there are in his ward? We don’t even know those kind of figures. How can we know those figures that are usually kept secret? The transparency is very weak in Myanmar. The transparency is weak not only in state-run businesses but in all businesses, which has led to problems today.
Successful businessmen from some foreign countries have come [to Myanmar to do business]. But all of them have to abort their plans. I have never seen such businessmen doing well in our country. There are mountains of difficulties here. It is not that those figures are not credible. Rather I would say, those figures are not accurate. Personally, I only have 50 percent trust in those data. But I think something [good] might happen between 2015 and 2020 if [the next government] makes an effort.
You said state-owned enterprises and crony businesses have performed better in successive periods. Is that to say that economic reforms have not yet benefitted the average citizen?
Yes, that is it.
There are also prominent businessmen sitting in Parliament. Do you think their involvement has benefited the economic reforms of Myanmar? If more businessmen get into the Parliament after the coming election, will that improve the economy’s prospects?
Politicians, businessmen or scholars are just terms. You don’t need to be a politician to get into Parliament. All you need is love for your country and goodwill toward it. Can a politician do business? General Aung San said he was a soldier and he did not know how to do business. But now, everyone thinks that there is nothing he did not know. They [the government] think they know everything. It is really bad.
We should enter Parliament to legislate, not to obstruct. We should enter Parliament to work in collaboration. Politics is not something that one can do alone. It needs to be done in collaboration. If [lawmakers] discuss the areas of their knowledge and experience, good things will emerge. Practical methods will be found. It is more important that good [honest] people enter Parliament.
What promises can you give your constituents regarding future economic reforms?
I have not yet made any promises. I’ll do what I can. I always write posts on my Facebook page about what I am doing.
What will be your priorities for economic reforms if you win a seat in Parliament?
I think the reform of all the people’s [mindsets] is more important than an overhaul of the economic system. I think it needs to promote the role of the public.