YANGON—Martin Tlapa, the deputy minister of foreign affairs of the Czech Republic, visited Myanmar last week. During his visit, The Irrawaddy spoke to him about the outcomes of his visit and relations between the Czech Republic and Myanmar.
During your visit to Myanmar [in the first week of March], you have an MoU signed. What is the MoU about?
The MoU is a declaration about [relations] on an official level between the Czech Republic and the [Myanmar] government officials. It [is] a tool for frequent contact between Myanmar and the Czech Republic at every level. This is the evidence of strong and important relations between our two countries and also mention[s] the topics on which sectors and in which areas we would like to cooperate in the future.
This is the guideline for us for the future relations, some kind of program that we would like to do and terms. It is obvious that the Czech Republic should be your important partner in Europe … in the EU family of countries because our relations are very strong.
Czech [Republic] has always been a supporter of the Myanmar democracy movement. What other [connections] will Myanmar and Czech have in the future? What will be the future relations between Czech [Republic] and Myanmar because you have been supporting Myanmar a lot with humanitarian aid and in other sectors?
Human rights are an important element of Czech foreign policy. We did a lot in the past to support the opposition. Now we are understanding—maybe more than others—about how difficult it is to transform the country and economy from planning in advance and centralized to a free market and democracy because we had the same experience as your country. So it needs [much] patience and redirection.
We do understand [that] people are demanding quick changes and how difficult it is so we can share our transformation experiences and we would like to really help in developing your country, development cooperation, and humanitarian assistance.
When I was meeting with your officials and I was talking about investment from the Czech Republic. We can do more to bring the Czech technologies, for example, in agriculture, or processing, manufacturing, to upgrade the competitiveness of your economy.
Regarding investments in Myanmar and challenges in finding foreign investment due to the criticism Myanmar has received over the past two years because of the Rakhine issue and the peace process, what do you recommend to others?
I am sharing our experience. First of all, it’s not possible to change the economy without capital. If there is a lack of capital from domestic sources, you want to be open for foreign investors. For the Czech Republic, it was important to diversify the relations of investment from abroad: not to rely on one country or one group of countries.
In our case, from the beginning of our transformation, there was huge investment coming to the Czech Republic from countries like Germany, the Netherlands. And Japan was a very important investor. Our strategy was to diversify relations, to keep independence and to keep the flow of capital to the economy.
The second important thing is to prepare a business-friendly environment: to help start small businesses, medium-size businesses, to have financial institutions which can support new enterprises to start the business. It is very important for employment, and it also [allows] companies to be intermediate partners for the investors who are coming to your country. So this is what I will be sharing with people from the business [community] here in Myanmar.
What other Czech businesses are running in Myanmar and how are you making sure that you have continued support?
Maybe I will surprise you now but I don’t know if many people know that you do much more export to the Czech Republic than we do export to your country. So you have a surplus in trade and the export of your country to the Czech Republic is almost $80 million a year, which is not a bad amount for the beginning according to Czech statistics. It’s textiles, it’s some food and raw materials as well. But I think there is good cooperation also in the pharmaceutical industry and engineering. I think we have a base for upgrading relations to [give] the goods a higher added value in the future.
Based on that, I think that for us it’s important to keep the privileged access of your companies to the European market. I think the Everything But Arms [agreement], which allows export without taxes to the European market is an important incentive for your companies—the same preferential tariffs—and it is important to keep this advantage also for the future. In time, it will be important for stabilizing your economy and there will be more robust growth in the future.
Myanmar people are very familiar with your former president Mr. Václav Havel, because he is a close friend, supporter, to Aung San Suu Kyi. [How] are our countries alike? What is your experience with Mr. Harvel’s time and the time of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi here in Myanmar?
It is a legacy. Václav Havel is a legacy person, who we are missing now in Czech politics and the Czech Republic. He was a leader who [went] from dissident to the position of president. That’s why the [comparison] with your State Secretary Madam Suu Kyi is so close. There were big friends and they did understand each other. Václav Havel, when he became president, he started to be criticized within one year.
People were expecting that the economy would grow much faster, that there would be no unemployment, everything would be great and that we would be living like [our] rich neighbor countries immediately. It was not possible because we needed time to transform the economy and did take 50 years to then move to the level of European countries which we find in the EU. It needs patience and good keeping of the same direction of reforms.
This is sometimes not easy to sell to the people, of course. And avoid mistakes. We did also make mistakes in some transformations and it is important to take that advice from us. I think based on that cooperation and relations among these two important people, we are your very close partner in the European Union and Europe.
I was discussing, I was sharing the invitation of our prime minister to visit the State Secretary Madam Suu Kyi to the Czech Republic, which I hope will take place soon. And also the big decision, an important decision, is to open an embassy of your country in the Czech Republic, which is the strong evidence that the Czech Republic should play a key in your European ambitions of foreign policy and we will be very happy to assist you in this development.
This decision has been taking place now for many many years, and this is a strong signal that democratic Myanmar will have a diplomatic mission in Prague.
You visited Myanmar three times—back in 2015, 2017 and now 2019. What differences do you see?
My first visit was in January 2015. I met with the officials of that time and I think there was a hope of change among the people. On the other side, it seemed to me that the government was thinking that everything has to be centralized, everything has to be planned and we have to avoid the mistakes of the market economy.
Now, it is a different country for me. Maybe I can see it better from outside than the people living here because the changes when you are living here are not so visible immediately each day. But for me, it is a big change. I see more buildings in the cities, more products and people are much [freer]. All the challenges which we are facing, it’s a different country for me. You are looking at how to build your own democracy, it’s all challenges. That’s life and I think that this is a very good message for other countries to think about how to transform the economy.
Dialogue is important and I can see much more tourists coming to your country, with the beauty of the landmarks here. So I believe in the future your country and the prosperity.
In Myanmar, the EU and other countries are trying to bring the military leaders to the International Criminal Court. As a member of the EU, what is your view?
For the EU, it is very important to keep the dialogue about peaceful solutions of all possible conflicts you may have in your country, to keep the dialogue, to try to settle these things through dialogue despite all difficulties which are associated with that.
There are some comments at a European level about the situation in your country but I think it [could] be easily overcome by keeping the dialogue, by trying to find the solution. We also see lots of positive moments like the Constitution discussion, for example; the investment law; law[s] allowing to extend the foreign banks’ activities in your country; SME programs for small and medium-sized companies; infrastructure. So [they are] the reforms which have been demanded and at a political level it is important to try to overcome all possible challenges through peaceful dialogue and by trying to settle these things and inviting people to discuss how to keep the unity of your country, which is important for the prosperity of your people.
Is the Czech Republic’s foreign policy towards Myanmar the same as before or has anything changed?
No, we have a policy which is not changing. We would like to see the development of all diplomatic relations. We would like to support all development of your country and we would like to see a strong, democratic, united Myanmar which is peaceful, overcoming every challenge which appear[s] in the life of every society.
Would you like to add anything?
I hope more people will have a chance to travel to the Czech Republic, to find out not only the leaders of our countries are very close, but also that the people are very similar in the Czech Republic. We love to socialize with people, we are opened-minded and we love to talk about and criticize politicians and politics over [a] good coffee or tea and try to [have] a good time and keep the responsibility for life as well.