‘Dutch Firms Want to Share Their Experience Here’

By Paul Vrieze 19 November 2013

The Netherlands Minister of Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation Liliane Ploumen made a two-day visit to Burma earlier this week. She discussed Dutch business investment with government ministers, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and civil society representatives. The minister was accompanied by a trade delegation that included representatives of Dutch companies such as East West Seed, international electronics firm Philips, consumer goods giant Unilever and global beer brewer Heineken, all of which have announced plans to open facilities in Burma.

Ploumen also opened the Netherlands Economic Mission in Rangoon. At the new diplomatic mission, she discussed plans to promote responsible investment and reflected on Burma’s democratic transition.

Question: Why are you visiting Burma now, and what is the purpose of the visit?

Answer: This visit comes at a stage when the transition has been under way for a while and we’ve already had an opportunity to make some political contacts. So, this is a good moment to visit here with private investors and companies, and to further strengthen political contacts.

A number of big Dutch firms are very active in this region and are also looking into opportunities in Myanmar. … I think there could be a good match between the expertise that the Netherlands has to offer and some of the issues that Myanmar is dealing with, such as water management. Earlier this year, my colleague [Minister of Infrastructure] Melanie Schultz was here and she signed a memorandum of understanding with the government [to cooperate on water management]. Dutch firms in the water sector have a lot of experience with projects in the region, such as in Vietnam [where Dutch firms are helping develop the Mekong Delta Plan]. They want to share their experience here as well.

Q: Can you give some examples of Dutch firms that are active in Burma and explain how they operate here?

A: Yes, there is for example Unilever; this is an Anglo-Dutch firm. They are active here because they think this is an interesting market that is opening up and of course, soon there will be a growing middle class. This is also a company that set a target of doubling its revenue while at the same time halving its ecological footprint. This is the type of business model that we think is important.

Heineken is a similar type of company. They are planning to research local sourcing of resources needed for the production process [for a planned brewery, which it will co-own with Alliance Brewery Co Ltd] and they want to engage with the local agriculture sector. They also do this for example in the Congo—which is not an easy country to work of course—and there they’ve achieved 90 percent local sourcing and they invested in farmers’ cooperatives.

East West Seed is a Dutch firm that sells vegetable seeds. This firm is also coming to Myanmar with a long-term vision. Farmer don’t change that quickly, they are attached to their traditional growing methods. That’s why it’s good to cooperate with farmers in order to increase their production, and East West Seed does that. They’re not only here to sell products but also to invest locally.

Q: The US government has warned American firms against partnering with local ‘crony’ companies that dealt with the previous military regime. Is the Netherlands government asking Dutch firms to do the same?

A: Dutch firms all have to follow guidelines of the OECD [Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development] that set out how firms should conduct their business responsibly. The firms that are here on this trade mission are firms that are among the best in implementing these standards, they make well-informed decisions. So in that regard, the [Dutch] government can leave it to our business community to assess how they want to invest here.

Q: What are your thoughts on the way that Burma’s democratic transition is progressing?

A: Experience in other countries has shown that at the start of a democratic transition, everyone is very excited—and you have to be, because you need to be ambitious—but the road is always long. The next milestone will be the elections in Myanmar in 2015, which is not far away. Elections encourage [society] to shape the democratic process, while having [free and fair] elections is also a goal by itself.

I don’t have any reason to be pessimistic, but problems remain in Myanmar, that is obvious. The goal of democracy is to build a country where everyone feels like they are part of the country and where everyone has rights. In that regard there is still a long way to go in Myanmar.

Q: One ongoing problem in Burma is the issue of anti-Muslim violence, and in particular the dire situation of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Arakan State. What are your thoughts on these issues?

A: Myanmar is a very ethnically diverse country and that makes it more important—and harder—to ensure that everyone feels that they are really part of the country. There are serious problems concerning the Rohingyas and the way that they are viewed [in Myanmar]. It seems to me that it’s enormously important to facilitate reconciliation and conflict-resolution initiatives involving people on the ground, although ultimately there needs to be a political solution.