‘We Need to Change Challenges Into Opportunities’

By Kyaw Hsu Mon 7 April 2014

MYAWADDY, Karen State — This border town, opposite Mae Sot in Thailand, was opened up to tourists in November and trade coming across the border is ramping up.

The town is the busiest crossing on the Burmese-Thai border, and is expected to become a major gateway when the new Asian Highway is completed and trade tariffs are dropped across the region under the Asean Economic Community—which is expected to come into force at the end of 2015.

Last week, the Karen State government hosted a forum on the challenges posed by the regional trade community—which also guarantees the free movement of skilled labor. The Irrawaddy’s Kyaw Hsu Mon spoke with Karen State Chief Minister Zaw Min about the region’s future.

Question: Would you say the Myawaddy trading zone is ready to face the changes that the AEC will bring?

Answer:  Nothing is complete yet, so we need to do a lot of things for the AEC next year.

Q: Can you go into more detail about what challenges the AEC will bring to Karen State?

A: Knowledge about AEC is weak here. Actually opportunities are starting now in the Asean free trade area. But we still don’t know what the opportunities are and how to take them. Challenges should not be something to worry about—we need to change challenges into opportunities. That’s why we organized an AEC forum [last week] for local people. If we know about the latest technology, knowledge and processes, we can change them from challenges to opportunities. If you ask me are we ready or not:  we can say it’s a no. We still need to prepare many things. But we are not that late, we can do it like other countries.

Q: What kind of support does the Karen State government give to local businesspeople to help them with these challenges?

A: As government support to local people ahead of the AEC, we are decreasing taxes for them and easing the limits on exporting and importing products. We provide training to businesspeople to understand the trading process here. To improve transportation, we have road construction funded by Japanese ODA [official development assistance]. The Asian Highway is being constructed along the old roads, and will be an important route in the AEC through Karen State. It’s an Asean-standard highway.

Also, for education, we are connecting with a higher education group. The Karen State government is also opening vocational training for local residents. It will include tourism training, industrial training and training in traditional culture industries such as Gyatkhoke [traditional tailoring] to promote the state’s culture.

Q: Have there been any problems since the Myawaddy border crossing was opened to tourists? There are a lot of visitors coming across the border now.

A: Yes you are right. There are some problems in border areas for tourists. In the past, we only allowed a one-day pass for tourists. Now, we are allowing them to visit any place across the border, and they can leave from any crossing.

Although there is a computerized system at the border gate, the system is incomplete. Trade is also similar to that. We need a better computerized system. Now, we’re just preparing for this. If we can upgrade system, trading will be easier. Then to investigate trucks, we need X-ray machines. But we do not have enough X-ray machines at the border crossings. So we need to take a lot of time to check products. Now we’re preparing to set up X-ray machines at the crossings.