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Taiwan’s Representative Vows to Help Myanmar Build Capacity to Fight COVID-19

By Nan Lwin 15 May 2020

It has been nearly two months since Myanmar detected its first case of COVID-19. As of Thursday, the country had reported 181 cases with six deaths. The government continues to implement significant measures to limit the outbreak. While countries around the world have struggled to cope with COVID-19, Taiwan quickly emerged as one of the best-equipped and best-prepared places to fight such a pandemic.

The Irrawaddy’s Nan Lwin spoke to Charles C. Li, the representative of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Myanmar, about Taiwan’s COVID-19 strategy, how it has been helping Myanmar in its fight against the pandemic, efforts to boost diplomatic and economic ties between Taiwan and Myanmar under the New Southbound policy, investment in the post-COVID-19 era and the role of responsible government in times of pandemic.

The Irrawaddy: Taiwan’s success against the coronavirus serves as an example to others, particularly its rapid response to the outbreak. What can Myanmar learn from Taiwan?

Charles C. Li: [Taiwanese] President Tsai Ing-wen mentioned that, “Taiwan is an island of resilience.” We have found ways to persevere through difficult times together as a nation, and the COVID-19 pandemic is no different. Despite the virus’s highly infectious nature and our proximity to its source, we have prevented a major outbreak. Taiwan’s isolation from the World Health Organization [WHO] paradoxically helped the country by forcing it to rely on its own judgment in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic and other health issues.

During the 2003 SARs outbreak, we suffered a lot. Because nobody knew how to cope with it. After that we built up our entire system including containments, responses and reactions. This time we successfully coped with it, simply because we have learned from the past.

It is also evident that [having] early precautionary measures in place, synergy of institutions, establishment of a Central Command System at an early stage, a sound public health insurance network, big data and AI applications, citizens’ support and strong political will in the leadership are all essential to the effective and successful combat against the COVID-19 pandemic in Taiwan…

The measures and instructions the Myanmar government announced … have proven to be very effective… Some measures are actually far stricter than those implemented in Taiwan, such as curfew, partial lockdown in certain townships, the ban on international commercial flights, stay at home appeal, ban on public gatherings and celebrations during Thingyan Festival, etc.

How can Taiwan help Myanmar fight COVID-19?

We have shared all we know with government officials and doctors in Myanmar, even though we understood the situation here is completely different from that in Taiwan. I personally had meetings with high-ranking officials in the Ministry of Health and Sports in Naypyitaw and the Yangon Regional Health Department to understand how well Myanmar was equipped and prepared for the possible outbreak of COVID-19, and more importantly, to understand how other countries and international organizations were helping Myanmar with medical equipment and test kits, etc. so that we could evaluate the entire situation and send our recommendations to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Taiwan for consideration of delivering the much needed aid items as soon as possible. As of today, together with well-wishers we have managed to donate hundreds of thousands of surgical masks, PPEs [personal protective equipment], goggles, body temperature scanners and many other items that will follow in the coming few weeks.

We believe that capacity-building collaboration could be one of the areas we should also focus on for the time being. We coordinated with a few stakeholders here and in Taiwan to co-host two online conferences to share their expertise and experience in combating the COVID-19 pandemic [with Myanmar health care professionals, officials and researchers]… Starting from April 24, a series of online seminars are hosted by Changhua Christian Hospital in Taiwan to share their knowledge, expertise and experience in handling the threat of COVID-19.

Under President Tsai Ing-wen’s New Southbound Policy launched in 2016, Taiwan is trying to establish stronger diplomatic and economic ties with Southeast Asia. Do you see any improvement in relations with Myanmar?

… Myanmar can provide us with another base for manufacturing ICT products, in addition to agriculture, medical cooperation, higher education and tourism promotion. Since 1996 the number of Taiwanese companies has increased to nearly 300 in Myanmar, and several significant proposals are in the pipeline and numerous others are on the way or at the feasibility study stage. I would say Taiwan’s economic relations with Myanmar are steadily on the rise and the prospect is optimistic if the external trade union issues can be better harmonized … so that responsible Taiwanese investors and other stakeholders can jointly boost economic development and increase employment…

In which sectors—for example IT, health and education—does Taiwan want to promote cooperation? 

[Starting] four years ago, this office has arranged several visiting delegations to Myanmar to explore the related policy and regulations for their respective companies. Currently, there are at least three IT-related companies operating in Myanmar manufacturing optical components, industrial monitors and varieties of cable, etc. If the power supply and human resource of electronics engineers can be further enhanced, and incentives and preferential treatment focusing on IT sectors can be offered by the ministries concerned, I am sure Myanmar will be a much more attractive destination for Taiwanese investors.

A number of major Taiwanese investors are already present here, such as the world’s largest shoemaker, Pou Chen, Dachan Great Wall, Asia Optical, E.Sun Bank and others. What should Myanmar do to encourage more investment from Taiwan? 

I would say preferential incentives are generally expected by Taiwanese investors from the government of Myanmar. There must be priority sectors of FDI [foreign direct investment] that the ministries concerned welcome. Myanmar is competing with India, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and Bangladesh. A generalized investment policy covering all sectors may not be appealing to investors with different needs. Instead, a package of customized incentives that suit specific requirements in terms of human resource development and supply, import duties, tax and land, etc. might benefit Taiwanese investors.

What support do Taiwanese companies expect from the Myanmar government during this crisis?

I can assure you that all Taiwan companies that employ thousands or hundreds of people always follow the instructions and notices of the respective regional government… Employer-employee relations and communications are comparatively smooth—except for the trade unions’ intervention in their operations from time to time; that is really a worrisome issue that may deter future investors from making their final decision to settle in Myanmar. I personally hope … that some sound mechanism can be established for the protection of their rightful and legitimate investment interest.

A Hong Kong-Taiwan consortium has signed an MoU with the Yangon regional government to develop an international-standard industrial zone in Htantabin Township in the west of Yangon. What are the prospects for that industrial zone? 

…The Union Investment Commission…has the final say. However, as the representative of Taiwanese interests in Myanmar, I have to emphasize that this project commits an investment of more than US$350 million [493 billion kyats] in the first phase alone, covering an area of 2,300 acres [930 hectares] including a reserved lot of 500 acres for resettlement of farmers. The remaining 1,800 acres are subject to development to accommodate 200 companies, creating more than 15,000 jobs. I have been informed that the design has been completed. They are ready to begin construction upon receiving approval from the commission. I personally call on the commission to arrange a briefing for the consortium as soon as possible, and if necessary, give them some lead time to prepare any additional documents to support their readiness for the investment project.

The World Bank has warned that Myanmar’s growth is facing strong headwinds due to its exposure to the COVID-19-related slowdown in China and around the world. Does Taiwan plan to boost investment in Myanmar in the post-COVID-19 era?

…On one hand, this is an opportunity for the Myanmar government to show the world that Myanmar is still welcoming sustainable FDI. On the other, the majority of the potential investors will have reservations so as to delay their investment proposal and wait for a clearer picture of the investment environment here … The government is encouraged to take this opportunity to speed up screening of investment proposals and perhaps offer additional incentives to attract FDI.

As they face this pandemic, Taiwan’s people are fortunate to be living in a democracy, currently under the Democratic Progressive Party. Can you discuss the role of Taiwan’s leadership, and of responsible government generally, in dealing with this pandemic?

I quote President Tsai by saying, “Taiwan is no stranger to hardship, and our resilience stems from our willingness to unite to surmount even the toughest obstacles. This, above all else, is what I hope Taiwan can share with the world: the human capacity to overcome challenges together is limitless. Taiwan can help.” Democracy and transparency are two key elements in our combating efforts against the COVID-19 pandemic.

So, distinguished leadership and concerted teamwork by the responsible government … with the support of the people—exactly what State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi emphasized; the key role of people’s participation and support. I wish, by means of international cooperation, the pandemic can be contained in a substantial way soon. Taiwan will play a part. That is for sure.

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