Burma

Minister Defends Government Reforms Against Suu Kyi Criticism

By Simon Roughneen 31 May 2013

RANGOON — Minister Kan Zaw defended the government’s reform record on Friday, after opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi questioned the pace of the reform process earlier this week. He stressed that the reforms had the full backing of foreign governments and international organizations.

“We are doing our reforms, starting with the political, then the economic, and these have been approved domestically and by our key international partners,” said Dr Kan Zaw, Minister of National Planning and Economic Development, when asked by The Irrawaddy about Suu Kyi’s strictures.

Speaking on Monday at a gathering of the National league for Democracy, Burma’s main opposition group, party leader Suu Kyi said that “The last three years saw no tangible changes, especially in [the area of] the rule of law and the peace process.” She added, “The reform started in 2010, now we have to ask the question: ‘Have we got any tangible results so far?’”

Kan Zaw was speaking alongside ministerial colleagues Htay Aung, Soe Thane and Set Aung at a Rangoon preview event for next week’s World Economic Forum (WEF) — a 1000-strong gathering of political and business leaders in Asia in Burma’s capital Naypyidaw.

Htay Aung, Minister for Hotels and Tourism, sought to dampen expectations about the pace of reform by arguing that Burma’s transition remains in its infancy. “Myanmar is just open to the outside world and we just started to build the journey to democratization,” he said.

Soe Thane, a key advisor to President Thein Sein, acknowledged that the reform process faced serious challenges. Asked by Agence-France-Presse about Buddhist mob rampages against Muslims in Lashio, he said, “There will be a lot of challenges to and flaws in the reform process.”

The violence in Lashio — the biggest town in Shan State, a region which is home to Burma’s largest ethnic minority — started after a Muslim man attacked and burnt a local Buddhist woman, prompting Buddhist mobs, including saffron-clad monks, to loot and burn Muslim shops and houses in the town.

One person was killed in what was the latest episode in a series of Buddhist-Muslim clashes across Burma, during which Muslims bore the brunt of the violence.

Such unrest could have implications for Burma’s economic growth prospects, according to a report published earlier this week by a McKinsey think-tank, which suggested that the ongoing ethnic and religious tensions could undermine investor confidence.

McKinsey said the country’s much-remarked economic potential, if harnessed well, could lead to a quadrupling of its GDP to US $200 billion by 2030.

“Economic development and FDI in Myanmar will take off only if all parties remain committed to the reform agenda, the peace process and reconciliation between ethnic and religious groups succeed, and the election in 2015 marks another peaceful political transition,” said the report.

In the meantime, however, the Burma government sees the forthcoming WEF event as a key opportunity to make a sales pitch to the outside world. “We can increase the importance of Myanmar as a destination for investors,” said Minister Htay Aung.

The WEF comes six months ahead of Burma’s hosting of the Southeast Asia Games, a regional athletics competition, and the year before the country takes up the chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) for the first time.

In 2014, Burma will be chairing Asean for the first time after previous opportunities to head the bloc were postponed because the country was under military rule. Asean was concerned that relations with Western countries could be hindered if it allowed Burma take its turn at the helm.

The ten-state regional bloc is hoping to set up a closer-knit economic community by 2015, meaning that Burma’s frontline role next year will be pivotal to the bloc’s ambitions — which have been dismissed as far-fetched by some economists.

Burma’s tenure could also see the first enlargement of the grouping since it joined in 1997, with Timor-Leste hopeful of joining ASEAN in the near future.

For now, the WEF event maintains the international spotlight on Burma, coming two weeks after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s state visit to Naypyidaw, the first such visit since 1977. Three weeks ago, President Thein Sein received red-carpet treatment in The White House, the latter being the first state visit to the United States by a Burmese president since 1966.

The Japanese visit saw Tokyo pledge 20 billion yen (about $200 million) to the development of a port and industrial zone at Thilawa, located a half-hour drive from downtown Rangoon.

Asked if the well-funded Thilawa SEZ was now the government’s top priority, Kan Zaw said Naypyidaw remained just as committed to setting up the Chinese-backed zone in Kyaukpyhu, Arakan State, and the Thai-supported Dawei zone, located on Burma’s southern coast.

“We have a Myanmar-Thai special corporate vehicle for Dawei development,” he said. “We have plans to develop the first phase by 2014-2017 and we will see development in the near future.”

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