The Irrawaddy

Rangoon Chief Minister: ‘Public Support Is Our Strength’

Chief Minister of Rangoon Division, Phyo Min Thein, pictured in April 2016. (Photo: Hein Htet / The Irrawaddy)

RANGOON — When Phyo Min Thein was appointed Chief Minister of Rangoon Division in late March, the 46-year-old National League for Democracy lawmaker knew he would face multiple challenges, from deteriorating infrastructure to controversial development projects to foreign investment. The two-time political prisoner—who spent a total of 15 years behind bars—said that he learned perseverance during this period of incarceration. “I’m very clear about what I am doing—[it is] not for myself,” he told The Irrawaddy’s Kyaw Phyo Tha during an interview on Monday, where he outlined his mission and his vision for Rangoon.

What is your vision for Rangoon?

I want to see the city developed systematically. What we are seeing now in Rangoon is unruly development, as there was no master plan and no one to take responsibility for it. For traffic congestion, the previous Rangoon government had many meetings, but what they discussed fizzled out, as there was no one to take responsibility for implementation.

Compared to other countries, we don’t have many cars, but every car in Rangoon heads toward the downtown area, causing a traffic bottleneck. Another thing is that there are some drivers who rarely follow traffic regulations, [creating problems] like double parking. If we enforce the regulations, the traffic problems here will get a lot better. We are trying to launch public campaigns to raise awareness about traffic regulations, and what people should and shouldn’t do. We want everyone’s conscious contribution.

Apart from the traffic congestion, what are your other priorities for Rangoon?

Garbage collection and a proper drainage system during this [upcoming] rainy season. I can’t guarantee that the drainage system here will be perfectly fixed by the rainy season, as we will be able to learn more about the faults in the drainage system when the rains come. But we will fix it so that it does not get worse.

We will [also focus on] development projects for the people who live on the outskirts of Rangoon. Yes, they live in Rangoon Division but there are no paved roads in the areas where they live, even in my constituency in Hlegu Township. So, from this year’s budget of 300 billion kyats (US$254.9 million) we have added more than 32 billion kyats (nearly US$27.2 million), originally [designated] for the building of two flyovers, for the development of Rangoon’s rural areas—12 townships. Originally, the rural areas had six billion kyats (just over US$5 million) but with [this] addition, they will have 38 billion kyats (almost US$32.3 million) for roads, schools and healthcare.

Another thing is to increase foreign investment. If we have good foreign investment, there surely will be opportunities for people to get the minimum daily wage of US$3 [rate] they have been asking for. What has been happening is that people can rarely get that minimum wage, let alone any job opportunities. To get more investment, we will upgrade infrastructure and I myself will supervise foreign investment here—not to restrict it, but to help with speedy establishment and operation. No bribes will be needed. But there are criteria: any international company that wants to invest here must have goodwill, a good image internationally, and they will have to follow the culture and regulations here.

What about native investors—including those known as ‘cronies’?

They are afraid of their international counterparts, as many [of Burma’s own investors] lack capacity and some are used to gaining business concessions by bribing the government. I’m prepared and am going to meet them to let them know we will support them with the expertise to be able to keep abreast with the international companies [that will be] working here.

For cronies, I want them to become people who can help the country with goodwill. Make no mistake, they will no longer have the opportunities that they enjoyed under the previous government. It doesn’t mean we will eliminate them, but we will try to transform them into people who do business with dignity and responsibility. We encourage a win-win solution so as not to cause any damage while moving the country forward.

What lessons did you learn from the previous government?

I have requested that civil servants join us in a struggle for two or three years in order to make changes happen. Corruption was so rampant that even roadside vendors had no respect for the township administrator, as they had bribed him. I told [civil servants] that if they work hard without corruption, they can earn the respect of anyone.

Another thing is, [under the previous government], despite having good basic plans, there was no one to take responsibility for them. Those plans shouldn’t be on papers—they have to be implemented on the ground. There are many things to learn from the past. But we need to move forward rather than being encircled in the past. We are lucky we have public support—it’s our strength.

Rangoon has a very high density of both buildings and population. There are also controversial development projects in the city. Could you tell me about your plans to address these projects?

I prefer to see Rangoon expand sideways rather than upwards. So we need to systematically develop satellite towns. We had them in the past and recently a new one [Rangoon Southwest] was just approved by the previous government. But land speculation is a huge problem here. Investors buy land and resell it at higher prices without any further investment, forcing local farmers into landlessness and joblessness. The government has to control this in the people’s best interest, and not only in the southwestern Rangoon expansion project, because there there are other [examples] in Dagon Myothit, Hlegu and Htauk Kyant. These places, including industrial zones, will be reviewed after Thingyan [the water festival].

For controversial projects, I have told the mayor not to allow for any construction without YCDC’s [Yangon City Development Committee] approval. YCDC has all of the relevant laws and regulations regarding development but [these rules] haven’t been followed. We know that they sometimes approved some projects because they came from ‘upstairs.’ For us, there is no one above the law. Fighting for the rule of law and against corruption is our motto. We will strictly control any unruly development. When it comes to projects approved by the previous government, there will be negotiations in some cases.

Could you elaborate more on this?

I will ask the YCDC to [perform] a review. If we do it case by case, the investors will surely suffer, as they paid a lot so that their projects could bypass the laws and regulations. I don’t blame them, as they were just following the current created by the previous government, but this current is destroying the city. We will explain to them what we can allow. If they have already exceeded our limits, we will tell them to stop. In return, we will invite those investors to join others in new city expansion projects. They will not have any special privileges and will have to compete with anyone else [for business tenders]. These are the legacies of the previous government. We want to see less suffering, and that both sides are all right.

We have lost several public spaces to business development under the previous government. Will you be able to get them back?

They will be reviewed. They are contract-based and there are many differences between each case. We will let people know what progress we make. We are thinking about turning the Rangoon River waterfront into a recreation area as the river is not really suitable for international cargo ships.

There are so many things to do. Do you think you can handle all of it?

The majority of people in Rangoon voted for us because they want to see change. In five years, I think I will be able to at least lay good foundations for development and for the rule of law in Rangoon.