The foreign view on Myanmar’s democratic transition


Mizzima Editor in Chief Soe Myint, left, Ms. Tone Tinnes, Ambassador of Norway, centre,  Mr. Chua Hian Kong Robert, Ambassador of Singapore, right. Photo: Min Min for Mizzima 

Foreign ambassadors have expressed optimism that Myanmar is succeeding on its own path to democracy but could benefit from foreign help in terms of the peace process, and such fields as health and education.

Mr. Chua Hian Kong Robert, Ambassador of Singapore and Ms. Tone Tinnes, Ambassador of Norway spoke during a panel discussion session of the Forum on Myanmar Democratic Transition in Nay Pyi Taw on August 13 on the subject of “Stock-taking: Where is Myanmar in its transition?”.

The panel was moderated by USoe Myint, Managing Director and Editor-in-Chief of the Mizzima Media Group.

As Mizzima Editor in Chief Soe Myint explained in a preamble, the international community plays a role in Burma or Myanmar’s transformation from decades-old military rule to democracy.

“We all know that we have a long way to go for Myanmar to become a full-fledged democracy.But we have also made a lot of progress so far in this transition,” Soe Myint said.

As he noted, in Myanmar's democratic transition, the role of the international community is crucial.

“The International community has supported the transition, contributed experiences and resources, and worked with the people and government of Myanmar to bring peace and prosperity to this nation. If we look as ASEAN, for example, until 1995, Myanmar was an outsider looking at ASEAN.

Then Myanmar became a member of the ASEAN regional forum in 1996 and then a full-fledged member of ASEAN in July 1997.ASEAN always used a Constructive Engagement policy and approach when it came to Myanmar while western countries at large supported Myanmar’s democracy movement,” he said.

As Soe Myint explained, Norway has been supporting the democratic movement from the very beginning for many years. “One of Myanmar’s independent media groups, the Democratic Voice of Burma, was founded in Norway, supported by Norway and Norway continued to support to various areas including the peace process, independent media and to CSOs. So that is an example of how the international community work and support Myanmar’s democratic transition,” he noted.

TAKING STOCK

To launch the discussion, Soe Myint asked the ambassadors about their view in terms of taking stock of the transition and future of Myanmar’s economic and social development.

Singaporean Ambassador Robert Chua said both Myanmar and Singapore have similar challenges in having a multi-cultural population. He noted he first came to Burma as a young officer in 1980. Then he came back in 2006 to serve as the ambassador of Singapore.

“The one constant for your country’s development is that you are a huge multicultural country with over 100 races, and as I heard in this morning’s discussion, you still have ethnic conflict. It is because you are a big country and you have many people spread over 14 states and regions,” the Singaporean Ambassador said.

He posed a question in response the question of stock-taking: “Is Myanmar ready for democracy?”

“Now this is a question to be answered by the people of your country. After seeing their past experiences of democracy, military rule, socialism, uprisings, military rule and back on this transition to democracy. I believe your people have been wise to choose the ballot box of the general elections of 2010 and 2015 rather than street protests to achieve change,” he said.

“In my view the Myanmar people want a ‘Myanmar Summer’ of reconciliation rather than an ‘Arab Spring’ of revolution,” the Singaporean Ambassador said.

He noted how the late Myanmar General Aung San had stressed the importance of discipline, unity, trust and reconciliation.

Building consensus is more constructive than voicing complaints, said the Singaporean ambassador. “It is like a football team that I call Myanmar United. With a Myanmar United nation you will achieve more success.”

He said after the efforts of the previous government and present government the peace process has brought many stakeholders to the negotiating table.

Quoting from a speech made by Aung San, he noted that as long as economic recovery is hard to achieve, it will be hard to bring peace.

Mr Chua referred to how when he first came as ambassador in 2006, the second of the seven-step process was underway and now today the seventh step has been completed with the people voting in elections.

“You are on the road to your own model of democracy,” he said.

“Myanmar will move on to try to become middle income status by 2030 and I think it is important to boost capacity in government leadership and civil service, where the international community can help,” Mr Chua said.

Ms. Tone Tinnes, Ambassador of Norway, said she appreciated attending the three-day forum, noting Norway was a friend and had a“warm heart for Myanmar”.

“We think societies that listen to people are stronger societies in tackling problems. Countries like this are stronger participants on a global level,” said MsTinnes.

She noted countries that operate on an international level can join together to fight terrorism and tackle climate change, adding they need Myanmar to play a role on the international stage.

The Norwegian Ambassador said democratic transition, the peace process and an economic transition were all very demanding.

“What is happening in one area will affect what is happening in the other areas – and there are more challenges in Myanmar than what we have seen in other countries,” she said.

“What we can do is assist, we can share some of the experience we have, but through the path to full democracy, the speed is up to Myanmar. What we can do is be there and help in part of that role,” MsTinnes said. “People of Myanmar and the stakeholders, you will be in the driving seat.”

She said the transition was seeing progress in many areas.

“In the economic area, there is an opening up, laws have been past that make it more attractive for foreign investors, and for domestic investors. But there is still a long way ahead. And I think that Myanmar faces the same challenge as Norway and other countries and that is to really to be able to attract the ‘good investors’. That is a very, very tough competition,” the Norwegian Ambassador said.

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT

The Singaporean Ambassador said Myanmar can share from their experience. You can invest in education. Education of young people will build generations of skilled workers, people to build the country.

He stressed the need for education reform to build a new generation that is bilingual in their national language and in English.

On the question of foreign investors in Myanmar, he said it was natural to have protectionism but protectionism can impede economic growth. “So one area, for example, the government has given 13 foreign bank licenses. Can these banks be given more space to support Myanmar’s economic development?”

Another area that needs attention is make it easier for foreign investors to come and do business.

Singapore has learned how to attract foreign companies and is now second in the world at this.

“I know the Myanmar government has been trying,” he noted.

The Norwegian Ambassador noted that Norway used to be a poor country, with a lack of foreign capital and competence.

Good education is key, basic and university level, and send students abroad, she said.

She said investors currently come to Norway because they can find cheap skilled labour. Many people who come out of university are not paid very well.

“The people need to have trust in the government, in that sense the government needs to be transparent. It needs to share information. It also needs to share the information as to what the income the government gets, what is gets in taxes and how do they spend this income on health and education and things like that,” she said.

That creates a social contract between the taxpayer and the government, she noted.

PEACE BUILDING

The Singaporean Ambassador said the challenge Myanmar faces is how to overcome the deep trust deficit after so many years.

“It is natural because of Myanmar being so diverse, many races, so building trust is a top priority,” he said.

He noted it was good for the ambassadors to see during the peace process that former combatants come and sit down and talk.

If we consider how the international community can support Myanmar then we should consider in economic development in all 14 states – if people see development they will support the peace process,” he noted.

The Norwegian Ambassador stressed that compromise was the only way ahead, recognition of diversity, and mutual respect.

MsTinnes said it was crucial to obtain commitment from everyone, from all the stakeholders, if Myanmar sought a durable peace.

CAPACITY BUILDING

When it comes to capacity building, the Singaporean Ambassador notes the two key areas are health and education as pillars for development.

“Health is important and I think the international community can greatly support you in the training of your doctors and nurses because a health care system in any country now is a great challenge. How to make it available to the people. And I remember reading in the Global New Light of Myanmar several months ago where an England based heart specialist came to perform an operation in Yangon. He was shocked. He said there are only about 20 cardiologists in Myanmar. So there is much to do and there is much the international community can do in helping to train more doctors and nurses,” Mr Chua said.

“Education is important especially in helping support in the teaching of English as a language of commerce and international communication. And I think the international community can also offer you scholarships for your civil servants and your youths to study and have exposure for your current and future generations to learn best practices in host countries and come back and contribute in nation building,” said the Singaporean Ambassador. 

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