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Canadian engagement - Interview with Canadian Ambassador to Myanmar Karen MacArthur


Canada has a growing relationship with Myanmar and recently hosted a visit of Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi to Ottawa.

From the latest statistics, Canada currently has US$202 million invested in Myanmar. Bilateral trade as of 2016 stood at US$92 million, according to Canadian government statistics.

In the following interview carried out this week by Mizzima Senior Business Correspondent Aung Thura, Ambassador Karen MacArthur discusses Canada’s engagement with Myanmar and a recent seminar on the development of Yangon.

What is the role of Canada involvement in Myanmar’s reform process and growth?

Canada is very supportive of the reform process that the government of Myanmar is putting in place. Like other countries in the world, the Canadian government, Canadian organizations and Canadian businesses are getting to know about Myanmar as it is transitioning to democracy and as it engages more with the global economy. You are finding here in Myanmar that others are coming to see what is happening here, what the opportunities are. As you engage with the rest of the world and with the global economy, you will find that Canadian companies and NGOs have come to be part of that change.

How does Canada help Myanmar’s pathway to growth in terms of transition and economic development?

Myanmar and Canada have excellent ties. Canada has been a partner of Myanmar during its democratic transition and in terms of economic development. Canada’s bilateral development assistance supports the prosperity and well-being of targeted populations in Myanmar, particularly women, the rural poor and young people. Canada is an active donor in the country. Myanmar also benefits from Canadian development assistance through multilateral, regional and partnership channels.

In recent years, Canada has considerably increased its engagement in Myanmar, focusing on development cooperation to promote sustainable economic growth and democracy. We also offer support for peacebuilding, training on governance, and federalism. 

If you are going to develop a democratic federal union then it is important to understand what that could look like. To be able to visualize, studying other federations and different models is helpful for that process. In terms of economic development, development assistance is of course important. But everybody understands that local and foreign investments are the drivers of economic growth. In that respect, what we as the Canadian Embassy do is to make Canadian companies aware of the opportunities in the country and explain what the regulatory framework is.  In addition, with the Myanmar government, we advocate for a stable and transparent investment climate. The Myanmar government is aware of that and is taking steps. The clear message that you heard from the local companies at the Seminar is that they need a transparent and predictable regulatory environment, which will in turn attract foreign investments.

When will Canada increase investment into Myanmar?

Canada has a Trade Commissioner Service that is part of the Department of Global Affairs – the equivalent of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Myanmar. The Trade Commissioner Service provides its Canadian clients practical advice on foreign markets and on-the-ground intelligence to help them achieve their goals abroad. We have our Senior Trade Commissioner here at the Embassy to develop business contacts and to promote Canada’s economic interests in Myanmar.

Canadian companies are already active in the Information and Communication Technology sector in Myanmar. They have been encouraged by the new investment law and by reforms to improve the overall business environment. However, just like any other foreign investors, they want to see predictability and transparency in the drafting and application of rules and regulations.

 Do you think that Myanmar is ready for international investors?

Myanmar is ready to open for foreign investment and the opportunities here are obvious. But it is competing against other emerging markets in the region and globally. Many foreign investors, including Canadian ones, want to see further progress on tackling impediments to doing business, particularly the lack of access to finance and to utilities. Businesses also want to see transparency and predictability from the government in terms of policies, laws, rules and regulations. We understand that the Government of Myanmar is looking at all those issues.

We are seeing Canada getting involved in Yangon urbanization and development. How does Canada help in Yangon city development?

I think what you saw with the Seminar is one way in which Canada can assist and that is by bringing Canadian companies such as B+H, which have extensive experience on the topic. We were honoured to have the participations of the Union ministries of Construction and Tourism, the Yangon City government, as well as the Yangon Heritage Trust. Bringing all those players together to have a conversation about what is needed is one way we can assist.

Yangon is a unique place among the regional countries in Asia in terms of colonial buildings and heritage. Do you think there will be a debate as Yangon becomes a modern city?

I was learning something myself because I am not an urban planner. I am a diplomat. From the discussions today, I learned that there is a need to have an integrated plan and a vision about what a city such as Yangon could be like in the future. Yangon already exists and already has a vibrant economic life. As Yangon develops, the economy develops. How do we integrate business, environmental, and social considerations? Who leads the charge on the plan? There has to be a technical committee and it has to be impartial so that it can take different points of view and integrate them. Ultimately, the vision needs to be developed by the people of Yangon, the City of Yangon, and the Government of Myanmar.

Why should Yangon become a modernized city?

I understand the question to be how does one want the city to modernize. I think modernization is already happening and inevitable. The question really concerns the kind of infrastructure that you will need in the future given the expected growth of the city and of the country: what is the appropriate mix of industrial and residential infrastructure? That’s why a vision for the future is needed.

What is your advice to Myanmar authorities, NGOs such as the Yangon Heritage Trust regarding the development of Yangon and the economy?

I do not have a specific advice for the government of Myanmar but what I do know is that big cities are the economic engines of their respective country’s economy. At the same time, you have to find a way to accommodate many different interests in any big city: there are social factors as well as economic and environmental considerations. This is not about old or new buildings but rather a conversation about people. We heard about water management today and I actually think the topic can be discussed at another seminar because Yangon is a water city. It has the opportunity to avoid the mistakes in development and planning made by other cities and it has the chance to leapfrog others – the same way you went from zero to 4G (for mobile phones).

I think that you have the right ingredients here already: a great city with a growing infrastructure in a country that is re-engaging with the rest of the world. We are here to assist with our experience and expertise but ultimately, the solution will have to be made in Myanmar for the Myanmar people.

How do you view the potential vision of Yangon redevelopment?

I think what is probably needed is a shared vision and an integrated plan. What have other cities done? What has Ho Chi Minh City done? And what did Dubai do? How did they come out with a shared vision? I am not in a position to answer the question myself because I am not an expert but I do think it is important to find out how many other cities have approached the very same issues that Yangon is currently facing. This was the main reason why we held the Seminar on Sustainable Development in Yangon. Our objective was to bring the people who know these issues and who can share their experience and start a conversation.

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