In an exclusive interview, Ambassador of France Mr Olivier Richard sat down with Mizzima Editor-in-Chief Soe Myint to discuss his country’s relationship with Myanmar and his hope for expanding business, trade and cultural ties.
What would you say are the main priorities for the bilateral relationship between France and Myanmar?
We have two priorities in our relation with Myanmar,which are very simple. First of all, supporting the newly elected government, the first democratic government in decades, as well as helping the government to be successful in its task; and secondly developing relations between France and Myanmar.
Let’s go back to the seventeenth century when we established diplomatic ties and again in 1948, in your opinion what were the achievements over the time of this relationship?
The first achievement has been made in the field of culture. The French Institute in Yangon, which is still known under the name Alliance Française, has been the only place of cultural freedom in Myanmar for decades. I think we can be proud of such an achievement. Then there was also the lasting and uninterrupted support of the French government to the democratic movement.The development of economic exchanges, for instance in fields such as railways or aeronautics, has also maintained a link between our two countries. Those accomplishments have set the basis for the development of relations that strongly improved these last five years and should be even better in the future.
You mention about democratization and democracy. Even before 2010 France was supportive to the democracy movement outside the country and inside the country. What do you think about the democratic transition in Myanmar overall?
The democratic transition went very smoothly, although many people expected it to be much more difficult. All the stakeholders and the population have shown a great degree of wisdom in making this possible and I am quite impressed by the way it went. However,the transition is not over yet.There are still many things to do and many challenges to solve. But considering the past, so far so good.
In your opinion what are the challenges for Myanmar and for the democratic process?
Challenges are many-fold and you know them better that I do. Definitely the peace process, because peace is extremely important, but also religious appeasement in some parts of the country, and development, from producing more energy to providing social services like health and education in the entire country, even in the most remote areas, are,I think, the main challenges.This is why we want to give our support for this government to meet them.
Is the French government involved in the peace process in Myanmar?
We are not directly involved in the peace process. First, politically, this is a matter that only Myanmar people can solve. Foreigners should get involved in itas it is already complex in itself. But we can give support, especially financial support or through development aid. France does not do it directly but through the European Union, of which France is a member.We are satisfied that it is done that way.
Can you tell us about the humanitarian assistance you have been providing to Myanmar especially in areas like Rakhine and Chin State?
Since Nargis, we have provided about 5 million euros of humanitarian assistance and last month we announced 700,000 euros more. We concentrate our assistance more on nutrition and food security in Rakhine and Chin because these are the two poorest areas of Myanmar.
What about capacity building. I understand you are one of the supporters of journalism training. Giving support to the Myanmar Journalism Institute what areas is France involved in in providing capacity building for people and groups in Myanmar?
You mentioned the Myanmar Journalism Institute which is definitely an important and very successful area. But France is not the only partner of the MJI, there are other partner countries. Now through the French Development Agency, which is the French Development Bank belonging to the government, we are also looking at new areas, for instance urban development and health. In the health sector there is a long tradition of French support in capacity building mainly through NGOs funded by the French government. But in the future,we would like to implement direct support from the French Government through the French Development Agency. Today we areworking through NGOs but we want to bring it to the government to government level.
I would like to touch on the issue of trade and business. What kind of businesses are French companies interested in in Myanmar?
First of all, trade between France and Myanmar has quickly prospered. Before 2012, it was at about 20 million euros per year. Now, it amounts to more than 200 million euros per year.We have about 60 French companies in Myanmar,whereas there used to be only 5 four years ago. French companies are mainly interested in the fields of pharmaceutical products and all kinds of machineries, aircrafts and investments,as well as in the energy and construction sectors. A lot of French companies are still requesting information about Myanmar and our trade section is overwhelmed by demands. But trade isn’t increasing only in one direction, weare also buying more from Myanmar: garments, agricultural products and jewellery primarily.So I am very optimistic about its evolution and we are helping French companies as much as we can.
So you expect there will be an increase in exports to France from Myanmar?
Now Myanmar is exporting more than 100 million euros per year to France. It has already increased a lot.
Total was one of the first French companies to heavily invest in Myanmar, do you have any further plans to invest in the energy sector?
Total is a private company so they have their own plans. Definitely they are committed to Myanmar, they are now investing in the fields where they are already present and they are looking for other opportunities in the gas sector. Other French companies in the energy sector are interested: EDF, which is the French National Electrical Company, and Engie,another big French company, are now looking at opportunities for investment in Myanmar. And we are supporting them because they can bring lots of expertise and best practices.When you are investing in the energy, environment and social sectors, you need to have technical competence and expertise, but also to take care of local populations and environment.That is what these companies can bring to Myanmar.
Many say there are burdens and problems for foreign investors coming to Myanmar. In your opinion, what are the hurdles for French investors coming to Myanmar?
The main issue would be to make procedures more simple and clear. There is an accumulation of rules which, sometimes, date back from the colonial period. It takes time to review them all, but what foreign companies are interested in is that these rules should be clear, understandable and applied. This is what they ask for, and we hope that the government will take this into consideration.
I am aware that the process for this investment production agreement between the EU and Myanmar is in process. What would you say as a member of the EU should be done to get the process to move forward under this new government?
Well, negotiations are still going on and I think it would be a very good thing to have such an agreement. It will be helpful for both sides. But I don’t know precisely where the negotiations are at the present time.
What about the issues for example tourism between the two countries. Is there any chance that the kind of this issue, the bilateral relationship concerning tourism, can be promoted in the near future?
Myanmar is already a very popular destination for French tourists. According to official statistics from Myanmar, there are 35,000 French tourists coming every year.It is the second-largest group among Western tourists. So it is already extremely popular and I would be very happy if more tourists come. The question is:does the country have the capacity to receive more tourists and what kind of tourism does Myanmar want. Does it want high-class tourism or does it also want to develop medium-class tourism? But definitely Myanmar is already very popular in France as a tourist destination, and having the opportunity to know each other better is profitable for both countries and people.
I would like to elaborate a little on business and development. We have a big issue in the country. When companies from France are coming, many people in the country are thinking that will help development, in the regions, in the ethnic areas especially, some of them which are still in conflict. How would you advise companies to handle such issues, especially in the conflict areas?
Companies are not here to handle political problems. What they can bring is an expertise and best practices in the social and environment sectors. It is for the government to decide where this expertise would be useful for the country, and this is what the government is doing. You cannot expect a foreign company to handle political problems. But if a foreign company investing in a certain area can make a profit and also help to bring peace to the country, it is all the best it can happen. Nevertheless it is for the government to decide its own guidelines on what should or shouldn’t be done.
Just one of more issue, one is private to private business relations between the two countries. In the last four years it looks like there are more contacts between private companies here and private companies in France. Is this correct and what is your opinion on the private-to-private context?
Yes, it is correct; there are more and more contacts. One hurdle we face is that foreign companies cannot distribute products themselves in the country. It is understandable that there should besome regulations in the trade sector, but if this one could be lifted, there would more relations between foreign and Myanmar companies. Nonetheless, when our Trade Section brings French companies here, we always have B2B meetings, which are very useful. It doesn’t always lead to a deal, because there are other issues to be taken into consideration, but it increases the interest of French companies to invest in Myanmar and to find a local partner, as they see the potential of the country. This country has problems, but all countries have problems. However this country has a great potential and foreign companies, including French companies, can be helpful to develop this country. So I am quite optimistic in this regard.
On the media freedom issue, France has been very active in this area, working in Myanmar. How to do you view media freedom in Myanmar and what could be done to handle the situation better than this?
First of all, if we look back 10 years from now, we see that the situation has improved a lot and today media have more freedom in Myanmar than many other countries in this part of the world. It is still not perfect. In my country, you can criticize the highest authorities without having any trouble with the authorities. You can mock them also. But we still have regulations. There are limits. There are things you cannot do. It seems like the government is now thinking about changing the laws and see where it can set the limits, and we can only encourage them to do that. The rules should be clear. We definitely encourage as much freedom as possible but there should be limits in all countries. Freedom of expression is protected by its restrictions. But that is for the government of Myanmar to decide where it sets the limits.
For example, the issue of hate speech?
Definitely hate speech is off-limits.
So some of the areas when it comes to media development, what would you say should be prioritized? You mentioned the laws, regulations?
It seems to me that training is important. As a journalist you know that you have to be a professional. Journalism is a profession, it needs some expertise. This is why France has supported the MJI. It is important to have professional journalists, people who know what it means to be a journalist, and making it possible for new media outlets to come out. But there again, I am talking in general principles. Each country has to decide for its own sake what is best for itself through debate, contradiction, disagreement.So it is not for me to tell Myanmar what to do. Just setting principles for a democratic country, and then each country has to decide how it makes it viable.
Is there anything you would like to add?
I would just like to say that Myanmar is opening up to the world and I think this country has a lot to bring to the world. We have spoken a lot about what other countries like France can do for Myanmar, but Myanmar can bring a lot to the world.It is a country of great culture, of great history, and it has its full place to take in the international arena.My idea is to make links, bridges, between France and Myanmar, in trade but also in culture, in education. We are very eager to know Myanmar more and we hope that Myanmar will be happy to know more about France.
Your cultural activities in Myanmar have been very strong, very vibrant. Can you elaborate on the cultural ties?
The French Institute in Myanmar has been very famous for many years. Now, its position is changing. It used to be the only place of cultural freedom in Myanmar at the time of dictatorship. As the country is not any more a dictatorship, cultural freedom is developing. So, I asked the French Institute to become a link between Myanmar and the world in the field of culture. For instance, the Memory Festival has brought many famous people from the world to Myanmar and the Yangon Photo Festival helps not only to train photographers but has also brought famous photographers from around the world to Myanmar, helping them to know better the country. So the French Institute is now here to create links between Myanmar and the world, including France, but not only France. I think, as I mentioned, that Myanmar is a country of culture, and it would be interested in knowing more about worldwide culture, and worldwide culture would be very interested to know more about Myanmar culture.