16 August 2018
Photo: Thet Ko/Mizzima

Mizzima Editor in Chief Soe Myint recently sat down with Israeli Ambassador Daniel Zonshine to discuss Israel-Myanmar relations and his tenure as ambassador. Mr Zonshine will shortly be moving on to take up a new assignment in Jerusalem.

Thank you for giving time for the interview. You you have been here for nearly four years. What would you say were the highlights of your tenure as ambassador here in Myanmar?

Mingalaba. If I have to choose an event I think the elections in 2015 was some kind of a highlight because there was a lot of uncertainty before the elections, what is going to be, how it is going to be conducted and I was observing the elections in Myitkyina in Kachin State and I was quite thrilled and happy to see the atmosphere of the people celebrating democracy feeling very comfortable and open when coming to the ballots, almost like a family festival and it gave me a lot of hope that democracy will really become a reality and that the will of the people will be really reflected in the results and after there is the election and the results that were accepted. So it was I think a good impression and a good experience to be a witness of such a process here.

Besides that if you are talking generally I mean generally visiting other parts of the country was another series of highlights. Not only Yangon and Nay Pyi Taw but also Mandalay and in the Naga New Year or in Kengtung or in Chin State in Shan in different places and of course the more touristic places Bagan and Inlay Lake. So visiting and meeting people seeing the difference, the variety, the diversity of the Myanmar society I think it was something very impressive and if you are talking about highlights it was definitely some kind of highlights of the stay of nearly four years here.

Israel and Myanmar have been having a very good friendly relationship over the years. You have been doing many programmes in Myanmar. So could you please tell us what kind of major programmes you have been working on in Myanmar?

Well we have programmes in different areas. Generally speaking, when we talk about a government programme or government-to-government programmes mostly what we did is what we are doing and most of what we are doing is capacity-building, is training, is transfers of knowledge, we are less good in donating money or bringing budget to the country, but so we have programmes let’s say of students of agriculture who go to Israel for one year and they are studying and working in agriculture getting hands-on experience and coming back with something that is quite unique to the exposure of the way agriculture is being implemented in Israel, which is of course not cut and paste to the Myanmar reality but it gives a good base for those who are interested in continuing and developing the agriculture here. Other programmes that we were involved in let’s say we have already three years of encouraging entrepreneurship by creating a contest for start-ups, start-ups that we encourage people to put up a candidacy for this competition and the prize is being invited to Israel for one week to be exposed to the ecosystem of entrepreneurship and startups in Israel.

When the winner is exposed and meets other people from other countries who are involved in start-ups, local start-ups in Israel, Angels, I mean people who are supporting this, investors, government and private sector people, so it gives good exposure of the eco system in Israel and hopefully bringing some ideas and encouraging entrepreneurship in the startups here. We also have programmes like with the government, with the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation improving irrigation systems mainly in the dry zone as well it is quite a dry zone so we are trying to bring some of the Israeli experience of irrigation especially in areas where water is scarce, so this is another programme that you already have training here and we plan a few more sessions in the future. Generally speaking we invite people to Israel for short term training, from time to time Israeli experts here and as I said generally we try to bring no harm, to bring expertise, to bring the experience of Israel in different areas, agriculture, water, health, education and trying to implement whatever is needed and whatever we can feel is relevant to bring it here to Myanmar.

In your opinion what are the main challenges Myanmar faces in the agricultural sector?

I think there are many challenges people are talking about the potential of agriculture here in Myanmar, the question is or maybe one of the biggest challenges is how to unleash this potential, how to take this potential and make it a reality. This is if you try to look for years ahead this is not doing more of the same, not by doing more of the same because by doing more of the same I mean not more of the same thing and not the same even more of the same production.

But to diversify the efforts, to examine the possibilities here, what is the market looking for and on that basis to plan and implement. I think a big challenge is how to keep some of the young people in agriculture, it’s a challenge that also Israel is facing but I think less and less young people continue agriculture in the places they are born. Of course if you look to the future the more advanced and the more modern agriculture is then you need less people to work there so it is a challenge not only for agriculture but for the whole country out to produce more with less resources with less people and how to find other jobs and education for the people who cannot continue in agriculture.

Another thing is confronting climate change. Basically climate change means less ability to plan more acute weather and climate phenomena less available water which you should deal with by adopting the technology and plans that can confront that and not to be influenced so much by these changes. So there are many challenges that are lying ahead but I think by understanding what are your advantages, how you can unleash your potential and how you can be relevant to your environment and to your neighbours, that is something that can help overcoming some of the challenges of big markets, India, China, and other countries. How do you answer some of the needs they have for food, for other things? So agriculture is, I believe, an engine that can help you improve not only the agriculture but the economy and even your position in the area.

Israel is known for its drip irrigation systems. I watched some of the videos of Israel’s drip irrigation system that you are doing. What do you think of Myanmar using or practicing this drip irrigation system particularly in our agriculture sector?

Drip irrigation an example of such a dripper this is this small plastic thing is very sophisticated it regulates water flow. The amount of water being released to the plant and basically when you talk about irrigation in Israel you talk about how to bring the water to the plant according to the needs of the plant. Not too much water not less water and along with the water you have the ability to transfer the nutrition, the fertilizers to the plant so this way was invented and developed in Israel some 50 years ago because of the needs and the lack of water but it also has advantages for example delivering nutrition to the plant in a very accurate way so you bring to the plant the amount of water the amount of fertilizer it needs so you don’t waste this material, you create less ambience. Let’s say weeds and other things and you have less wastage of fertilizers and pesticides that can also infiltrate into the ground and then that affects the quality of the water in the area.

So, also from the environmental point of view it has advantages. But, we have to know it is not magic. It has to be implemented in the right way and dripping issues are not just the matter of irrigation, it’s a philosophy of how you make the most out of your field and plants, what are the distances you plant, what are the distances between the plants and the rows. It has to come with the right guidance, the right usage because you cannot put the drip irrigation and leave it and think this will do the work for you, you have to implement it in the right way in order to get results.

It is more expensive but it gives you better results in the outcome in the crops, so I think that is entering Myanmar slowly but surely and 10 years from now we shall see more and more drip irrigation, mainly in areas like the dry zone where half of the area has scarcity and access to water is more difficult, but also in other places like Shan (State) or even in Yangon when you will have the advantages of using the amount of water that is needed in conjunctions with good quality fertilizers. I think people will see the benefits of that and the ability to have a better quality of crops not only quantity but also quality that could go for export so that will be safer, (provide a) better income, better outcome and income and I think in a way the future of agriculture the way it will be implemented 10 to 15 years from now as well.

During your tenure as ambassador here for the last four years has there been any growth in Israel’s trade and investment in Myanmar?

I would say that there is not the amount that I would like to see. There was a growth in the trade. We see more medical devices, we see more water treatment, we see more telecom devices and material from Israel and agricultural inputs and for Myanmar we see a bit more going to Israel and from my point of view we would like to encourage both ways in having more trade, having more acquaintance which each other is helping to encourage trade and to improve economic relations. We don’t see enough investment, from Israel here or from Myanmar in Israel but I think when the trade relations will improve and the trust and the knowing each other better, with that we will have more investment coming here. We have a mostly private sector in agriculture, in telecom but I must say that it is not to the amount that I wanted to see during my time here.

What are the main brands from Israel that are currently here in Myanmar?

The brands are mostly in the water and irrigation that you can see one of them here, the biggest irrigation company in the world established in Israel, Netafim, yet another is Metzaplas … Add for filters usually it is not brands that you see very much in the open usually it is things that are in the field or in the hospitals but less known. We don’t have any General Electric or Toyota in Israel, but I think some of the companies like Ilbit in the area of HNS. And defence or the Israeli aircraft and aerospace industry, they are also here in this or that way but it is not brands that you see in the street very commonly.

How about Tourism? The Israelis coming to Myanmar and Myanmar people going to Israel, to such places as Jerusalem?

Tourism is growing. I think we had 2,500 Israelis entering Myanmar last year. Again not enough, but more and more people discover Myanmar. We are trying to encourage also in the private level friends of us who are coming. It’s word of mouth about Myanmar and it is a secret and for many Israelis it is still secret but I believe it will grow in the future and also from Myanmar we have groups visiting Israel, again not enough, but the potential is there as well it is a bit of an expensive country so for tourism it’s sometimes difficult but I see more people, on the one hand Christian people because Israel is the Holy Land, the most sacred place for Jews and Christians and Muslims and I hope with the right let’s say guidance and publicity and advertisement people will come to reveal the secrets of Israel as a tourism destination, as a technology destination, and a lot of history and tradition that we have there.

As you mentioned it has been one of the highlights during your tenure here as ambassador here. Basically one of them was the change of the government here in Myanmar in 2015. How do you see the progress of the new government in Myanmar?

Well, a difficult question because it’s a process that is taking into consideration 50 years of let’s say slow down so this kind of change is taking time. I hear from people here that it is taking maybe too long but I think if I refer to two issues like the peace process and the economy, so on the one hand the peace process brings together so many interests, so many groups so you have less, let’s say, control from the governing point of view of how you can progress and develop the peace process. So a lot of efforts are going into the process but it is very slow. And if you are talking about the economy, again, since so many efforts are going to peace and I hear from local business people that they feel that the economy is not getting enough attention, not getting enough progress so things are going in the right direction but very slowly and the thing is you have to measure yourself not only according to what you were in the past but also according to your neighbours.

So you are going slowly but the neighbours are going faster so if you want to improve your situation and you want to improve your situation because you depend on other countries, external trade, etc, so you have to take into consideration after the fact that others are running and you cannot stay behind so challenges are big and as I said, from what I understand the pace may be slow, but in the right direction, so I hope that the government and all the other stakeholders will be able to continue in the right direction and even maybe making it more quick.

What would you say if we look forward for the next five years. What would be the relationship between Myanmar and Israel and in which particular areas will we be able to move?

I think the relations will continue to be good we had, earlier this month, we had a visit of (Union Minister) Mr U Kyaw Tint Swe. Coming to Israel especially to bring the willingness of Myanmar, to improve the relations to bring it back to maybe the level we had in the 50s and the 60s when the two young nations were in the development and progress (stage) and I think that most of the potential is in the agriculture because Myanmar by nature is a very agricultural country. Again, water because water is an issue there are many people are taking water as it always was there and always will be there but water not to be managed and I think the Israeli’s experience in managing water we have such a book talking about the Israel experience ‘let there be water’ so again it was translated into Myanmar. I think it is an interesting book to see how the water in Israel is being organized and managed in a very structured way to a point that nowadays we do not have almost an issue of water or lack of water because we desalinate water, we treat water from sewage, etc. So, this experience I believe is relevant to Myanmar.  

Five years from now I will still keep the context with Myanmar so I believe that I will be even able to make a small contribution to that because I am going to deal with development issues in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Israel for the next two or three years so I will still be in touch with Myanmar and still try to continue the things that we started here.

We are now building a plot in the university of agriculture, a plot that is demonstrating Israeli irrigation methods and I hope that through this plot the students and faculty will be able to experience methods to compare different methods of irrigation and every student that is graduating … will be able to experience and see actually how these things are working and it will contribute I hope to improving the methods of irrigation and cultivation in Myanmar. I wish all the best to Myanmar as I said it is going in the right direction and there are experiences also relevant in other areas like health, healthcare, and education.

We signed two months ago an agreement in cooperation in the field of education so I hope that Israel’s experience in that field will also be relevant and that we help things here. So we have many things on the agenda. Not so big embassy not so big budgets but we are trying our best to see places we can be relevant. We will give our two cents and hopefully it will become more than that in the future.

I would like to ask some personal questions. During your stay here for four years I know you have been extensively travelling within the country. if you recall what are the things you enjoy most, your family, I know you have three children who came and visited to the country occasionally. What are the things you and your family most enjoyed?  

I think that the times we were interacting people not as ambassador with ties but walking in remote villages and meeting people that are not necessarily meeting foreigners on a professional way every day being exposed to some of the traditions of the country, but I would say people was the main sort of attraction also people here in Yangon, I mean in Yangon, in Mandalay, in Shan (State) but the direct contact with people on an equal level was I think the most powerful experience and the most powerful I would say thing that I will take with me and my family after being here for nearly four years.

Can I ask where you will be posted next?

I will be in Israel, in Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, in the International Cooperation Agency MASHAV and I will be dealing with the development, all the parts that have to do with the development of abroad. Sending experts, having all kinds of due diligence, all feasibility studies abroad, donating, for example there are now the floods here or three years ago we had another. We have to (get involved), we have to donate, see of what way we can be of help. So that will be part of what I am going to do in the next year and then I am quite happy about it.

It will be very wonderful to see you back here with all the work you are going to do in future. I would also like to take this opportunity to thank you and Madame Liora Zonshine your wife for having been good friends to not only to us individually but also to Myanmar for all these years especially I enjoyed the food that you and your wife cooked. Thank you very much for all your work and for all your support to Myanmar and all of us here in the country.

Thank you for the opportunity to be here, to speak and if you mention my wife one of the things that I didn’t mention here is the activity we are trying to do on the cultural level bringing the culture of Israel from puppet theatre to singing, dancing, photography, art to explore that part of Israel, that side of Israel to the people of Myanmar and I believe that culture is some kind of a bridge between the countries.

So, my wife who was the cultural attache in the embassy, was trying to bring that along with cuisine from Israel on certain occasions and I think it’s another way maybe even more effective to bring together people from both countries, bring together and getting to know each other. At the end of the day we are people, we are all the things we are people that are communicating with other people trying to influence other people both in our countries and in the other countries in my country and in other countries and make things, make life a bit better for each other. So I hope that during these four years we did had an opportunity to make some improvement, some influence, some touch, touch some people’s lives and I hope that this is really was something that you manage to do.