Israeli Ambassador talks development and Myanmar relations


Israel’s Ambassador to Myanmar Mr Daniel Zohar Zonshine. Photo: Thet Ko/Mizzima

Israel has a long relationship with Myanmar including development and technological exchanges as well as strong defence ties.

In an exclusive interview with Mizzima, Israel’s Ambassador to Myanmar Mr Daniel Zohar Zonshine talked with Mizzima Editor-in-Chief Soe Myint.

I would like to start with the bilateral relationship between Israel and Myanmar what are the priorities between the two countries?

Myanmar and Israel have very good relations that have existed for many years. The priorities in our relations, from my point of view, at least, would be to make Israel more relevant to Myanmar and show the people and the government of Myanmar that Israel is relevant to them in many ways. From the economic, medical, and social points of view, to name few. These are long term priorities.

How would you define the relationship between Myanmar and Israel, friendly, strategic, close ties? I think Israel and Myanmar has a very close relationship and Myanmar is Israel’s strongest ally in Asia. We could go back to Prime Minister U Nu’s visit to Israel in the 1950s, so how do you define the relationship?

Our relationship is good, friendly with the potential to be even better and friendlier, maybe even strategic. With the changes that are happening in Myanmar over the last few years I think we can upgrade even more our relationship. You mentioned the mutual visits we had in the fifties and sixties - I see part of my role as ambassador to encourage and initiate more visits, political nature, economic nature etc. I think we have quite good base for our relations and I see this as the beginning of a new era, new step upgrading the relations to a new level.

What about the trade relationship between the two countries?

If you talk about the trade of goods it is not good enough. From the point of view of trade for 2015, the initial numbers I have are about 19 Million dollars of exports from Israel and a bit more than two million from Myanmar to Israel. From Israel, it is about 50 percent more than what we had in 2014 and I hoped we will increase our economic relations and trade in the future. We are not talking only about export - we are talking about relations, in which we shall have mutual trade and exchange of ideas, investments and capacity building. We also encourage export from Myanmar to Israel, of agricultural products, and other products. On top of that, we have exchange of services that are not included in the trade figures, but are part of economic relations. Referring to the types of goods being traded, there are communication towers, that Israeli companies are building here. , Agriculture inputs, medical equipment, water technologies,- there are some of the items on the agenda.

Can you tell us about Israel’s outreach in terms of agriculture?

Israel has a lot of experience in agriculture that is relevant to Myanmar - we live in an area that is arid and semi-arid - Israel can be considered as a big ‘dry zone’. We had to be developed technologies and methods to overcome the lack of water and territory that was not good for agriculture. Some of these technologies could be relevant to Myanmar even though Myanmar has a vast area and a lot of water. At the end of the day, water is an asset you have to manage and when you have less water or when you have El Nino as we have now, we have to look at water in a different way, save it, use it in a better way. In the area of agriculture we have collaboration both in the public sector and the private sector. In the public sector we have an agreement that students of agriculture from Myanmar can go to study and work in Israel - they live there for eleven months, During which  they study, they work and they get ‘on job training’ and come back to Myanmar not only with the know-how of technology and methods but are also exposed to the way of thinking of the Israeli farmers, which, I think, is important - in the way you plant a tree or in the way you irrigate a field. This has to do with overcoming problems looking at innovations and looking at the constant improvement of the way we do things, more activities with the same or less resources. So this is one way of collaboration, students of agriculture that go to Israel to study and work.  At the moment we have some 265 Myanmar students in Israel and I think over the last twenty years there were more than 2000 who already had been to Israel and studied and gained experience. Although not all of them are working in Agriculture after they return, but we are getting close to a sort of critical mass who can contribute to agriculture here. On top of that we have an activity led by the government, our international cooperation agency of the ministry of Foreign Affairs that deals with capacity building which I think is important. It is done either by sending people to Israel for a short period or bringing experts from Israel to Myanmar for a short period for a very practical approach towards agriculture, new methods and new ideas.

In the private sector we also have companies working here in irrigation, waters management, seeds, fertilizers, and also know how, because the idea is not only to sell products but to supply solutions. Solutions that are dealing with the whole chain of production, which is essential in this case.

Will we see more such visits of people from Myanmar going to Israel and experts from Israel coming to Myanmar over the next few years and in which areas?

We would definitely see more visits from both sides. Last year we had a visit of the Deputy Minister of Agriculture of Myanmar and the Minister of Agriculture from Mandalay with some business people in Israel, for a very big Agriculture exhibition. The mayor of Yangon visited Israel for a big water exhibition – also related to agriculture. From the Israeli side we had a visit of the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development with a delegation of businesspeople.

 We also want to bring experts for training and capacity building - At the end of May we are going to conduct a course on vegetables and irrigation in the dry zone with experts from Israel to share the experience of Israel and to train trainers in order to deliver the know-how and the methods to as many relevant people as possible.

We would like to bring more people from Myanmar to Israel in order to create contacts both in the public and private sector, to help plan together more activities between both countries in this area. Agriculture is the main area for collaboration but is not only the area. We have relations also in the area of defence, telecom etc. We just had a delegation of senior businesspeople from the ICT sector, members of MCIA, visiting Israel in a delegation initiated by us here. We plan visit of a delegation of senior dairy farmers, organized with the livestock Federation, to see Israeli dairy demonstration farm in Vietnam - equipment and methods as they are implemented in modern dairy farming. So we try to make more visits and bring more people on both sides because I think at the end of the day it’s relation between people. You build relations and create trust. The relations are based on the long term contacts, since the fifties and the trust is built over the years. I think this is the right way to do it, building long-term relations.

What do you think about the role of SMEs and start-up companies in a developing country like Myanmar, what can the government do to support them?

I can bring the Israeli experience on the issue. A successful start-up has to do with an environment that encourages innovations and creation, encourages a person to try and develop his idea and support him (or her) in case of lack of success or failure. We should look at failure as gaining more experience and not as if I fail in something I go back and don’t try anymore. This is something that has to do, I think, with the Israeli character - taking responsibility, taking risks, mainly calculated risks and try to learn from the experience even if in certain cases we do not always succeed. Regarding start-up, there was a book published few years ago, called ‘Start-up Nation’, about Israel and the way it encourages new companies. Few weeks ago we delivered a copy of it, in Myanmar language, to each and every Member of Parliament. We did so because I think it is relevant to Myanmar as a country that is under constant change, especially during the last few years. Most of these start-ups began as SMEs, some grew up to be big companies but the majority are small or medium sized companies based on an idea that was developed into a product and succeeding. We are planning to have here along with the Myanmar Computer Federation a contest of start-ups that we shall announce it quite soon, asking for young entrepreneurs to introduce their start-up. We hope to collaborate with the Ministry of Education which is responsible for technology and another one or two business companies. The one that will be selected will be invited to Israel to participate in a week of events that relate to start-ups, called DLD. It should be good exposure for Israel in Myanmar .The idea is to bring people closer to the scene of starts up, to gain experience and to be exposed to the way things are being done in other places. Sharing this information, seeing examples and comparisons to other societies and other systems is something that can open the mind and contribute to the people, the economy and society.

Israel has had a lot of success in capacity building training in Thailand, do you think there will be such successful training by Israel in Myanmar?

I would like to prepare or conduct such a program. Myanmar today in not in the same place that Thailand was years ago and the whole region is in a different place. We see here a lot if involvement from Japan, from China, from South Korea, from Australia, from the European Union, the United States and many UN agencies. There is a lot of activity here so in a way it is difficult for Israel to find a niche where it can be effective and significant. I mentioned the arid zone agriculture and water management as something that has been done in Israel in a very significant, special and successful way, that is relevant to Myanmar. I think that training of people in this area can make some change and have effect on the economy in some areas in Myanmar. I think you cannot cut and paste from one country to another -Myanmar is not Thailand and even Israel of 20 or 30 years ago is not the same Israel as today. Things are changing and you have to adapt yourself to the current condition, current situation. But I hope and I will make the effort to bring as much experience and relevant know-how from Israel to Myanmar.

You can get money from different sources but know how is something unique - you cannot just get know-how from any source. In certain areas Israeli know-how is unique and I think this is the relative advantage we have, so I would like to bring our unique know-how and ideas to Myanmar. I think ideas nowadays are sometimes worth more than money because they can make a change and to get ideas is more difficult than to get money (without underestimating any other entity or effort).

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

One big challenge is how to modernise agriculture without damaging the social fabric of Myanmar. You have a country of 60-70 percent of the workforce making a living from agriculture. When you talk about modern agriculture you need less labour force and this is a challenge how to modernise agriculture and produce more without creating a social problem, of people getting out of the cycle of work. So this is something on the macro level. The other thing is to improve the value chain in agriculture, how to better produce, how to better post-harvest, have better access to markets, to see what are the demands of the markets to adjust your production towards what the market is looking for. Myanmar is a country of some 50 million people, so it needs to produce its own food. But if you want to produce your own food and have a surplus to export to the world then it needs better production and a better arranging of the system.

Capacity building is something else needed to be improved and I think we can also be part of the solution and contribute to this issue as well. In this regard the program of having students of agriculture from Myanmar working and studying in Israel is very relevant.  Coming from an agriculture background myself I know farmers are conservative and it is not easy to introduce new technologies to them - they need to see proof, they need to see results. We cannot sell stories to farmers, you have to prove.

We are planning to collaborate on a demonstration farm in the dry zone either with the private sector or the government to show it is possible to use better techniques, better technologies, and to get much better results and hopefully we will be successful in that.

What are the keys to improving Myanmar’s agricultural sector, like for example know-how, and technology, where the country is lacking? What can the two countries do to enable Israel to help Myanmar in these areas of need?

It is a big effort, that Israel can be part of. I don’t have the pretention that Israel can change things. - it is part of a process. By bringing, as I said, the students to Israel to gain experience and exposure to modern methods. By bringing experts here to share their know-how, we can have some positive influence on the agriculture here. We plan to bring more and more experts to Myanmar - Myanmar is becoming a priority within our agency of international cooperation of our ministry.

We do not have big budget for that, that would enable us, for example, to finance flights of Myanmar citizens to Israel, but we try to be creative and find other resources for the activities.

I would like to discuss military ties between the two countries. Last year the Commander in Chief conducted a four-day visit. Can you tell us about that visit and the military ties between the two countries?

Well, first we must understand the unique situation of Israel, being in quite a difficult neighbourhood, and not always a friendly one. So we had to develop abilities in defence that are quite unique, quite advanced.

The relations between the two defence establishments, of Israel and Myanmar, are good, and they have been good along the years.  The visit of the Commander in Chief last September was an important step in that ongoing relationship. He met the president of Israel, senior members of the parliament, Israel Chief of Staff and senior members of the defence establishment and also visited some military bases and some defence industries. The purpose of the visit was to strengthen the ties, to see abilities of cooperation. The situation of Myanmar and Israel, security-wise, is quite different, but I think there are a few areas in which Israel is relevant to Myanmar. I also think that the exposure of senior people from the defence establishment, to Israel, and to other countries in the West, is important, in order to see the role of the military, and the place of the military within the fabric of a country and society.

It was a good visit, I hope it was not the last one, and I hope we shall continue these good relation in the future.

What about the weapons supplies from Israel to Myanmar in the last few years?

We have some sales of defence items from Israel to Myanmar mainly in the area of the marine sector, as was published in the newspapers. It was about coast guard ships sold to Myanmar, some of them will be assembled in Myanmar. It is not only selling a product but also the capacity of how to build such ships. There are other items on the table, but I will not go into details. There is also cooperation in medicine, training, academic issue, and some issues.

How has the relationship changed, if we look at the relationship in terms of weapons supplies and defence ties from when Myanmar was under the military regime to the relationship with the President U Thein Sein and also the new government of Aung San Suu Kyi, how do you view the changes that have taken place between the two countries in terms of defence ties and weapons supplies?

In the recent years the relations between the countries are more transparent and open. And I believe this tendency will continue with the new government. We do not see the military or the defence relations as separate from the overall relations, it is part of the whole relations between the countries. I hope to have more mutual visits and hope to have more exchange of views, in order to deepen the relations and cooperation.

How do you view Israel’s place in the world? Israel is a small nation but a major influence in the Middle East and also has had a very strong relationship with successive American governments. There are some criticisms over the handling of the Palestinian situation and the moves of new settlers into the Palestinian territories. What would you say to the critics and with this, how do you view Israel’s place in the world?

Israel is part of the world and would like to continue to be part of the world. We live in an area which is not so easy and not so, I would say, not so simple, as we see in the last five years - things that six years ago were solid now they are totally changing in the Middle East. It is difficult to judge Israel’s situation in the eyes of Asia or Europe or the United States because the area we live in is sort of an unstable area. Countries that were where before, like Syria and Libya - do not exist anymore. So we have to count on ourselves in the area of defence, and also in the economic area, since we don’t have immediate neighbours to deal with, to have trade relations. We also have neighbours, Palestinians, who are not always open to dialogue or coexistence. It is never easy, not for them, not for us. There are some decisions to be taken in the highest levels, about the ways we want to see things progressing, stopping incitement etc. So far we had some experiences with the Palestinians, some dialogues but in the recent years, it is much more difficult, especially since the Palestinians are now divided between the Palestinian Authority in the west bank and HAMAS in Gaza and. We try to maintain, to contain the situation, and not to let it deteriorate. Some of the criticism on Israel comes from a lack of knowledge, a lack of understanding of the situation in the area.  Israel will continue to contribute to the world in many areas, - in agriculture, in medicine, in science and more and will keep its place, and the critics will continue in their way.

I understand that it is a very complex picture that Israel is in. Reflecting on this complex situation that Israel is in, how do you view the democratization and peace process in Myanmar?

The peace process or getting to peace is never an easy challenge. From what I see in the last few years, or since the time I arrived here a year and half ago, there is progress and the process is going in the right direction. 

The democratization process is a very important and should be supported by everybody in the country, official entities as well as the people. 

As in any conflict, concessions have to be made from both sides in order to get to an agreement. You don’t want to eliminate or win, especially when you talk about internal conflict, it is the same people, it is the same country and you have to get to some agreement, to some solution. Sentiments are there so It is never and easy thing. It is a process that can not just be completed overnight, it is not just by a decision of one person or two people that can finish negotiations. But if people are taking it seriously, and coming to the dialogue ‘bona fide’, they are really interested in settling the situation, getting to peace, I believe it is possible. Not easy, not quick, but possible.

What do you view as the challenges for the new government in Myanmar, not just the peace process?

The peace process is one of the challenges, of course, and continuing the reforms that started here, and strengthening education, and building capacity, and improving the economic situation of the people. Elevating Myanmar and bridging the years that Myanmar was closed to the world. So on the one hand, Myanmar has a very big gap to close. On the other hand, it can close it, it can leap some of the stages in the way, as for examples you have so many smartphones today. In many cases people have their first mobile telephone as a smartphone, not going through all the phases. So some shortcuts that can be made in order to get to the place that Myanmar should be.

I think the human potential here is huge, and the government should find the way to let the talents to be expressed and to let the people initiate, create, dare and succeed.  This is something that can bring Myanmar to a better place.

I’ve seen you for some time going out and mingling with the people in Myanmar. You are one of the foreign diplomats who actually go out and visit many places, and also do a lot of work with communities, in Myanmar. How do you view your activities so far in Myanmar, what are the kind of moments you remember the most, or enjoy the most?

Well, I do believe that when you come to a country to represent your country you also present the other country to yours.  you are also the source of information for Israel about Myanmar, and in order to be more accurate and to be able to present both sides, you should know the people, not only the officials, not only the people who are in high positions, but also the people of the country and not only feel the country on an official level. So that this is the way good diplomats should be able to act, on all levels, in my opinion.

Well, there were few moments, on the one hand, meeting the president and presenting the credentials to him, or having a meeting with the Lady and on the other hand, less official meetings with other people, less official - going to Chinatown in the evening and sitting there and having a beer, and visiting the Naga and witnessing a fascinating festival there, or traveling in Kayah State and experiencing some of the roads that, well, should be improved, and driving there myself. So I think it is a mosaic, some moments of official positions, official opportunities, and visiting the grassroots level, going to the field and talking to the farmers and trying to understand what are their problems, where do they live, how they live and work, how things are being conducted here and trying to think of ways to change and improve - … you know - an Israeli mind is always looking to see how to improve things, how to do things in a better way, at least in some cases this is the thing. It is also some kind of curiosity, about how things are working, how people are behaving, how people are reacting. You can never understand completely a different society, especially when you don’t speak the language. But the closer you are, the closer you are exposed to people, the more you visit, the more you see, the more you feel, then you are getting closer to try to understand your human environment, on the individual level and on the society level.  This is something that I think is fascinating in our occupation as diplomats. And I see it as a great privilege to serve here in Myanmar at this interesting timing.

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