Interview: President U Thein Sein

In what ways has chairing the ASEAN summit helped to accelerate Myanmar’s own development objectives and initiatives?

U THEIN SEIN: The chairing of the ASEAN summit was a major stepping stone for Myanmar. It has given decision makers, both in the government and the private sector, the chance to discuss challenges and opportunities within the ASEAN region, as well as issues specific to Myanmar. Such increased dialogue has enabled us to work on a collaborative basis with development agencies, foreign governments and businesses in order to boost the country’s social, economic and political reform process. Our chairmanship of ASEAN, the first time since we joined the association 17 years ago, provides an opportunity for us to move towards the realisation of the ASEAN community, and to contribute in setting out future initiatives and goals to ensure that ASEAN maintains relevance in a changing global context.

With this in mind, Myanmar took on the chairmanship of ASEAN with the theme “Moving Forward in Unity to a Peaceful and Prosperous Community”, which reflects our commitment to making a strong and concerted effort to reaching the finish line. Taking on the role of chairman in 2014 is not only significant in terms of the ASEAN agenda, but also reflects the fruits of our own reform here in Myanmar. Recent political, economic and administrative changes have made it possible for Myanmar to play a more active role in regional and international affairs. The increased responsibility that comes with chairing the summit has pushed us to identify key objectives and development targets that will ensure we can contribute to the mutual goals of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC).

However, Myanmar still has some unfinished tasks, as 60 years of armed conflict has prevented peace, tranquillity and prosperity in more remote areas of the country. We have formed a central committee and working committees with the aim of achieving the peace and national reconsolidation that the people of Myanmar have yearned for. The Myanmar Peace Centre was established to enable all those involved to better share best practices. In the very near future, I am confident that we will be able to sign a nationwide peace agreement with all armed ethnic groups. This peace-making process will be a historical milestone for our government.

What initiatives is the government currently undertaking to reduce external debt burdens and promote economic reform?

THEIN SEIN: Economic reform is a key objective for all emerging economies. We initiated a reform plan to meet benchmarks set by international financial institutions such as the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the IMF, as well as creditor countries. As a result, we have been able to reschedule our country’s debt and subsequently reduce our external debt burdens. In order to attract investments from abroad, we have enacted the Foreign Investment Law, which will provide incentives for foreign investors and adequate protection for their investments in accordance with international standards and norms. These reforms have paved the way for the lifting and easing of sanctions imposed by the EU and some countries.

As the agricultural sector is the mainstay of Myanmar, we have focused on agricultural development, which can bring about poverty alleviation, rural development and generate incomes through microfinance, the right to land holding, irrigation, quality seeds and agricultural mechanisation. With our strong belief that education is one of the main drivers of the economy in the 21st century, we have also been implementing an educational reform process. Under the Comprehensive Education Sector Review and national development plans, the government is working alongside numerous development agencies and private investors to promote access and raise educational standards. We have been establishing schools from the primary to tertiary levels in order to be able to keep abreast with other nations. Infrastructure building remains another key objective for our nation. Myanmar shares borders with some of the fastest-growing economies in the world, and increasing capacity and connectivity is vital to the sustainable development of our nation. Various capacity building initiatives are under way and can be seen across the nation in the form of telecom towers, new ports and special economic zones, all of which will play an important role in the economic evolution and reform of Myanmar.

What role will small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) play in the success of the AEC and job creation within Myanmar?

THEIN SEIN: SMEs are the backbone of the ASEAN economy, contributing the lion’s share to economic growth. SMEs also comprise more than 96% of all enterprises within ASEAN and contribute greatly to employment. It is for these reasons that we must ensure the right policies and measures are in place to support and promote SME development. This is why we made SME promotion one of our main priorities during our year as ASEAN chair.

In achieving the AEC policy goals for business, it is incumbent on us to continue to seek feedback from the private sector. Input from the private sector and assessment of the impact and effectiveness of our policies ensures that impediments that companies face are addressed. In terms of employment, SMEs dominate the market in Myanmar. SME development has become vital in strengthening national competitiveness and economic integration into the ASEAN region. SMEs are, however, hindered by numerous factors, such as limited power supply and a lack of financing from external sources. The lack of funding is one of the biggest constraints for SMEs and a central committee comprising 27 members was established to promote their growth and concentrate on issues such as microfinancing and job creation.

After decades of isolation, Myanmar’s health sector has suffered from mismanagement and lack of funds. What measures will the government take to raise standards in the health sector?

THEIN SEIN: It is necessary to gain more momentum in improving the health care sector, in tandem with rapid acceleration on political, economic and executive reforms, without neglecting the promotion of the private sector. A 19-member committee named the National Health Committee has been formed to guide the provision of medical care in a bid to revitalise the country’s health sector.

It is also important for the Ministry of Health to be able to adapt to reforms and cooperate with related ministries; regional and state governments; local and foreign non-governmental organisations; stakeholders; and experts. In rural areas, the ratio of health staff to patients is 2500:1, so it is necessary to organise health volunteers and provide them with more systematic training. More training initiatives will be conducted in order to produce as many staff for the health sector as possible.

The introduction of the universal health coverage targets for 2030, a World Bank-aided initiative designed to ensure everyone has easy access to health care with no financial burden, will open up health facilities to the masses. The World Bank has been working alongside development partners in Myanmar, in cooperation with the government, to develop a unified strategic plan toward achieving all health-related Millennium Development Goals by 2015. The government is also laying the groundwork for an all-accessible and affordable health care system. Although the establishment of such a system is the ultimate goal, this will take time to accomplish. In the interim, we are implementing other health care projects focused on expanding access.