During the last three-quarters of a century Myanmar has undergone three major transitions: from colonial rule to independence in 1948, from parliamentary democracy to military dictatorship in 1962, and – in progress since 1988 – the transition from dictatorship to democracy. The first transition was the culmination of a hard and costly struggle; a clean-cut change from the status of a colonial subject to that of sovereign, independent nation. The second transition was also sharply defined, with tanks on the streets of the capital one morning and a declaration on the radio.
Our present transition is the most complex and challenging of all. From the very beginning it was amorphous; there was nothing as definite as the lowering of one flag and the raising of another, no announcement to mark the completion of one phase and the beginning of another. From this unpromising beginning, and after many obstacles and setbacks – including a general election in 1990 – we reached the landmark elections of 2015. The National League for Democracy managed to win a majority large enough to form a government within the constraints of the constitution adopted through a questionable referendum in 2008. When I speak of our democratic transition, I mean progress towards the goal of democracy, following a path laid down in accordance with the wishes of the people, and maintained with their consent and cooperation.
The Myanmar Sustainable Development Plan 2018-30 has been envisioned, so that everyone knows clearly how we plan to overcome our challenges and look to the future. The plan – which can also be seen as a roadmap for our transition – consists of five goals supported by three pillars. The first goal is national reconciliation and good governance. The second goal is economic stability and strengthened macroeconomic management. These goals rest on the pillar of peace and security. The third goal is job creation and private sector-led growth, supported by the pillar of prosperity and partnership. The third pillar of people and planet supports the fourth goal of human resource and social development for the 21st century. Lastly, the fifth goal concerns the protection and management of the environment and natural resources for the prosperity of the nation.
We who are living through the transition to democracy view it differently from those who observe it from outside and who remain untouched by its outcome. For us, it is the broad, all-encompassing map of the future of our country as well as the small details of our everyday life. Our approach has to be holistic and inclusive. It is necessary to have priorities, but we cannot afford to neglect other, lower-priority issues.
The outside world can choose the issues on which they wish to focus, and the one attracting most interest today is foreign direct investment. We place a high level of importance on investment, but within the context of our wider needs. We want Myanmar to be a business-friendly environment where investors can be comfortable and secure, and where their interests merge harmoniously with our development goals. Our new investment and company laws have been carefully crafted to promote best business practices and good governance. Procedures have been streamlined to remove bottlenecks and accelerate implementation.
Economic integration with ASEAN, coupled with innovation, free trade and improved regional connectivity, presents us with immense opportunities. The country’s recent economic surge is partly attributable to trade and investment from ASEAN and other East Asian economies. Foreign investment reached $8bn in 2017, with more than half of it coming from either Singapore or Thailand. Myanmar is the largest country in mainland South-east Asia, and is endowed with both natural resources, ranging from forest products and minerals to natural gas, and arable land. It also has a sizeable population and a youthful workforce. However, the investment that is most fundamental to our transition to democracy and sustainable development is investment in human capital. One economist observed that all of Myanmar’s critical economic indicators are currently either favourable, stable or moving in the right direction. The right direction for us is the one that will lead to the greatest improvement in the quality of life of our people. Among the fundamental infrastructure requirements identified by our new administration in 2016 were roads and electrification. These are important not only because they are among the basic requirements for potential investors, but also because they are essential to our investment in human resources. Better roads enable better access to health and education facilities, while electricity provides new opportunities for our people to achieve their potential.
Since 2016 more than 4800 km of roads have been constructed or upgraded, with priority given to the least-developed regions of the country, such as Chin and Rakhine State. Meanwhile, government spending on health care and education has increased by 1.2% and 2%, respectively. Some of the steps we have taken may not seem significant to international observers, but they make a great difference to the lives of our citizens. For example, the number of midwives appointed by the Ministry of Health has increased from two digits to four digits. Indeed, in our villages, the services provided by midwives are not limited to childbirth; rather, they include the provision of basic health care. By training more midwives and using modern technology to improve their capacity, we are able to achieve a significant improvement in the health of our rural population, which currently makes up 70% of our total population.
On the education front, the Myanmar Living Conditions Survey 2017 – the first of its kind undertaken by the Ministry of Planning and Finance in conjunction with the UN Development Programme and other international agencies – found that literacy has risen across generations, the gender gap in literacy has closed at the national level and school enrolment rates have been rising steadily. The survey covers population and demographics, energy and electricity, assets and housing materials, water and sanitation, the uptake of mobile phones, computers and internet technologies, education and labour. The report documents that there have been some stark changes over time in lighting, education, goods ownership and use of technology, while highlighting that progress still needs to be made in some parts of the country where outcomes are lagging. The survey report deals with measurables, but there are also unmeasureables which are not just indicators of present conditions but also of future prospects.
One of the most important of these unmeasurable indicators is the potential of our young people. I have had the opportunity to meet informally with our schoolchildren, ranging from primary to upper-secondary school level, and see how delightful they are. They are bright, polite without being shy and eager to show off what they know, but also aware that there is still much they do not know. They are willing to learn, and are immensely teachable. Let us take a look at what the young can win for our country: The FIRST Global Challenge robotics competition was held in Washington, DC in July 2017. A total of 163 entrants from 157 countries competed, and the team of engineering students from Myanmar came in sixth, and first among the Asian countries. It was a triumph of innovation and teamwork, and a clear indicator of our potential to find the resources to overcome the challenges of our transition.
The greatest strength of a democratic transition, – the involvement of the people – is also its greatest challenge. To combine the will and purpose of millions of citizens into a whole that allows the wonderful diversity of our country to shine through is a formidable undertaking. I believe that our people have the capacity to meet this challenge and to carry the transition to a successful conclusion which will be the starting point of a new, better era for our nation.
This viewpoint was adapted from a lecture delivered at the 43rd meeting of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute by State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in August 2018.
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