Naypyitaw, 22 February 2012

Two years may seem like a long time but, for Myanmar, there is little time to waste. In a roundtable discussion with H.E. Dr Surin Pitsuwan, Secretary-General of ASEAN, Myanmar Foreign Minister H.E. Mr Maung Lwin said he is keen to get on with the preparations as soon as possible.

“This is a major task for Myanmar, and we want to make sure we are prepared for challenges ahead,” said the Minister, adding that he will start attachment of his officials, visits to the ASEAN Secretariat, study of past records, and sending teams to study this year’s meetings in Cambodia, as well as the next in Brunei.

The discussion is part of a four-day trip by an ASEAN Secretariat (ASEC) delegation led by Dr Surin, to see how the Secretariat can assist Myanmar in the run-up towards 2014.

“Myanmar’s chair in 2014 will be a critical landmark in the history of ASEAN, as you will be the one responsible for wrapping up, and tying the loose ends, before handing over to Malaysia—the transit from your chair, which ends on 31 December 2014. There will be a lot resting on your shoulders,” advised Dr Surin alluding to the ASEAN Community 2015.

The country’s chair of ASEAN is also a top priority for the Myanmar’s business community. The late afternoon meeting saw an active exchange of ideas, as well as suggestions between key members of the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (UMFCCI), and the ASEC team.

A key message which the Federation wanted to convey to the world is while sanctions may have prompted political changes in Myanmar, it is now time to remove these blockages and clear the road to a better livelihood for its people.

Quoting the restrictions on US-Dollar transactions, H.E. Mr Win Aung, President of the UMFCCI, pointed out that potential investors are discouraged by these sanctions, which in turn blocks development that would have created employment for the people, and help lift them out of poverty. “More than 95% of Myanmar’s industries are made up by SMEs (Small and Medium Enterprises), and they need technical assistance, as well as access to financing. They need international partners,” said Mr Win Aung.

Supporting the argument, H.E. Ms Khine Khine New, who is heading the Garment Sector of industries, pointed out that the removal of tariff benefits had placed Myanmar at a disadvantage when competing with other ASEAN nations. As a result, the wages of Myanmar workers are stifled. This in turn sabotages efforts to lift garment workers out of the poverty trap. The irony is that the political sanctions which were originally aimed at inducing changes in Myanmar; are now behind times.

“Myanmar is like an aircraft on the runway, all ready for take-off. There may be turbulence ahead; there may be a headwind that is blowing against us. But Myanmar is determined that the only way to go is forward,” said H.E. Dr Maung Maung Lay, Vice-President of the UMFCCI.

Summing up the talks, Dr Surin encouraged the Federation to persevere with their efforts. Noting that President Thein Sein has indicated that Myanmar will seriously consider inviting observers from ASEAN to watch the by-elections in April, he said all the signs are positive for Myanmar. He assured the Federation that ASEAN, and ASEC, are fully supportive and optimistic of regional and international support.

“Increasingly, the world will see that Myanmar workers are taking ownership over their political fate. This will bring an even greater groundswell of support for Myanmar, and you must be prepared to tame and manage all the capital, all that trade and business delegations that will come knocking on your door,” said Dr Surin, urging Myanmar to take advantage of the ASEAN family, and avoid the pitfalls and mistakes which others have made. “We are all working towards the common dream of improving a lot of the people, and I assure you of the fullest support from the (ASEAN) Secretariat, and the ASEAN family,” the Secretary-General concluded.