Despite huge potential, Myanmar still faces long road to complete reform
Global Times | 2013-10-23 19:18:01
By Bi Shihong
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The government led by Myanmar President U Thein Sein has been engaged in sweeping economic and political reforms since 2011, with the goal of building a modern industrialized nation through agricultural development and all-round development of other sectors of the economy.

The government began to introduce more foreign investment into the manufacturing sectors instead of the resource sectors, reformed financial and foreign exchange systems, aiming at meeting international conventions. It also relaxed investment restrictions through a new law in November 2012.

In addition, it extended privatization of state-owned enterprises to revitalize the economy.

The Myanmar government has also paid more attention to improving people's livelihoods, environmental protection, the alleviation of social conflicts and sustainable development when constructing large-scale projects.

With the impetus of reforms, Myanmar's economy has grown at an appropriate rate and restructured its industrial sector.

A report issued by the Asian Development Bank in August 2012 showed that the economic growth rate of Myanmar in 2012 was 6 percent and projected a 6.3 percent rate for 2013.

Myanmar has a huge potential market and is rich in natural resources, which gives the country great potential for economic development and makes Myanmar a "golden land" for foreign investments.

However, the country has to deal with many challenges, given the numerous accumulated shortcomings in its economic system.

The exchange rate and interest rate problems under a backward and hard-to-reform financial system still constrain Myanmar's economic development.

The kyat appreciated by 30 percent in 2011, the fastest pace among all Asian currencies. The drastic appreciation struck a blow to export-oriented industries and exporters, and also led to soaring prices for food and fuel.

Unreasonable interest rates adversely affected the vitality of enterprises that continue to face relatively high financing costs as a result.

At present, the Myanmar economy is heavily dependent on natural resources, while production and high-tech industries are lacked.

Exporting oil, gas and jade contributes considerably to the government's economic revenue. But this results in a fragile economy with a low sustainable capacity.

In addition, overemphasis on issues like environmental protection and resettlement may frustrate investors in economic zones and massive infrastructure projects.

A few Chinese-invested projects have been suspended due to local environmental concerns.

A coal plant in the Dawei Special Economic Zone, a Thai venture, was forced to stop after facing strong opposition and protests from environmental protection groups.

The Dawei deep sea port construction and Dawei Special Economic Zone development involve 29 villages and some environmentally dubious plants. The projects have been delayed due to rigid environmental standards.

In the process of economic privatization, the government sometimes backs "cronies" by transferring national property to the military group or its agents.

Privatization of state assets has its positive effects. But meanwhile, as such privatization helps the military to maintain its power and political influence, foreign enterprises will have to seek close connections with these bigwigs who monopolize most industries, as has happened in Indonesia and Thailand.

Another concern about Myanmar's economic development is that the country is still mired in escalating ethnic and religious conflicts, especially spreading violence between Buddhists and Muslims that has worsened the investment environment and threatens Myanmar's long-term development.

There are a range of militant ethnic minority forces in Myanmar.

Although the Myanmar government has ambitious goals of national reconciliation by the beginning of 2014, some ethnic armed forces may refuse to participate in the process and resort to guerrilla warfare or terrorist attacks.

When ethnic conflicts are entangled with religious conflicts, they are likely to split the country.

All these grave challenges cannot be solved any time soon and will continue to haunt the country's development. As a newcomer in economic reform and opening-up, Myanmar still has a long way to go.

The author is a professor at the School of International Studies, Yunnan University. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn


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