Threadbare on details and containing mainly sweeping principles, none of them new, the much-anticipated launch of Myanmar new economic plans by the National League for Democracy (NLD) has disappointed academics, analysts and businessmen alike.
“We know the importance of investment, energy and infrastructure, so we will issue detailed policy papers in due course. Today is just a general economic policy,” the State Councilor, Aung San Suu Kyi told an audience of senior government officials, Myanmar businessmen, international organizations and diplomats when she unveiled the policy on July 29.
The policy, as outlined, stresses the government’s commitment to the principles of a “market economy” across all sectors and promoting a level playing field between businesses by ending monopolies. The government also promises to cut red tape and make doing business easier, shifting more government functions online and taking significant efforts to create jobs.
The policy also outlines broad plans to reform the financial sector and state-owned enterprises, increase access to credit, encourage foreign investment, and develop the country’s infrastructure.
The plan has been months in the making. Initially expected more than two months ago, it is not much different from the previous government’s five-year plan. “The difference is we’ll implement it, unlike the previous government,” one of the party’s economic czars, Hanthar Myint told Asia Sentinel.
But even this commitment is overoptimistic given of the country’s crucial lack of capacity. It is one of the reasons for the delayed announcement, according to Sean Turnell of Macquarie University, an expert on Myanmar and a key economic advisor to the NLD government. An important plank is aimed at attracting expatriates back to help fill the gaps in the professions, while resources will be devoted to building a new generation of educated and skilled workers.
The policy document includes a commitment to develop a skilled workforce to fill the jobs created in the manufacturing and services sectors. To support this goal, the government plans improvement in health care and education, especially vocational training. This is key for the future economic development of the country, according to Zaw Naing, CEO of Mandalay Technologies and founder of the Myanmar Business Executives Association.
Most local businessmen agree that economic development depends on investing immediately and creatively in education, training and developing the country’s human resources.
“We need to expand the pool of academics, doctors, professionals, architects, technologists – with both local and international knowledge,” said Zaw Naing – who is also running MBA courses and classes in business leadership in his spare time. It is essential to establish an enabling environment, encourage and motivate them, by giving them the space to help the country with their knowledge and experience, he said.
But Myanmar also critically needs vocational training centers to produce engineers and craftsmen – electricians, carpenters and plumbers – and hotel management schools, according to Zaw Naing. While we cannot compare with Singapore and its service oriented training, we can provide technically trained people to support the growth of the manufacturing sector, he said. More software development is both essential and feasible in Myanmar, he said – an industry he is intimately involved in.
Ironically when the Singapore prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong visited Naypyidaw recently he offered Singapore’s help in developing vocational education – as this is regarded as one of the island state’s strengths. But Aung San Suu Kyi reportedly rebuffed the offer, according to diplomatic sources, preferring Singapore’s help to set up “hawker areas” instead.
But the government is committed to vocational education, according to sources close to the education minister. Various options are being explored. And a white paper – with specific and concrete proposals for vocational training – is being drawn up, along with plans for the overhaul of the education sector in general, according to ministry sources. This is nearing completion and expected to be revealed soon.