Solving “Rohingya” issue

One of the most buzzing issues hitting Myanmar these days is riots broken up in Rakhine state between so-called “Rohingya” community and local Rahkine people. Foreign media pictures this event as sectarian violence and promoting it as human right issue. On the other hand, local people see this as an insult by uninvited guests who settled here by crossing border illegally. Whichever side you stand for, at the end of the day the government and practical men with balanced views have to find a solution that strikes the balance between respecting the sovereignty of a nation and human rights.

With regards to “Rohingya” issue, we should not continue arguing based on mere hearsay and one-sided information. Nowadays, people are writing about this issue with what they already believed in and thus gathering only the information that support their existing belief. It is a shame in finding the solution that way.  We should ask ourselves David Hume’s “How do we know?” question several times.

Following are steps we can take in solving this crisis.

1. Law and order  – Bring the law and order, stop any riot and violence, which the government is already doing and the good news is that things are now somewhat back to normal.

2. Fact findings – Verify the legal status of Rohingya people under the existing immigration law, through an independent observers and investigators using objective and fair methodologies. This process shall not be influenced by blindly nationalist politics and special interests of ideological human right activists.

3. Actions after investigation – After independent investigation, for those Rohingyas who are illegal residents their origin country must be negotiated to take back their people or the international community should take the responsibility of settling them elsewhere in third countries, rather than playing blame game on Myanmar by rendering this as purely human right issue.  For those who are found to be legal residents according to the existing laws, Myanmar government should let them stay in Myanmar with full rights guaranteed by the existing laws.

4. Legal Reform – If the international community thinks that the existing immigration laws in Myanmar is not somewhat acceptable, they can urge the MPs in Myanmar parliament to work on immigration law reform. But they must acknowledge that nobody can force a nation on what laws to act and it is purely the legitimate rights of a sovereign nation and only the people of the country can decide what laws they will practice. By that time, the international community should stop rendering Rohingya issue as human right issue or sectarian violence.

On my personal note, of course, sectarian violence is immediate cause. Long-term cause is something more complicated. We should be aware that neighboring country is highly over populated and Myanmar’s immigration system is broken due to lack of capacity to manage her borders properly and corruption. Thus, it will encourage illegal border crossing and population fill-over effects. Rather than arguing blindly and dramatizing the event, we should find out the facts!.

Grand strategy for economic growth of Burma, well sort of!

We have been talking a lot about political change in current “reform” process taking place in Myanmar. I now kind of want to talk about economic change after all of these political talks. Don’t take me wrong, I still believe political reform process is still a foremost priority and should still continue until Burma is politically mature enough with good and efficient government, rule of law under independent and credible judiciary system, and rights for its citizens and businesses to prosper and live with dignity.

When pursuing economic development for a developing country, we could all be overwhelmed with what steps to take. Because there are so many examples for economic miracles and success stories especially among Asian countries, starting with China who is just next door to us. While all success or failed stories can have common patterns we can learn, what we implement actually will be different what others have done before at least in terms of action plans if not different principally. Because time and situation has changed and has been changing especially with the order in global economy.

Past decades, many third world countries could have enjoyed in the flurry of trade and exports to rich consumers in the West. Twenty years ago, China was a poor country with its struggle to revive from years of failed economic policies and mismanagement under authoritarian communist regime. India was mainly running on socialist economy. Now, things have changed a lot. China now is now second biggest economy as the powerhouse for manufacturing in the world and posing to become the biggest economy in next couple of decades. India thriving with its service sector boom we can start to see emergence of middle class consumers although many desperately poor citizens still left behind. West and other developed economies are facing with large debt crisis and unemployment issues, thus more importantly weaker demands for Asian countries. Therefore, simply copying what China, India or other Asian countries have done will not work for us around this time. We are late in terms of building a nation based on export-driven economy. But the good thing in this change is we are no longer living next to poors, but living close to rising markets.

With my humble confession, since the beginning I would like to point out I am not an expert on formulating economic success stories but a matter of expressing my thoughts and opinions. Actual implementation, verification and adjustments will be left to the experts and policy makers in the country. What I see for economic growth path is the two phases of nation building.

1. From “nothing” to “something” aka labor and natural resource driven economy

2. Knowledge driven advanced economy

The first phase we have to start and so I will put more focus in discussing about it, while keeping our eyes in sight for advancing to second phase, which will takes at least another generation.

From “nothing” to “something”

During the first phase, as we have nothing literally expect cheap labor and natural resources we have to invite investments with pro-business laws and taxation, less demand for rights of workers, and might even have to put up with pollution. This will be an age of sacrifice for current generation to move from “nothing” to “something”.  Luckily, Burma has more than cheap labor and natural resources. It is its place and time. We are located between two rising economic giants China and India, and part of a vibrant economy ASEAN. Time-wise, we can start to see growing consumers in emerging markets while it might not gold solidly reliable as Western consumers in golden days. That leads me to conclude the following three driving forces for the first phase of economic growth.

(1) Trade route

(2) Commodity supplier of natural resources

(3) Labor-driven manufacturing base

(1)  Trade Route

Burma must exploit its geo-location for its economic drive. China needs a secure route of energy supply from Middle East to its country and it can be done through Bay of Bengal and Burma and then through its south western frontiers. China will expand more and more markets in South Asia, Africa, Middle East and Europe either exporting products or importing raw materials for its industries. China wants to spread out its economic developments across its country especially the Western and southern inner provinces which are left behind from other provinces in East coast line.  For all these of Chinese interests and needs, Burma can become a win-win partner by becoming a reliable and secure trade route for China.  For India, they have been practicing “Look East” policy with aims of penetrating ASEAN market and beyond. We can become a logistics base and springboard for Indian companies to conduct their businesses and expand market share in Southeast Asia. If they look for closet brothers in the region, India will find Burma as an oldest friend after being together under British colony geographically contiguously and having cultural exchanges through Buddhism. We can also provide a shorter trade route for other East Asian countries by cooperating with our neighbor Thailand. The list can go on for opportunities with the growing importance of Asia Pacific region in this century.

Now the main task for policy makers and Burmese government is how we make ourselves a trade route or hub as mentioned above.  Clear indications are major investments in infrastructures for transportation and communication, training people for trade related services such as multilingual supports (learning Chinese, English, Hindu etc), finance and trade specialist services, and a reliable financial institutions for currency exchange and banking. And also building a great hotel and tourism service industry for business travelers is crucial. And perhaps building a commodity exchange for regional trades of raw material and agriculture products.Of course, these are tantamount investments and will require creative ways of financing, such as borrowing from IMF and World Banks through good relationship with Western countries, joint venture with foreign companies, fund raising through selling bonds locally and internationally.

Being a trade route will play a very crucial role for Burma until after it moves to second phase and virtually remains crucial for eternity until Asia Pacific is a major market of the world.

(2) Commodity supplier of natural resources

This part of the economy is about exploration and extraction of nature resources for raw material to industrial productions. Success of this sector and its implication for sustainable development of the country in long run will largely depends on how much the government can attract FDI in this sector and having appropriate laws and regulations that can balance incentives for investors and sustainable development. Again this will require build good political relationship with international community by the government and breeding elite civil servants in international trade, rule and regulations, environmental conservation in a short time.

The country’s already existing agricultural sector can be included as part of this economic drive by opening international markets for agricultural produces, food services in the region, encouraging communal plantation and industrial scale production by private companies , knowledge transfer and research in agriculture, and funding through future and commodity market.

(3) Labor-driven manufacturing base

Although this sector can play as driving force for economic growth, we might not be able to rely on it as other countries did in the past, especially when we hope to see weaker global demand for exports to Western countries. However, we can still get some market share for export market to the West and developed countries,  which is really big compared to zero manufacturing export from Burma now. When the markets in the West are relatively weak compared to past in short-term, we can still be an outsource center for manufacturing certain niche products for other emerging Asian markets through cheaper young labor, creative investment laws and incentives, and proximity to regional consumers.

To make this happen, we will need to invest again in infrastructures for transportation and powers, relaxed labor law and regulations, pro-business tax and stream-lined support and subsidy.

Other Factors

So far I listed each possible economic drives and specific tasks we need to carry out for each sector. However, these sectors will not survive or prosper without improving other factors that can create a conducive ecosystem for those sectors to grow upon. Other factors are:

1. Good governance

2. Education

3.  Public healthcare

Good governance –  by which I mean all stuff that have to do with political process and leadership that can provide stable political atmosphere for business confidence, smart and efficient civil servants for shrewdness and foresight to take existing opportunities and create new opportunities that does not exist yet, and prevent crisis before it happens.

It starts with an honest administration and people involved in national politics by respecting to the rule of law and avoiding corruption. Then, reduce the government size and retain the best and produce brightest for civil servants.  As a poor nation, we cannot employ a large amount of people in the government with very low salary and thus encouraging corruption and inefficiency inherently.  We must run the government with best and brightest of a few while paying the best salary on per with private industry.  Building an academy for civil servant and public administration by enrolling best students and working professionals across the nation and sending very few of the best for further study abroad and with lucrative job positions back home. How Singapore generates and nurtures one of the world’s best civil servants can be a great example for us to learn.

Stop civil wars and fighting to remove our heavy investment from our scare resources in military to especially education, healthcare and other areas that will promote for economic development. Give ethnic nationalities more authority in their state affairs while binding to the principle of national unity.

Education

Education system in Burma must now focus on equipping our workforce with necessary technical and vocational training as soon as possible for their job entry to economic sectors mentioned above. And soliciting the best and brightest students and investing in them heavily with emphasis in meritocracy for leadership in government, public service and business innovations.  Here, IT or software industry primarily can be produced relatively in shorter time by training the brightest minds in the country and also encouraging entrepreneurship for technology innovations.

Specifically, we could setup vocational and technical training school and community colleges for majority of our average students, working professionals. Then, build a four-year universities only for brightest students and sending most potential students out of them for abroad study. This is for current generation for the first phase of economic growth.

For future generations to be ready for second phase, we must reform from the very beginning of our education system, starting with KG and primary school and encouraging science and math, but also supporting for creativity and teamwork. The biggest lesson the students of new generations is if they don’t learn, they won’t survive in this new century when the economy will be built based on knowledge.

Here either for now or future, traditionally our learning system is parrot-learning but instead teaching students to think critically and solve problems must be included as part of major education reform. It does not matter if it is student-centered or teacher centered. The truth is we need both based on situations. Learning is not just one-sided effort but it must be made by both teachers and students.

Health Care

To save huge amount of money likely to cost from chronic diseases and providing young and healthy work force, we need to start investing in public health care with prevention and educating people. Vaccines are one of the most crucial areas we can invest for preventable diseases.  Building good infrastructures will help us in prevention of diseases by providing clean water and sanitation.

TO BE CONTINUED WITH PART 2.

Game changers of the future

Lately, I have been thinking about where the world is heading in terms of advancement in our human civilizations.

When you look at 16th century or 500 years ago, you will see technology and science revolution is the game changer in becoming a different world as we know now today, where Western hemisphere countries rose up from a relatively small and impoverished nations to super power nations with economic and technological power houses.

So what does the future hold for its game changers? By looking at current trends and past history, I found the following three driving forces that will shape the future lied ahead in next 200 or 300 years on.

1. Alternative energy – safe, vast and virtually inexhaustible source of energy  to meet the demands of ever growing living standards and populations. Of course, this will also include or be a part of sustainable development.

2. Smart environment –  From manufacturing to service, when we interlace how we do things now with the use of IT, we will achieve maximum efficiency in everything we do and further optimizations of products and services. Specifically, here we are talking about data crunching and analysis, artificial intelligence, ubiquitous computing.

3. Life science – with ever improving discovery and research, people lives and healthcare will be improved vastly in future, to a degree we human might be to go beyond the course of natural evolution.

To achieve or acquire these game changers, you will need a smart government (small but decisive government bold enough to make right decisions and take actions with foresight and vision), science and technology focused education, and thriving entrepreneurship for spurring the drive of innovations faster than ever. Of course, last but not least we need global peace and stability to safely hatch incubation of these innovations.

What makes me discouraged about progress in Myanmar

Recently, I have watched a video interview by VOA Burmese reporter with Myanmar’s Foreign Minister U Wunna Maung Lwin. By observing the terms and tone expressed by the minister, I feel really discouraged about having a good faith in Myanmar’s current reform process.


The most striking thing to me is his categorical denial about the existence of political prisoners in Burma. What he is saying is all the prominent activists such as Min Ko Naing are jailed for breaking the existing laws and order, but not for doing politics. We all know all these charges are politically motivated, and anyone who criticizes the government can be jailed under previous SPDC regime.  Anyhow, let examine the claims made by the minister analytically.

1. Breaking the existing laws?  These laws they charge against political activists are broadly and arbitrarily defined. If we put these laws in the light of judgement by credible independent body, we will find them very controversial and subtle in its use.

2. How was the court process when making judicial decisions for political prisoner? It was ZERO transparency and absolutely opaque. The judges were just a parrot, nothing more than reading out the decisions already made by the generals, even before court process begins.

With this kind of unfair and incredible judicial system existed under former military regime, how can he claim there is no political prisoner? If I were a reporter there, I would like to ask him what is the definition of political prisoner accepted by their government and if there is an instance of such cases, please let us know who he/she is.

Implications of such categorical denial are very profound for Burma’s future for moving forward to a democratic society. It simply means engaging in politics or freedom of expression such as criticizing the government is a crime. If we cannot get such basic rights, there will never be a functioning democracy but only a fake one in the sake of its name.

While I am not an advocate for 100% truly democratic society in Burma in overnights, I believe to build a good and clean government as claimed by President Thein Sein, you need to acknowledge certain basic rights of the people to provide a good feedback mechanism to the government and wider participation by people for development of the country.

Slow down your rhetoric!

The reactions by some of Burmese opposition groups at home and abroad have been pretty negative to the recent release of prisoners which include over 200 political prisoners. Why can’t you welcome and appreciate the new initiative steps taken by the new government?

Slow down your rhetoric! This is my message to opposition groups.

We know, the number of political prisoner release is smaller than we wanted to. However, we must see this progress in the light of where the government is heading. Government wants to make rebuild the nation and it knows this requires “national reconciliation” although their definition and criteria might be a little skewed and not totally right. But I am very sure if opposition groups can negotiate and make their demands known through a healthy political culture such as by participating in parliament. Of course, not all your wants and demands will be met by the government. This is even true in a genuine democracy where everybody has to make concessions and get only parts of their demands.

We know, the current parliament and political system of so called “discipline democracy” is not exactly what we wanted such as a truly free democracy. But this is our job later to demand the political system to be  more inclusive over time after we demonstrate we can always resolve our issues peacefully through political means. Here I would like to note that we Myanmar people never governed ourselves in truly democratic manner or system ever.  This partly has to do with our culture where criticisms are not tolerated and respect to elders  were often confused with authoritarian practices and bribery. In other word, we all still need to learn a lot about how to appreciate differences and resolves them through discussion and objective analysis.

A quarter of the current Myanmar parliament is seated by military representatives and the political system is highly dominated by the army. However, given the lack of strong civil society and ongoing civil wars in the country after decades of turbulence and dictatorship, the presence of military participation in the parliament is highly practical. However, I strongly despised the non-transparent election process and rigged voting last year.  Anyhow, I believe things will progress and move towards to more civilian-dominated government over time if we civilian politicians can demonstrate the country can move forward under their leadership maintaining the three principles the successive military regimes utter most:  non-integration of the Union,  preservation of the sovereignty of the nation and solidarity of Union spirit among our ethnic nationalities. Here, these three principles are also very practical objectives although I greatly differ with how they are approaching to reach these goals.

So in summary, please slow down your rhetoric, work together with the government, build confidence and trust between each other, then I definitely believe release of remaining political prisoners will follow when you reach to a point to be able to convince the military side that we are “workable” partners with the same goal of putting the country first. Again if you feel in the shoes of the “pro-military” groups or whatever you want to call, it is not their interest to lock up and jail their own citizens. They know it is ugly and despicable in the international community. I am not being hyper-apologist for military men but suggesting to understand their stakes and get what you want cleverly.

Burma’s erratic economy

Lately, since last year or earlier, Myanmar’s Kyat has been rising up against dollar and other currencies. It rose up so much to a degree where we see about 20% increase alone in last year. While its currency value is rising, the prices in the country still remain higher than ever, with huge inflation.

As a Burmese expatriate working abroad and sending money back home from time to time, it makes me wonder why it is going on like this, not about the rise of Kyat but about why prices are not falling back home. Typically, when a country’s currency is rising up the prices should become lower. In other word, inflation should be minimal or even leading to deflation. But that is not what is happening in Burma today.

Why Kayt is rising against dollar is understandable. Dollar itself is in downfall due to slow economic growth and debt problems in United States. On top of that, Burma received a substantial amount of foreign currencies from increasing foreign direct investment (FDI) and selling off natural gas and other natural resources to neighboring countries over the last few years.  Remittance by Burmese citizens abroad back to home might also contribute to the flow of dollars to the country.

However, the rise of Kyat does not bring yet any perceptible economic benefits to the country’s fellows, such as being able to consume more products and services at relatively cheaper prices or seeing more jobs available from investments made with currency surplus. The main reason for current situation, I believe, is due to government’s still tight control on export and import industry. Usually under a fairly liberal economic policy, when its currency rises up the country will see increase in imports. When currency is weaker, there will be rise in exports and so on. But that is not happening now in Myanmar.

Government puts quota and exclusive permits only to their hand-picked businesses for importing products from abroad. Thus, Burmese people cannot consume enough foreign products as much as they should be able to with their stronger Kyat currency. If import rules are relaxed, there will be increase in flow of products and services from abroad and allowing people to consumer more than before. Such increase in imports will drive the demand for dollars and thus eventually can balance up currency exchange rate which the country’s exporters want to see again. When your currency is stronger, it is also a good opportunity for the country to buy foreign machinery and other utilities for investments in infrastructure developments and productions. In other word, encouraging more imports will not hurt the country’s economy but will benefit both the consumers and eventually the exporters.

However, with the history of Burmese generals’ mercantilist view on economy tied with xenophobia, I find it hard to hope the current regime starts relaxing trade policy anytime sooner.