When a problem is identified or perceived, all too often the first response is still to draft a new law or regulation.

WHEN ECONOMIC reform is discussed in Myanmar, it’s often in terms of new rules, laws and regulations. This is understandable, in its own way: creating something instinctively feels like a positive achievement. But often the most impactful reforms are those that simply remove what is already there – or replace it with something much simpler and more straightforward.

It has probably been said once or twice before, but Myanmar is a maze of bureaucracy and red tape. If anything, the situation has got worse since the transition to democracy; the creation of a new parliament has unleashed a pent-up wave of law making, much of it haphazard and substandard. When a problem is identified or perceived, all too often the first response is still to draft a new law or regulation.

Now, we’re not saying that all tariffs and licences should be removed. Regulation has its place. Trade needs to be controlled to some extent. But each regulation should be subjected to some pretty stringent cost-benefit analysis.

Myanmar’s present trade regime – and the way it has been applied and enforced by various agencies, notably Customs – is clearly holding the country back. The main beneficiaries are the officials who can use the system’s complexity and opaqueness to extract payments, and the agents who know how to navigate it. Even the agents we interviewed were frustrated: not at having to make under-the-table payments, which they viewed as a fact of life and simply passed on to their clients, but at the fact that such payments were no guarantee of efficient service.

Unfortunately, most of us lose from this equation. We lose because inefficiencies and rent seeking add to the cost of imported items, and make Myanmar’s exports less competitive.

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Well, here’s an easy reform: abolish export permits. The government could do it tomorrow if it wanted to. And when it’s finished that, review licensing requirements on imports and keep only the most essential.

This isn’t going to solve all of the roadblocks to improving Myanmar’s trade environment, which are also linked to institutional capacity, lack of hard infrastructure and limited access to trade financing. But it’s certainly going to be easiest way to kick-start the liberalisation process.

Unfortunately, the indications are that it’s going in the opposite direction. The Myanmar Times reported last week the Ministry of Commerce had added 3,345 items to its Export Negative List under the 2012 Export and Import Law. Any item on the list requires a permit to be exported.

But this effort to cut the red tape doesn’t need to be limited to trade and Customs. The government could do wonders for the country by simply conducting a methodical, sector-by-sector review of what’s on the books and reviewing whether these rules are still necessary or fit for purpose. If not then they should go.

This editorial first appeared in the March 15 issue of Frontier.

By KYAW YE LINN  | FRONTIER

A long-stalled Yangon “new city” development project is moving forward again, with a development company involving Mr Serge Pun and former Singaporean foreign minister Mr George Yeo set to relaunch the project later this month.

Yangon Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein will deliver opening remarks at the March 31 launch of New Yangon Development Company Limited, which was incorporated under the Special Companies Act to develop New Yangon City.

Pun, the chief executive officer, will give a presentation on the project while Yeo, who is described as an independent director, will deliver a speech. The company will be chaired by Daw Nilar Kyaw, the Yangon Region’s minister for electricity, industry, transport and communications.

Phase one of the new city will see 20,000 acres west of downtown Yangon transformed “into an urban industrial district”, the company said in an invitation to the launch.

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“The vision of New Yangon City is to be a safe, smart and clean city that will serve as an example of efficiency, integrity and accountability,” the invitation said.

A media liaison for New Yangon Development declined to comment further.

The Yangon Region government flagged its new plans for the site in July 2017, when it told a special session of the regional assembly that it had scrapped the results of a tender conducted by the previous government. Instead, New Yangon Development would be formed “to assist in the realization of the new city project and the Yangon Region Government will handle full management of the project”, Nilar Kyaw told MPs.

The minister reportedly said that the investments would be sought from the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, International Finance Corporation and other foreign sources.

At the time, Daw Sandar Min (NLD, Seikgyikhanaungto-1) complained that lawmakers had not been given enough information by the regional government. She said the government should seek parliamentary approval if it made substantial changes to the plan for the new city, such as changing the development vehicle.

Contacted last week, Sandar Min – who heads the regional parliament’s Finance, Planning and Economic Committee – said she was still waiting for more details.

“The regional government has yet to submit [its plan] to the parliament. We don’t know much about the project,” she told Frontier on March 23. “The regional parliament has not approved the project yet.”

Compensation deadline

On the ground though there are signs the project is moving forward. Landowners in the project area have around a week to decide whether to accept cash or land as compensation for compulsory acquisition.

A March 5 regional government announcement gave them until April 6 to choose between a one-time payout of K10 million an acre or land in the new city project. If the latter, they will receive 20 percent of what was acquired from them – so if 10 acres was acquired, they will get 2 acres.

“Most farmers prefer to get 20 percent of land in the project area,” said Ko Ne Win Shein, the administrator of Kalartan Thone Eain village tract in Twante Township.

He said farmers and other landowners have proposed to get land in three sites, totaling 3,357 acres, within the larger project area.

“The government said they generally agree with the villagers’ proposal,” he said on March 20.

U Khin Nwe, who owns about 30 acres, said all farmers in his village of Tamatakaw had opted for land compensation.

“No one is taking compensation in cash,” he said. “We can make more money selling the land compensation when the project starts or finishes.”

He said 0.20 acres of urban land could be subdivided into three plots of 2,400 square feet each and sold for a total of K30 million.

Ko Ne Win Shein, the administrator for Kalartan Thone Eain village tract in Twante Township. He says that most farmers have chosen to receive land as compensation instead of cash. (Kyaw Ye Lynn)

Ko Ne Win Shein, the administrator for Kalartan Thone Eain village tract in Twante Township. He says that most farmers have chosen to receive land as compensation instead of cash. (Kyaw Ye Lynn)

U Hlaing Myint, a hundred-household head at Tamatakaw village, said no “real farmers” oppose the project because the compensation is fairer than when former Yangon Region chief minister U Myint Swe tried to implement the project. Then the government offered an apartment and a plot measuring 2400 square feat for every acre acquired, he said.

He said farming was “not a good business anymore” so most farmers wanted to sell their land. He estimated that 3,000 acres of land was now in the hand of non-residents.

“So if someone opposes the project, he is not a real farmer or they don’t understand the life of a farmer,” Hlaing Myint said.

Hlaing Myint said government officials told farmers earlier in March that said those who don’t make a decision will automatically receive cash compensation.

Both Ne Win Shein and Hlaing Myint said most landowners had already made a decision but it had been difficult to contact investors who rented land to tenant farmers.

“For example, a woman named Daw Thidar San bought about 25 acres here. But we know nothing about her, including how to contact her,” Hlaing Myint said.  “The rest are not locals, but those who purchased farmland just before the project announcement in 2014 … We are trying to reach them.”

The current market price is around K12 million to K15 million an acre, said Ko Myint Naing Kyaw, an independent real estate agent in Twante.

Prices had fallen a long way since the project was announced in 2014, when they hit K80 million an acre. “Many people bought farmlands in hope of making a profit once the project started,” he told Frontier on March 21. “Now they are not losing, but just not get the profit they had expected.”

Controversial past

In August 2014, Myint Swe announced plans to develop a US$8 billion, 30,000-acre new city on farmland west of Yangon.

He controversially awarded the project to a little-known firm, Myanmar Saytanar Myothit Public Company, but was forced to back down due to public anger.

The project was later put out to tender, and in January 2016 three companies were chosen to implement a smaller version of the new city project, spread over almost 12,000 acres.

In April 2016, the new National League for Democracy-controlled Yangon Region government asked developers to submit new plans for the project. When Nilar Kyaw spoke to parliament last July, she confirmed that the contract with the previous developers had been abolished, according to state media.

TOP PHOTO: Fenced-off fields in Twante Township beside the Hlaing Tharyar-Dala Road with signs that read “No squatters”. (Kyaw Ye Lynn | Frontier)

By OLIVER SLOW | FRONTIER

YANGON — World-renowned human rights lawyer Ms Amal Clooney will serve as counsel to Ko Wa Lone and Ko Kyaw Soe Oo, the two Reuters journalists currently on trial in Myanmar.

Clooney, a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers, has been instructed jointly by Reuters and the two defendants in the case, according to a press release by her London-based firm.

“Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are being prosecuted simply because they reported the news,” said Clooney in the release. “I have reviewed the case file and it is clear beyond doubt that the two journalists are innocent and should be released immediately. The outcome of this case will tell us a lot about Myanmar’s commitment to the rule of law and freedom of speech.”

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested while investigated the killing of 10 Rohingya men at Inn Din village, Maungdaw Township, northern Rakhine State, in late August. They are accused of violating the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, which carries with it a maximum of 14 years in jail.

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“We will pursue all avenues to secure our reporters’ release,” said Ms Gail Gove, chief counsel of Reuters. “Retaining Ms Clooney greatly strengthens out international legal expertise and allows us to broaden those efforts.”

Clooney is a specialist in international criminal law and human rights and has worked on a number of high profile cases, including acting as a senior advisor to Mr Kofi Annan when he was the UN’s envoy to Syria, as well as representing a group of Iraqis seeking accountability for genocide and other atrocities perpetrated by ISIS against the Yazidi community.

By MRATT KYAW THU and OLIVER SLOW

YANGON — A former child soldier who was jailed last year, after speaking with the media about his experience, has been sentenced to two years’ imprisonment and could face fresh charges for allegedly standing on a copy of the 2008 Constitution in protest against his detention.

Ko Aung Ko Htwe was handed the sentence at Dagon Seikkan Township Court on Tuesday, in a move that rights groups criticised as an example of the further erosion of freedom of expression in Myanmar.

The judge found Aung Ko Htwe guilty of contravening section 505(b) of the Penal Code, a vaguely worded clause related to incitement.

He will return to court on April 10 to hear charges related to section 7 of the Union Seal Law, which punishes “destruction or causing destruction of the whole or any part of the Union Seal”, for allegedly standing on the constitution during a protest. The maximum penalty for the charge is three years’ imprisonment, a K300,000 fine, or both.

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His sister, Ma Nay Zar Tun, is also being charged for standing on the Constitution, but police say they are unable to find her.

Aung Ko Htwe was abducted at Yangon’s central railway station and forcibly recruited into the Tatmadaw in 2005, when he was just 15 years old, his family said. Two years later, he escaped with two others who robbed a motorbike owner. One of the three reportedly choked the owner to death, though Aung Ko Htway later said he was not involved.

The trio was charged with murder and found guilty; they all received the death sentence, even though Aung Ko Htwe was 16 at the time. In 2013, the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, but Aung Ko Htwe was released in July 2017 after serving 10 years in jail.

Shortly after his release, he gave an interview to Radio Free Asia, in which he alleged that, while his case was being heard at a military court, he was tortured and forced to eat rice mixed with sand.

He was arrested last August, shortly after RFA published the article.

At a press conference in Yangon on Wednesday, another of his sisters, Ma Aye Zar Win, called on U Win Myint, who was elected president on the same day, to intervene in the case.

“We hope he will hear our voice,” Aye Zar Win said.

Activist Ko Aung Kyaw said that Aung Ko Htwe had “done some wrong things” because he was upset about being charged under section 505(b).

“Now he is being sued under this [Union Seal] law,” he said.

A photo published by DVB shows Aung Ko Htwe being dragged from the court by three police officers, as he defiantly makes a “peace” sign.

Rights groups have spoken out against the sentencing.

“To imprison a former child soldier for speaking about his experience would be an alarming new low for free speech in Myanmar,” Mr Tim Molyneux, child rights programme manager at Child Soldiers International, told Frontier by email. “It raises serious questions about the military’s commitment to ending child recruitment.”

Molyneux called on the military and the government to lend support to former child soldiers.

“The focus should not be on punishing victims, but on holding the perpetrators of child recruitment accountable, and cementing the progress the military has made in ending the use of child soldiers,” he said.

In 2012, Myanmar signed a UN Joint Action Plan committing to end the recruitment of children into the Tatmadaw. Since then, at least 849 children have been released from its ranks, Molyneux said.

“While positive steps have been taken, there is more to be done. Locking up Aung Ko Htwe will not help, the charges against him should be dropped,” he said.