Business community underwhelmed by talk-fest on economy

The business community is disappointed that a much-hyped meeting in Nay Pyi Taw failed to discuss solutions for tackling a sluggish economy.

By KYAW LIN HTOON | FRONTIER

A MEETING between State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and business leaders that was front-page news in state-controlled newspapers has come under criticism for failing to discuss specific solutions to the slowdown in the economy.

Critics of the meeting within the business community say the event was little more than a speech and a photo opportunity for participants.

At the end of her opening speech at the event in Nay Pyi Taw on August 27, Aung San Suu Kyi urged everyone involved in business to show goodwill and unity and use their knowledge and wisdom to benefit the country.

“I will conclude by urging you all to use your knowledge and wisdom to find a solution,” she said. 

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After the opening ceremony, Aung San Suu Kyi held a discussion on stage with five donors to the Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development in Rakhine and five of the country’s top taxpayers.

The UEHRD donors were Daw Nang Kham Noung of the Kanbawza Group of Companies, U Tun Myint Naing (also known as Steven Law) of the Asia World conglomerate, U Kyaw Win of Shwe Than Lwin Co Ltd, U Zaw Zaw of Max Myanmar Group of Companies and U Nay Aung of United Amara Bank.

The top taxpayers were Dr Ko Ko Gyi of Diamond Star Co Ltd, U Than Win of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd, U Khin Maung Aye of the Cooperatives Bank, U Aung Kyaw Hsan of Bone Kyaw Hsan Co Ltd and Daw Win Win Tint of City Mart Holding Co Ltd.

The gathering was addressed separately from the floor of the hall by the chairman of the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry, U Zaw Min Win, U Maung Weik of MBCCD and Saypaing Co, and the chairman of the Myanmar Developers’ Association, U Shein Win, who discussed the exchange rate, export and import policies, bank loan interest rates and property tax.

A meeting of Union ministers and business leaders was held separately. It was later noted that the government made no commitments at the meeting, which was described as a conversation on matters of general interest.

Dr Soe Tun, vice president of the Myanmar Rice Federation, said there should have been a discussion focusing on agriculture because “our country is based on the agriculture sector”.

Soe Tun also said the time allowed for each meeting was too short.

“What the business community was hoping to see was panel discussions, but it was just a speech delivering ceremony,” he told Frontier.

He suggested that any such events in future include sector-based sessions.

Zaw Zaw, one of the country’s most prominent tycoons, welcomed the event, saying it would be useful to continue to hold such meetings but they might benefit from format changes.

He suggested that any future events include discussions among sector specialists and government officials because they would be likely to produce constructive results.

On the economy, Zaw Zaw stressed the importance of maintaining growth.

“The per capita income of our citizens is one of the lowest in the world, there are a great number of people who are unemployed and there are challenges for those working abroad,” he said.

The State Counsellor repeatedly emphasised during the meeting the importance to the economy of eradicating corruption. She mentioned “corruption free” three times during her speech.

“A country’s economic dignity depends on how corruption free that country is,” she told her audience. “If our country is known by the world as corruption free in the economic sector, there will be more people willing to invest in our country with trust.”

Although the business community accepts that corruption is a big problem it does not believe it is the main reason for the slowdown in the economy.

Economists and businesspeople cited regional countries such as Vietnam and Indonesia as examples of economies that were growing despite pervasive corruption.

“The government should just prioritise growth,” said Soe Tun. He said corruption had emerged because of low economic development but targeting it alone was not a solution because it was not the only constraint on growth. “There is also a need to address how to increase the salaries of public servants and make their lives more secure,” he said.

Businesspeople say the National League for Democracy government is unlikely to achieve a lift in the economy before the next general election in 2020.

The NLD government should consider more schemes to boost the economy, said Dr Zaw Oo, an economist and former adviser on the economy to the previous Union Solidarity and Development Party government.

Zaw Oo said the State Counsellor should not rely too heavily on western free-market economic theories.

He said the NLD government needs to intervene positively in the market, such as by investing in infrastructure projects and contracting them to Myanmar companies.

“The government should initiate such developments,” Zaw Oo said.

“The world has changed; [United States President] Donald Trump is engaging in a trade war and our economy is being affected by trade and other decisions made by China and India,” he said.

“If we don’t become proactive and if the status quo continues in our immature economy that only became free five years ago then we will have more failures.”

State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi meets business leaders in Nay Pyi Taw on August 27. (State Counsellor’s office)

By Kyaw Lin Htoon

By Kyaw Lin Htoon

Kyaw Lin Htoon is a Yangon-based journalist. He previously worked at Myanmar Now, Mawkun and Myanmar Business Today.
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