Thilawa SEZ: Opportunity beckons

It took a change of mindset to develop the Thilawa Special Economic Zone, and the reward for the country will be a rich investment dividend.

How many years do we need to realise a dream?

My dreams have included the Thilawa Special Economic Zone and the Yangon Stock Exchange.

Before I retired from the civil service about 10 years ago at the age of 50, I was involved with others in writing papers and discussing proposals for special economic zones. As a country where domestic savings and investment are low, it is essential that we attract foreign direct investment. However, establishing SEZs required a change of mind set.

When we establish a SEZ it means we are practicing two systems in our country, a concept with which we are not familiar. But it is possible for a country to change its mind set. Examples include the countries that imposed sanctions on Myanmar. It takes time to change a mind set and that is why we needed to wait more than a decade.

I remember when our government leaders made visits to a neighbouring country that has invested heavily in Myanmar to invite its participation in the Thilawa SEZ. It declined and it remains a puzzle that no one but the country concerned can understand.

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As Myanmar is regarded as the last frontier market in Southeast Asia, early bird advantages abound though they are coupled with moderate risks. Potential investors always mention the weak infrastructure. On the other hand, there are also many opportunities for investment.

Myanmar has learned lessons from former megaprojects and is well aware of the need for environmental and social impact assessments, as has been demonstrated at the Thilawa SEZ.  Employment opportunities for local residents are also a top priority at Thilawa.

Japan has been Myanmar’s friend in need and in deed with the Thilawa SEZ. Without the support and commitment of the Japanese government and business community, this project would not have materialised. The Myanmar government warmly welcomes all foreign investors.

I was astonished by the media coverage that accompanied the inauguration of the Thilawa project. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw that about 50 companies from more than a dozen countries have invested in the SEZ. The infrastructure is being developed. Companies have begun establishing factories. Waste management is receiving attention. Residential areas are under construction. Department stores will follow.

I had doubts some years ago when I read about the plans for the Dawei special economic zone project and would have liked to visit the area, but it is too far away.

Thilawa is only an hour’s drive from Yangon and with the help of close friends I was able to visit the site of the SEZ after the official opening of its first phase late last month. That was when my dream materialised. It was a wonderful experience.

There will be cynics who will not be able to accept that Myanmar is practicing two systems in one country, but seeing is believing. It is also hard to believe that regulators can become facilitators. Thilawa was not realised according to our old ways and mind set, but as a result of international practices that will be appreciated by all investors that establish operations at the SEZ.

Thilawa is growing. In the near future, products made at the SEZ will be exported from its port as a new business city continues to expand.

Thilawa SEZ has been developed in a short time, with Japan’s help. Thanks to Japanese goodwill towards Myanmar, one of my long-cherished dreams has come true.

I look forward to the Thilawa Special Economic Zone contributing to growth in Myanmar by serving as a distinctive model for economic development.

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