Student protestor in Yangon, seeking reform of Myanmar's education system (Simon Roughneen)

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Student protestor in Yangon, seeking reform of Myanmar's education system (Photo: Simon Roughneen)
Student protestor in Yangon, seeking reform of Myanmar’s education system (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

YANGON – When last week a protestor interrupted the latest international press conference junket to land in Yangon, Myanmar Information Minister Ye Htut was put on the spot.

But after nearly four years as spokesman for Myanmar’s nominally civilian government, the minister seems to have learned to think on the spot. Applauding as a masked Burmese reporter held up a placard denouncing police violence against the media, the former army man sought to assure the audience that aggrieved journalists could make their cases in court.

Attacks on media are among the latest in a series of regressions that have set many to asking whether Myanmar’s reforms are at a standstill ahead of elections due for late 2015.

Reforms have facilitated a relaxation of western sanctions, in turn spurring record foreign investment. The government, therefore, might not be too worried about what human rights groups or lone protestors think, so long its inaction doesn’t prompt a resumption of western sanctions.

Foreign direct investment into Myanmar topped US$8 billion for the financial year 2014/15, double the amount of the previous year and vastly more than the 2009/10 figure of a little over US$300 million.

Moreover, the new investments are not just in energy, which during the latter years of army rule became the official mainstay of the formal economy, but in telecommunications, garment factories and hotels.

Continued investment into these sectors could create a raft of much-needed jobs in a country where around 70 per cent of the population lives in rural poverty and where underemployment is the norm.

In what seems like a never-ending cycle of law drafting and revising, the government wants to revamp existing economic laws – merging the foreign and local investment codes as well as revising the tax code and the colonial-era companies laws.

Last week it launched a National Export Strategy, aiming to boost Myanmar’s trade with Europe and the US. In 2013, Myanmar’s exports to these destinations combined were a miserly US$300 million.

Some of this re-coding is to be lauded. “In my view this government has adopted and implemented better economic policies than I or any economist I know expected before the 2010 election or even in the months after President Thein Sein was inaugurated,” said Lex Rieffel, an economist at the Brookings Institute who visited Myanmar recently.

But Myanmar is not yet an easy place to do business by any stretch of the imagination. The World Bank last week published a survey of 1,000 businesses: 90 per cent reported having to finance investment from their own resources, and just 1 per cent made use of the country’s banking system, ossified during the long years of military rule.

“Difficulties in getting land-use rights, power outages, and inadequate workforce skills are other main barriers to business operation and growth in Myanmar,” the World Bank said.

Another lender, the Asian Development Bank (ADB), which is usually at pains to distance itself from anything resembling political comment, praised the government’s economic reforms and forecast that Myanmar’s economy will grow at more than 8 per cent in the coming financial year.

It sought to make a clear link between Myanmar’s politics and prospects for the country’s economy. “We hope that the reform momentum does not slow up in the run up to the 2015 election,” said Peter Brimble, the ADB’s Myanmar specialist.

Addressing a room full of reporters, Brimble said “we recognize the importance of peace and stability for economic development and economic growth,” a thinly-veiled warning that Myanmar’s ongoing wars in ethnic minority regions could undermine the hype surrounding the country’s untapped market potential.

The ADB then dissected another of Myanmar’s social and economic failings – its hollowed-out education system. About 1.1 million kids start school each year in Myanmar, but of these only about 10 per cent finish high school, mostly those from cities and better-off families. Only one third of children from rural poor households manage to finish middle school.

Such attrition makes it hard for companies who need educated, trained staff. “Businesses say that the second-biggest constraint to working in Myanmar is human resources,” said Christopher Spohr, an ADB researcher.

He and Brimble spoke at the same Yangon hotel where the masked reporter-protestor later made his point to Ye Htut. He had been denouncing police who batoned journalists and detained protesters – mostly students – at an education reform protest north of Yangon, in a throwback to the tactics of the military junta that ruled up to 2011.

Ironically, too, the protesters were calling on the government to spend more on education – just what businesses and lenders say must happen for Myanmar’s economy to sustain its growth.

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