Name: Thierry Mathou
Job Title: Ambassador
Profession: Career Diplomat
MI: What is the mission of the French Embassy here?
Since the normalization of the relationship between France and Myanmar, the mission of our Embassy has been to strengthen this relationship in all sectors and to take all ini- tiatives to do so. On the political front we maintain a close and constructive dialogue with the government, the parliament, and regional authorities. We are eager to open new channels of cooperation by prospecting areas like agriculture, culture, education, and health, where our two countries sign agreements and promote joint programs. Last year the French Development Agency (AFD) opened its office in the Embassy. We also highlight domains were the promotion of democracy and human rights needs more results and endeavors. Our commitment to support Myanmar transition is genuine but vigilant. The duty of the Embassy is to be in contact with all the stakeholders of the tran- sition process. In that context we are very supportive of the development of the civil society with a special focus on freedom of ex- pression which led us to initiate the creation of the first independent school of journalism in Myanmar. The Embassy which is also very mobilized on issues relating to gender equal- ity organized in 2013 the first international Women Forum in Myanmar. A new edition is under preparation for this year. On the cultural front the Embassy is also very ac- tive through the French Institute which is the oldest foreign cultural center in Yangon. Last but not least the Economic Department of the Embassy and the Trade Office -called Ubifrance- have a key role in promoting French-Myanmar economic and trade relations and in supporting French companies including SMEs on the local market.
MI: How do you describe the history of relationship between France and Myanmar?
The relation between our two nations dates back to the 18th century during the Kings’ era. Last year we celebrated the 65th an- niversary of modern diplomatic relations between France and Myanmar. On Febru- ary 28th 1948, France was the first western nation to recognize the independence of the country and to open a delegation in Yangon. After a serious setback in our relationship due to the surge of military regime in Myan- mar, we have been keen to engage in a con- structive relation with the new government. Following the visit of the French Minister of Foreign Affairs in Naypyitaw in January 2012, France has been supporting the sus- pension, then the lifting of EU sanctions. President Thein Seins’s visit to Paris in July 2013 – the first visit of a Myanmar Head of State to France- was a milestone in the his- tory of our relationship. Now ministerial vis- its from both sides are happening on a reg- ular basis. Intergovernmental agreements are being signed. We are looking forward to strengthening this relationship while encouraging the Myanmar government to deepen the democratization process which is still in its infancy.
MI: Tell us one thing that surprised you when you first started your assign- ment in Myanmar.
I arrived in Myanmar on January 4th 2011. The former government was still in place. I could not participate to the celebration of the Independence Day in Naypyitaw because I had to present my credentials before attend- ing any official function. While waiting to be among the first ambassadors to be accredit- ed by the new regime, I rapidly got the op- portunity to interact informally with several stakeholders, both from the government and the oppositions. When the transition process became a reality, the most surprising for me was to see how both sides could easily min- gle-up without apparent animosity. It was like everybody knew each other. The capac- ity of the people I met throughout the years to forgive – which does not mean forget – has often been a source of surprise. Seeing in the same room people who belonged to the for- mer regime as well as former political pris- oners is a lesson of hope for the future.
MI: What are the focus sectors/in- dustries that would suit a France com- pany to invest in Myanmar?
French companies have the capacity to in- vest in many sectors in Myanmar. Some of our world champions have already started to prospect the market. Their main focus is on transportation, water treatment and san- itation, electricity production and distribu- tion, telecommunications, IT, agroindustry, banking and finance, insurance, construc- tion, architecture, tourism, automotive, and of course oil and gas.
MI: How many French companies have invested in Myanmar so far?
Let me first tell you that the number of French citizens settling down in Myanmar is growing rapidly. Last year’s trend was a 65% increase. The French community is the first European community in Myanmar. Most of them are businessmen and businesswomen. The French-Myanmar Business Association (AFMA) which was the oldest association of its kind among western business communi- ties in Myanmar is transforming into a full fledge French-Myanmar Chamber of Com- merce and Industry (FMCCI). Its member- ship is growing fast. So far there are about 30 French companies that already invested in Myanmar. Other will come soon. MI: The French Minister for Foreign Trade visited Myanmar in July 2013, and signed an agreement to cancel US$ 550 million loan that Myanmar owed to France. What other develop- ments have taken place since then? The cancelling of US$550 million of Myan- mar debt was a very significant decision taken by the French Government under the global framework of the Paris Club. France is now preparing to grant new loans to Myan- mar. In order to do so we need to finalize the agreement that will allow the French De- velopment Agency (AFD) to implement this new facility. The issue is in the hands of the Myanmar Government. The French govern- ment has also decided to guaranty commer- cial loans in Myanmar.
MI: Are French investors deterred by the recent US decision to extend eco- nomic sanctions on Myanmar?
No. The EU has lifted its sanctions in 2013 which was a major decision for French inves- tors.