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Friendship Despite Distance and Diversity

60 years of Philippine – Myanmar bilateral relations

When Miss Philippines Pia Alonzo Wurtzbach was crowned Miss Universe 2016, her best friend and roommate May Barani Thaw, the current Miss Myanmar was warmly on her side, providing support after the controversial error in the announcement of pageant winners. The friendship that developed between the two beauty queens reflected the same warm bilateral relations between the Philippines and Myanmar for six decades.

Celebrating friendship

This year, Myanmar and the Philippines are celebrating the 60th anniversary of the formal bilateral relations between the two countries. Against the backdrop of the recently launched ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), the celebration contributes to the efforts at developing closer links not only between the two countries but the members of the regional association. Philippine Ambassador to Myanmar Alex G. Chua described the focus of the celebration, “The embassy intends to commemorate the friendship between the Philippines and Myanmar by highlighting people-to-people exchanges which is the bedrock of our bilateral relations. Likewise, the embassy intends to highlight the exchanges of humanitarian assistance and the Philippine advocacy for disaster adaptation and mitigation and human rights within the context of ASEAN.” The strengthening of current bilateral relationship was enhanced with the visit to Myanmar by Philippine President Benigno Aquino III in 2013, and reciprocated by President U Thein Sein in December of the same year. These visits resulted in fast tracking of cooperation between the two countries. Ambassador Chua shared, “The state visit resulted to the signing of a number of agreements that aim to enhance our cooperation in the fields of information, renewable energy, agriculture, food security and trade and investment. One notable agreement that was also signed during the visit was the visa-free arrangement which allows Filipinos to stay in Myanmar for up to 14 days without the need for a visa”.

The Philippine Embassy and the Filipino community prepared a year-long celebration of the anniversary with a series of activities that includes sister-city agreement between Yangon and Quezon City, exhibits and lectures, book donations, cultural performances, festival of Philippine films and tourism promotion.

Filipinos in Myanmar

The visa-free arrangement provided incentive for Filipinos to visit Myanmar. Others have seen opportunities and found work opportunities in the country. According to Ambassador Chua, “There are more than 1,500 Filipinos registered with the Philippine Embassy as of December 2015. Close to 44% are engaged in the engineering and manufacturing sectors. Recently, we have noted an increase in the number of Filipinos registering with the embassy. Of our new registrants, most are involved in the telecommunications industry and managerial or supervisory positions in multinational corporations such as Coca Cola, Ooredoo, Mitsubishi and Ericsson companies to name a few. The Filipinos in Myanmar are well regarded as teachers, INGO workers and engineers, and they contribute to the development of the host country, Myanmar.”

Myanmar nationals in the Philippines

Asked about Myanmar nationals in the Philippines, the Ambassador noted, “There are also an increasing number of Myanmar nationals studying in the Philippines. It is these exchanges between Filipinos and Myanmar nationals that strengthen our relations”.

Those who studied in the Philippines expressed satisfaction in their experience in the country. Pastor Dong Khan Pau, a Yangon pastor and graduate of an evangelical seminary in the Philippines affirmed that, “Myanmar pastors who would like to have higher education in theological studies usually go to the Philippines because of the quality of education and the opportunity to enhance English-speaking skills.”

Saw Hein Htet Win, a consultant working with a development agency in Kayin State finished his graduate studies at the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies (AIIAS) in the Philippines. He got an opportunity to study while working with the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) an international NGO implementing project in different parts of Myanmar. For Hein Htet, “One of the main considerations is the cost. It is more affordable in the Philippines compared to Singapore or Thailand and the quality is also good. Philippine experience in development is also relevant in the Myanmar context. As most Filipinos can speak English well, we can also practice the language at no extra cost. “

Bilateral trade and investment

Philippine investments in Myanmar may be small compared to other big investors like China, Japan and Korea, but the consistency of the number of companies setting up operations reflect the confidence to Myanmar’s developing market. Ambassador Chua observed, “We are encouraged by the entry of Philippine companies in Myanmar such as Manila Water, ComWorks and the Universal Robina Corporation, to name a few. This is in addition to existing Filipino companies that have carved their own niche in this country such as United Pharma, Liwayway Corporation, Asia Brewery and Splash Corporation.”

It is not only about generating business but also sharing and transfer of technology. One area of partnership is the development of the micro, small and medium enterprises.

Through franchising technologies, partnership in helping develop micro, small and medium enterprises (mSME) will benefit both Philippine investors and Myanmar entrepreneurs as it will make businesses efficient. “The embassy is hopeful that the recently concluded memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the Philippine Franchise Association (PFA) and the Myanmar Retailers Association (MRA) will facilitate stronger business relations between the Philippines and Myanmar,” Ambassador Chua added.

Stronger bond in the future

Every Saturday and Sunday, thousands of people are glued to their television viewing Myit Tar A Thin Chay at the Myawaddy Channel. No, this is not a Myanmar movie, this is a Filipino telenovela with Myanmar sub-titles. Myanmar viewers love this series and they can relate with the plot and theme and even the twists of the story.

Appreciation of pop culture like the TV series facilitate deeper understanding among peoples of different countries. With more cooperation in various fields of interest, it will lead to stronger relations and hopefully contribute to the formation of a truly ASEAN community.