When was your first visit to Myanmar and what was your first impression back then?
My first visit to Myanmar was in 1987 as a backpacker. I was very much impressed by the Myanmar people as well as by the beautiful townscape and landscape of Myanmar in the old days. I fell in love with Myanmar at first sight. On the first day, I stayed at Y.M.C.A. downtown Yangon. I walked around the downtown and looked up all the historic buildings in this area. People were kind, tended to help others. I’ve recognized lots of similarities between Japan and Myanmar in culture and people. I visited Bagan, Mandalay, and Yangon at that time. After that, I visited Myanmar several times in 1990s and in 2000s. I was appointed as Chief Representative of JICA Myanmar Office and have been stationed in Yangon since March last year.
How did you end up in the current position at JICA?
I have been working at Japanese government agencies for international development for more or less thirty years. I was posted three overseas posts.
The first one was in India between 1991 and 1994. It was right after the assassination of then-Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. It was the time when India started the liberalization of economy, which was exciting, and Japan’s development assistance contributed to her development. India is the world biggest democratic country, which I have great respect on. I enjoyed her culture, history and working with people of India. It was fun.
I was assigned to Washington DC between 2010 and 2014 as JICA Chief Representative of the U.S.A. My main task there was coordination with international and American organizations such as the World Bank, UN, IMF and USAID. During the time when I worked at JICA headquarters in Tokyo between 1994 and 2010, I was mainly in charge of our ODA operations for the Greater Mekong Sub-region. I was a director in charge of ODA loan operations in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos before. I also worked for Thailand as well as for Indonesia. So I am pretty much familiar with greater Mekong Sub-region and ASEAN countries.
Can you describe your primary responsibilities?
JICA is very much committed to serve the people of Myanmar. I think it pretty much critical that Myanmar is becoming more stable and more prosperous country. For those, my responsibilities here are to contribute to Myanmar’s development by using the resources available with us such as human resources, capital resources, technology resources and so on. These are my primary responsibilities.
What are the major projects of JICA at present?
There are many projects which we are assisting at present. I will explain about projects for economic development and for employment creation at first, and then about a project related to rule of law. Other important projects in education and healthcare sectors will be touched upon later
Firstly, I would like to talk about Thilawa Special Economic Zone projects. I know that the new government will put priority on creating employment. For the Thilawa SEZ, we are participating in Myanmar-Japan Thilawa Development Ltd. as an equity partner as well as supporting infrastructure for the Thilawa SEZ, such as water supply, electricity, roads, a port and telecommunications. We would like to make the Thilawa SEZ as a good model for creating employment and also for efficient destination of domestic as well as foreign direct investment. We have tried to achieve this by assisting good infrastructure and by making the one stop service center inside the SEZ. Investors in the Thilawa SEZ do not have to go back and forth between Nay Pyi Taw and Yangon or different ministriesin Naypyidaw. They can go through all the procedures for investment at the Thilawa SEZ. International standard environmental and social guidelines are applicable to the Thilawa SEZ. So this could be a good model for creating employment as well as creating good environment for direct foreign investment.
Another project I would like to explain relates to rule of law promotion. We have dispatched three legal experts to the Union Attorney General Office and the Supreme Court for capacity development of these institutions. I think enhancing the independence of three branches of the government-legislative, administrative and the judiciary- is very important. Normally, under the military government or authoritarian government whether it was Indonesia or Malaysia in the past, executive branch dominated. Judiciary branch is needed to be strengthened for democratization. So we decided to assist the important judicial institutions by sending legal experts.
What is your view on the current economic situation in Myanmar?
I think economic growth remains quite strong. After the flood and landslide last year, inflation once became higher than expected and foreign reserves were depleted partly because rice export needed to be stopped.
However, by now the inflation and foreign reserves are very much under control of the government. However, there are many challenges ahead. Supply constraint may become an issue. Proper investment is necessary on infrastructure as well as on human resources. We are very much focusing on economic infrastructure and human resources development for the people of Myanmar and for the new government of Myanmar to overcome the supply constraint and to proceed with sustainable economic and social development.
In what areas of cooperation are you going to increase, when the new government is in?
I think it is up to the development priorities of the new government which was elected and chosen by the people. I understand that top priority issues will be creating of employment. Our focus is creating employment by making the investment climate and human resources better. Good investment can create lots of jobs. At the same time, several other sectors such as agriculture, education and health, and Yangon city urban development, including urban transportation, water supply and sewage, could also be challenging and need a lot of attention.
Please explain further your current projects on (1) infrastructure (2) education (3) healthcare.
We are providing assistance to improve the Yangon circular railway system in addition to that to improve the Yangon- Mandalay railway. What we’d like to achieve is to guide the city for the transit-oriented development. What I mean is that public infrastructure needs to serve all the people whether they are the rich or the poor. Improving the public transportation system is very important. If people in a city relies more on public transportation system, traffic jam can be eased and economic efficiency of the city can be increased. So by revitalizing the public transportation system such as the circular railway with well-connected bus rapid transit system, Yangon city will become more efficient. Basically, as I already mentioned that, we support good infrastructure serving all the people.
Regarding education, kind of vision we share is to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and to promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. We have one project on primary education curriculum and textbook reform.
It is very important for all children to acquire necessary knowledge and skills. It is often said that Myanmar education is focusing on to memorize textbooks. We try to improve school curriculum and textbooks so that children can enhance problem solving skill, and critical thinking skill. Creativity also needs to be enhanced. After acquiring such skills at primary education, children can study further at higher level so that they can be a good leader in the future of this country.
Now we are going to study about Tvet (Technical Vocational Education and Training). Since the government is putting importance upon creating employment, the Tvet is very necessary.
Regarding health sector, new government is trying to achieve the universal healthcare system. We also believe that is very important. It is important for the people to receive basic and good healthcare services in order for everyone to live a comfortable and a very healthy life. For establishing the universal healthcare system, we are currently assisting the Health System Strengthening Project in which we mobilize several Japanese health sector experts to work with the Ministry of Health. We also assist several other health sector projects such as malaria control and construction of two general hospitals, one in Loikaw and one in Lashio.
How much budget JICA has allocated for Myanmar in 2016?
I think it will be very significant amount. Last year, we committed more or less one billion US dollar of assistance including concessional loans, technical assistance and grant assistance. We are very much committed to fully support Myanmar people and the new government they selected. It is very important for us that Myanmar becomes more prosperous and stable country. I am pretty much sure that the Japanese government and private sectors will fully support Myanmar government to achieve the goal.
We are under the impression that JICA is staffed mainly by Japanese. What is your current staff strength and breakdown between local and Japanese?
I am a little bit surprised to hear your question. For instance, in our office, there are around 60 staffs working in total. The number of the Japan national is only a bit more than 20. The Myanmar nationals are a bit less than 40. The ratio of Myanmar employees is much bigger than that of Japanese.
How are you planning to increase local employment ratios?
As I mentioned, even now, local employment ratios is quite high in my office and contribution of the local staffs to our work is significant. Capacity building of all the staff whether they are Myanmar or Japanese is very much necessary. Myanmar is facing a lot of development challenges. Our staff has to learn a lot to tackle with these challenges. One of the advantages of JICA is that we have many development projects which we have assisted in neighboring countries such as in Vietnam, in Malaysia, in Indonesia, in Thailand, in India, in China and so on. We have accumulated a lot of cases of what works or what does not work in other countries. Trying to adjust them into Myanmar’s current context is our challenge because development is very much context specific. Unless we know very much about history, culture and human nature of Myanmar, in addition to political economy of the country, we cannot adjust our experiences of other countries into the Myanmar context. So, we ourselves need to study a lot.
What is your opinion on Myanmar’s political transition?
I think many people are working so hard to advance the process of peaceful political transition. We are very much looking forward to working with the new government which people chose.
If you could make one major change to any government policy, what would it be?
I think people and government of Myanmar need to establish new economic order which is inclusive, innovative and internationally competitive. This type of economic order cannot be achieved simply by rationalizing economic policies at the technical level. Fundamental changes of political economy of the country are necessary from one that favors political elite class to one that is very inclusive and fundamentally democratic.
This does not necessarily mean to dismantle the economic elite groups.
Rather, new government needs to guide them to be responsible members of the business community. They have the resource such as capital resources, human resources but they need to use them properly for Myanmar to develop.
Those who are under sanction, for example, by the U.S. Treasury need to become responsible member of society and to get out of the sanction list by increasing transparency of their business and following the government rules and regulations. I think the government needs to set strict standards of corperate accounting, transparency and enforcement. Effective corperate and property taxation, whose nature is progressive, is necessary to be introduced so that the rich should pay fair share to the society and economy. Once economic conglomerate are getting out of sanction, international market is very much available for them. Then economic space becomes available in the domestic market for the small and medium enterprises to play a role.
How are you enjoying your life here in Myanmar?
I really enjoy it. As I mentioned, since 1987, the first time I visited to Myanmar, I like the people, culture and history of Myanmar. During the last one year, after I became Chief Representative of JICA, I visited 13 states and regions out of 14. So I made lots of trip. Of course, I visited Nay Pyi Taw almost every week to discuss development issues with government counterparts in addition to my travel to states and regions. I made visits to different states and regions to talk with people and to see projects which we are supporting.
Last December, I visited Chin state, for example. I was very much shocked by seeing damages caused by landslides and floods which affected the life of local people there in a serious manner. Natural disaster is one of the big challenges in Japan, too. Japan has lots of natural disasters such as earthquake, volcano eruption, flood and all other types. We have experiences of overcoming all kinds of natural disasters in the past. So using the lessons drawn from various kinds of experiences in Japan, we can make a difference in Myanmar and contribute to the people of Myanmar.[/paypal]