Myanmar is currently in the eye of foreign investors wanting to be the first to seize golden opportunities in a resource-rich country that soon will be open for business. Many international organizations, donors and consultants are also lining up to offer assistance in socio-economic development, infrastructure and urban development to a government that is preparing to guide the country on its transformational journey.
Two decades ago, in the early 1990’s, Mongolia was in a similar position when it peacefully changed from a Soviet socialist system to a western style democracy. Over the following few years investors and international organisations arrived in Mongolia offering investment and development assistance. As with Myanmar today, the Government of Mongolia was not accustomed to this interest and was unaware of the challenges and risks of opening up to the outside world.
opening up to the outside world. There are many similarities between these two Asian countries in transition. The majority of the people in both countries are Buddhist although from two different branches: Theravāda Buddhism in Myanmar and Tibetan Buddhism in Mongolia. Both countries were single party states – one communist, the other military – with histories of totalitarian socialism and centrally planned economies. Geographically, both Myanmar and Mongolia are sandwiched between superpowers: India and China in the case of Myanmar, and Russia and China in the case of Mongolia. As a result, both countries have strong economic ties with China with 50 percent of their trade with China. Finally both countries are rich in natural resources with mining being an important part of their economies.
LKY School’s Presence in Myanmar
In January, I visited Myanmar with two colleagues from the LKY School to learn about the needs and demands for public policy education. LKY School’s Executive Education has plans to provide executive programmes to the Union Government of Myanmar officials on developing and implementing new strategies and best practices for public sector management and good-governance.
We were welcomed warmly by the Alumni of the LKY School. There are 54 Alumni who graduated from the Master programmes at LKY School, the first being in 1998. Some Alumni are serving in the government while others consult to local NGO’s and various agencies of the United Nations. Some run their own NGO’s and foundations in addition to their full time jobs. For example, Ms. Phyu Yamin Myat (MPP 2010) is the Managing Director of the Myanmar Development Fund while in her spare time she teaches at the Egress Institute, an NGO that provides public policy and vocational trainings all over Myanmar with assistance from the government. Her goal is to influence change by encouraging public participation in government policy-making which she hopes to achieve by teaching the public to understand and analyze policy.
While in Myanmar I noticed the country had several advantages that might help with its transformation. Firstly, the cities we visited (Yangon, North Dagon and Naipiydaw) are generally clean and in order: my first impression of the international airport in Yangon, the new terminal that opened in May 2007 was its similarity in terms of its efficiency to Changi Airport’s Terminal 2. The impression was reinforced by wide and clean streets strangely jammed with new and expensive cars. To avoid poor city planning that many SEA cities had in the wake of its economic growth, Japan is investing in urban development through JICA and Union Government of Myanmar invited Singapore companies to provide expertise on urban planning.
Secondly, I was impressed by the attitude and capability of its young people, (some quotes show almost a third of the population to be youth aged between 15 and 24). Like the young Mongolians in the mid-nineties, they are ambitious and seem certain about the kind of future they want for their country. I met young entrepreneurs and intellectuals who were confident in transforming society with or without the help of external assistance. Most young people I met in Yangon (it does not represent the whole country or especially people from the rural areas) envisioned a slow-paced Burmese style transformation; a welfareoriented growth path rather than one just focused on economic growth. Traditional values and beliefs remain as an important part of the development model they favour.
Thirdly, the Union Government of Myanmar is taking steps to resolve the problem of not having enough public policy specialists with foreign language and IT skills. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs acknowledges the urgent need to improve skills of public servants in advance of Myanmar heading the ASEAN in 2014. The Union Government is trying to attract overseas Myanma scholars and scientists to return and experts from non-governmental organizations to take important posts within the government.
Apparently due to absence of a policy in place to attract talents currently only those individuals passionate about contributing to their home country’s development are returning to Myanmar.
One major difference between the two countries is that Mongolia is still a new country with only 807 years of history since its establishment as a united State, and a population of three million. Myanmar has more than 2,000 years old history and with around 49 million population and 132 different ethnic groups. It is interesting to note that Mongolian empire between 1277 and 1301 repeatedly invaded Myanmar which toppled the four-century-old kingdom in 1287. Both countries have small Muslim minorities (Kazakh Muslims and Rohingya Muslims make up about four to five percent of the population of Mongolia and Myanmar respectively) but unlike the Rohingya in Myanmar, Muslims in Mongolia have lived peacefully and are recognised for their contributions to the country.
Two LKY School Alumni at the UN agency in Yangon, from left Myint Kyaw (MPP 2008 Alumni), Louise Beehag and Aika Bolat from the LKY School; Ma Khin Myo Aye (MPA 2010 Alumni), Joyce Cuff, LKY School .
Absence of Policy toAttract Talents
One challenge both countries face is political integration: in the case of Mongolia numerous political parties have led to unstable coalition governments more concerned about politics and personal interests than good public policy. In the case of Myanmar, it is the large number of local and international NGO’s that work in different directions and without cooperation. Some government agencies also seem disconnected. For instance it is about twenty minute drive between the different ministries in Naipyidaw while some ministries have their representatives in rural areas. Interestingly many of the workers have never left their villages or townships.
Looking at the experience of Mongolia, one might say that the large amount of foreign aid and foreign direct investment (which amounted as USD 1,408,058,870.87 in 2010) mostly in mining sector has discouraged Mongolians from being creative and self-sustainable and that too much freedom in the name of democracy and disintegration due to personal interests of our politicians have harmed the integrity and unity of the country.
After 20 years of economic liberalization, Mongolia has experienced both success and failure. Myanmar as a country just starting along this path can learn a lot from the experiences of Mongolia especially as these countries have so much in common. I believe Myanmar will succeed in implementing the political and socio-economic reforms with or without the help of foreigners. I am certain the generous and kind-hearted people of Myanmar will remain optimistic, courageous and true to their beliefs.
A gathering of alumni organised in Yangon
Aigerim (Aika) Bolat is an Assistant Manager at Executive Education. She is reachable at decb64_c3BwYWlrYUBudXMuZWR1LnNn_decb64