Nearly three years after its transition from military to civilian rule, Myanmar still faces a host of challenges in its path to democratization and economic reform. Japan has offered economic aid to support development of the country’s infrastructure that Japan hopes will improve the investment climate for businesses. Assistance should also be extended to help the Southeast Asian nation pursue political and legal reforms.
Myanmar has achieved rapid growth in foreign investments that have rushed into the resource-rich country as most of the economic sanctions by Western powers were lifted.
This year Myanmar assumes the chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations for the first time — a move that symbolizes its full-scale return to the international community.
The country’s gross domestic product expanded 6.5 percent in the fiscal year to March 2013, and a 6.8 percent growth is forecast for the current fiscal year.
A survey by the Japan External Trade Organization shows that more than 80 percent of Japanese firms considering investments in the Asia-Oceania regions see Myanmar as a country where they want to expand operations in the coming two years.
Still, infrastructure development has apparently not caught up with the fast pace of economic growth. Electricity supply shortages have led to frequent power outages for Japanese firms that have launched local operations. Construction of more roads, railways and port facilities is an urgent task.
When President Thein Sein visited Tokyo in December, Japan promised ¥63 billion in loans to Myanmar mainly to finance the country’s infrastructure building. The two countries also signed an investment accord.
The amount of aid including loans and grants pledged by Japan since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office in December 2012 has topped ¥150 billion. While such aid is expected to benefit firms doing business in Myanmar and to contribute to boosting bilateral economic ties, Japan should also extend support to promote further reforms in the country.
In another move toward democratization, the Thein Sein regime in late December 2013 announced a sweeping amnesty for all political prisoners and started releasing from prison people who had been charged under draconian laws used to imprison activists.
On the other hand, the regime remains hesitant toward changing the constitution despite calls for revision by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The constitution continues to set aside a quarter of parliamentary seats to the military and bars a person with a relative of foreign nationality from becoming president of the country — a provision that rules out Suu Kyi, whose sons have British nationality.
Revising the constitution in ways that reflect popular will toward government will be crucial to the country’s full democratization. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy will likely greatly increase its share of parliamentary seats if the elections scheduled next year are held in a fair manner. Japan should urge Myanmar to push forward on constitutional revisions as well as other political and legal reforms, and provide assistance in support of such steps.
The Japanese government reportedly plans to contribute ¥10 billion in five years toward improving the living standards of ethnic minorities that have suffered from years of internal conflict in the country. The grants are designed to help accelerate peace talks between the Thein Sein regime and ethnic rebels.
This is a welcome sign that Japanese aid will be provided to support the national reconciliation process.