Challenging year holds much promise for Myanmar's development

Myanmar President Thein Sein delivers a speech during the opening of the country’s third Development Cooperation Forum held Feb. 7-8 in the country’s capital. Photo by: MDCF

Four years into its transition to democracy, Myanmar has progressed rapidly, whether in terms of implementing much-needed reforms, attracting foreign investments or achieving development milestones. But the nation of 54 million still has a long way to go — and the next 12 months can be a crucial turning point.

“This year, 2015, poses a challenging year for Myanmar,” President Thein Sein said in a speech during the opening of the country’s third Development Cooperation Forum held this weekend in Naypyitaw. “This government fully understands and remains committed to successfully overcoming [the] challenges.”

Some of these challenges include the conduct of the country’s upcoming general election late this year — marking the first time since its transition where “all political stakeholders will contest freely and fairly” — the signing of a nationwide cease-fire agreement to put a stop to ethnic conflicts in the country, furthering the government’s administrative reforms to include greater cooperation and transparency, and “reconciling the wide range of views regarding amendments to the constitution.”

The country’s annual development cooperation forum — its biggest gathering of government officials, aid donors, bilateral partners, the private sector and civil society — has become a platform for Myanmar to reach out to the rest of the world as it continues its transition and integration into the international trade and development community.

Following the success of its two previous forums, which focused on partnerships and shared commitments, this year’s event centered on inclusive development. Wah Wah Maung, deputy director general of Myanmar’s Ministry of National Planning and Economic Development, explained to Devex that more stakeholders, particularly representatives from civil society, are now becoming more active in cooperating with the government for the development programs.

“2015 is challenging not just for Myanmar [but also] the global community since [the Millennium Development Goals] are also expiring this year. We have to develop for more inclusive regions across the country,” she said, adding that development partners will play a crucial role especially in the ongoing peace process and the development of the post-conflict communities’ livelihood and sustainability.

Due in part to its rapid development, Myanmar has found itself in a situation that is common among low- and middle-income countries: Its economy has improved steadily — and significantly — but growth has not been inclusive, resulting in a widening wealth gap.

With this year’s forum now over, Wah Wah Maung expressed optimism that the Myanmar government would begin to find ways to achieve inclusive growth. And through better aid management and information sharing — specifically on where aid is given and how it is spent — the deputy director general hopes the international community would support government efforts toward this goal.

Not just rhetoric

Despite the accelerated pace of reforms and investments, Myanmar remains a laggard in doing business, transparency and human rights.

Sein shared that the cooperation forum was envisioned to bridge and address these challenges, and “ensure [the] international support for Myanmar’s democratic reform and … sustain the development of our country” while continuing to contend with “two of the most widely held wishes of the general public: peace and stability, and socio-economic development.”

Myanmar’s president also underlined the international community’s support of the country’s transition to democracy and efforts to make development progress. Thein Sein emphasized in particular the community’s unwavering willingness to “understand and realize” the country’s constraints and challenges, and address these obstacles head on instead of going around them.

Civil society actors, in turn, praised what seemed to be a government that is more open to collaborating with them.

“The general tone was that the government this year is very open, more open than we have in the past years,” Surendrini Wijeyaratne, coordinator of Myanmar’s INGO Forum, told Devex. “There is also a sense that there is recognition that civil society [representatives] are becoming development actors in their own right.”

Wijeyaratne, however, quickly pointed out the need to ensure all of the goodwill at the forum translates into concrete actions and solutions that will benefit all the people of Myanmar.

“[We have to] make sure that [the discussions] would not be just rhetoric, [it should] be put into practice. Government should take its time to establish consultative processes in developing laws [and] policies,” she said.

Plans forward

One of the biggest highlights of the forum includes the launch of the country’s first-ever online aid information management system to better track and oversee the growing number of development partner projects and programs in Myanmar.

“[The online system] will help us better direct support to where it is needed most, and to determine what is working and what areas require additional attention,” read the concluding joint statement of the two-day forum, a copy of which Devex obtained from the national planning ministry.

Transparency issues have become a perennial issue in the former military state, as are difficulties in setting up businesses, warding off some potential investors and international organizations as a result.

An online aid management portal could therefore be a game changer — but not a panacea. The government still needs to improve the country’s business environment, and provide space for development organizations to maintain vibrant and open operations. The international community meanwhile should respect local norms and incorporate homegrown ideas and inputs in their programs.

“[Development partners’] projects should be in line with the priorities of Myanmar set by the government to include all Myanmar people,” Wah Wah Maung concluded, noting that despite significant challenges, the country has promising potential.

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About the author

  • Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a former Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. He previously covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics.