In a wide-ranging interview, Japan’s Ambassador to Myanmar Mr Tateshi Higuchi discussed bilateral relations, the peace process, and the challenges of development for Myanmar under its new government.
The interview was conducted by Mizzima Editor-in-Chief Soe Myint at the Embassy of Japan in Yangon.
I would like to start with the bi-lateral relationship. It appears there has been an increasing relationship between Japan and Myanmar what are the main priorities?
The new NLD administration is the first administration which had the support of the majority of Myanmar people. We feel this is a very historical administration and we have a resolve as the Japanese government to cooperate with the Japanese private sector as well and putting our full support the NLD government.
The success of the new administration is not only of the utmost importance to the Myanmar people but we believe the success of the new administration in Myanmar leads to the success of the whole region as well. In order for peace, stability, and the future success of the region it all relies on the success of the administration.
Of course, economic development is very important but in order for economic development to be successful we feel what is important are national reconciliation efforts and the Japanese government has been putting its full support behind national reconciliation efforts and we have resolved to continue to do so.
When it comes to financial cooperation there has been a long relationship between the two countries starting in the 1954 Japan-Burma peace treaty and agreements on economic cooperation in your opinion what are the main achievements between the countries so far?
Of course as you rightly mentioned the 1954 peace treaty was the first treaty to be concluded between South-east Asian nations and Japan after the war and we feel this agreement was done with a very open hearted gesture from the Myanmar people. We very much appreciate the Myanmar people and their considerations. Concerning this, after the peace treaty and the reparations treaty was concluded Japan provided Myanmar with over 250 million US dollars’ worth of economic assistance. One of the long term projects coming out of it was the long lasting hydroelectric power plant. We feel very proud of the fact that this power plant has been providing Myanmar with the necessary electric power for over 50 years.
Also another important project is the New Yangon General Hospital that was constructed in 1984 and we feel very happy that the Myanmar people have been able to take advantage of the benefits from this economic cooperation. We are very happy that the New Yangon General Hospital is called the Japan Hospital. We are very proud of that.
And since the 1954 treaty it has been 62 years since the reestablishment of diplomatic ties between Japan and Myanmar and I feel it is very important that we have the firm resolve to further strengthen this very good friendship we have between our two countries.
If I am not mistaken, Myanmar radio was also supported by Japan out of this agreement.
Assistance for Myanmar radio and television was based on our basic thoughts that it is important that the press have their freedom in order for the further democratisation of the country. And our support comes based on that. In terms of support for media, what we have done is first of all the equipment that is needed for the successful activities of the media. So we have provided various equipment in support of this. Also one form of assistance we are thinking of, and we are readily available to provide such assistance to the Myanmar people, is in training of for example editing of TV programs, and also another facet we feel is very important is how reporters cover and report on the content.
We have been talking about providing equipment and while we were in the talks what we were moved by was the fact that Myanmar people have used editing equipment that was given to them 30 years ago by Japan. The Myanmar people have taken care of this equipment for such a long time and are still using it.
I would like to talk about development aid programmes. Japan has been very active over the last four of five years what kind of programs do you have in Myanmar?
In regards to development aid, first of all we have various priority fields in which we would like to provide assistance and these go hand-in-hand with what the new administration feels will support Myanmar. So we make sure we are in close consultation and close coordination with the new administration in deciding which areas they feel important and we make sure our assistance goes hand-in-hand with what the administration wants.
From what we have been talking about and we have been feeling from our discussions with the NLD administration we feel that the administration is concentrating on doing what is good for the Myanmar people. One issue we feel is important, we all know that 70% of the people live in rural areas and many are engaged in agriculture. We feel it is very important to improve the livelihoods of these people and that includes the social infrastructure surrounding them and also system they can have access to. We feel it is very important that these systems are upgraded so that they can get benefits from them. Also when we look at what the NLD says, they are going to be focussing on, education or health and medical care, and also the financial and monetary policies, that is also important for them as well and we feel very much a part of providing assistance in these fields. Also what we feel is very important for long term development is that there is provision of good quality job opportunities for the Myanmar people. We feel that the provision of job opportunities is important and that human resources development goes hand- in- hand with this. Also what we feel important is the various training that goes into job seekers going into the job market we feel that is important as well.
And we have been talking about government assistance from the Japanese Government to the Myanmar Government. What we feel is the ideal way to do this is we see many Japanese companies in Myanmar, and what we feel the best way to do this is make sure the government assistance to the Myanmar Government goes hand-in-hand with investment from Japanese companies coming into Myanmar. And what we feel very important for Myanmar and the improvement of the lives of Myanmar people is how Japanese companies come into Myanmar how they conduct their business, how they invest in Myanmar. And what we feel the good elements of investment by Japanese firms in Myanmar is that it has to be a win-win relationship between the Japanese firms and their Myanmar counterparts. It has to be good also for Myanmar and the Myanmar people, and by this we specifically mean the provision of quality jobs and also that technology transfers from these Japanese firms to the Myanmar people and to Myanmar companies are done well. Human resources development by Japanese firms employing Myanmar workers goes hand-in-hand as well.
You mentioned about the human resource issue. You have been assisting the Japan-Myanmar Human Resources Centre. Can you tell us about the centre and its role in building capacity for people in Myanmar?
This is done as a technical cooperation program. We also have support from the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (UMFCCI) and also with the Ministry of Commerce. And we have provided various programs. We have done programs on Business Management, we also have Marketing, Entrepreneurship, Japanese Tourism guide, various programs. And we have borrowed space inside the UMFCCI office and we have been conducting these various programs and we sometimes had to limit the number of people coming in taking these courses because we only have the capacity of the office building. But we want to make sure that these people participating in these programs get something tangible techniques out of these courses that they can put into use.
Japan has been very active in the Thilawa SEZ project. How do you see the project contributing to Myanmar’s economic development?
In terms of the Thilawa SEZ, needless to say Myanmar has plans for three SEZs and Thilawa is the first one to become operational. Concerning the project, we have been conducting all kinds of cooperation between Myanmar and Japanese Government. We feel it is important that this SEZ became a good model for future SEZs and we feel this can be and should be a model case for future SEZ development in Myanmar.
When we look at the project, it spans a vast area in Thilawa and we are fully into phase one and we are now going into phase two. And the final idea of this is for the SEZ area to become2,400 hectares and this is a very large area. When we are discussing the expansion of the industrial zone area, we pay full consideration conforming to international standards concerning the relocation of citizens who are living in that area and also the environmental considerations. We feel it is very important for this project that it conform to international standards and that how these projects should be constructed. It is the first issue that we follow international norms and best practices.
And the second issue we feel is very important is that we not only have the development of the industrial zones but we have also been cooperating in the development of the infrastructure that surround the SEZ. The water provision, the electricity, and also the logistics issues, the roads surrounding the Myanmar ports, they are developed in order that the SEZ is fully utilised. And also not only the hard infrastructure but also the soft infrastructure, the systems that surround it, for example the customs clearance system that is going to be implemented in the Thilawa SEZ. We feel that we [need to] make sure the infrastructure is developed correctly and effectively. The Myanmar Government and the Japanese Government and Japanese companies that are stakeholders are all cooperating together and making this plant a future picture of how Myanmar economic development should be conducted.
The point I would like to make [thirdly]is over sixty companies have already signed up for the SEZ and many have already commenced operations. And just by these sixty companies starting up[in] Thilawa, there is going to be tens of thousands of new job opportunities for Myanmar people and going back to the issue of human resources development we feel these new job opportunities by Japanese firms are going to be contributing to the transfer of technology and also human resources development for those people who are going to be working in Thilawa SEZ with the Japanese firms that are operating there. Also one other issue surrounding the operation of companies around the Thilawa SEZ and one that is very important is to support the growth of SMEs, small and mediumsized enterprises. For many companies that are already operating, these companies that are going to produce card board boxes or formed and fabricated materials for other companies operating. When we look at how companies in Myanmar, many Myanmar SMEs are supporting these types of business [by]the provision of primary materials and providing them to other companies. We feel that operations in Thilawa SEZ are going to be supporting the operations of other SMEs as well and we feel it is important to support these businesses.
I would like to talk about the peace process in Myanmar. Japan has been active in supporting the peace process in Myanmar for some years now. What do you think about the process and what else can Japan do to support it?
We feel the success of the peace process is very important for the future prosperity and happiness of the Myanmar people. Looking at how the various changes have happened over the last few weeks, now we see a new framework that the new administration [is]going to be conducting the peace process. This has been established now.
For some years now the Japanese Government has appointed Mr. Yohei Sasakawa who [is] the chairman of the Nippon Foundation as our special representative concerning the peace and reconciliation process in Myanmar. We have been giving assistance towards the peace process hand-in-hand with special representative Mr.Sasakawa and we are resolved to continue and further strengthen our cooperation and support with special representative Mr. Sasakawa.
It may not be appropriate to mention numbers here. But just for your information, we have already made it clear that we are going to be providing support amounting to ten billion Japanese Yen to conflict affected areas starting from 2014 over five years. What is going to be conducted through this support is the improvement of the livelihood and also the welfare of the people living in those areas.
And we don’t think it is appropriate to talk about how much money there will be. But in order to improve the humanitarian situation for people affected by the fighting, we not only provide assistance directly through Japanese government programs but we partner with international organisations in order to provide the humanitarian assistance that is needed. We have been doing for several years now and just to mention the newest development, we announced on 3 May that we have signed agreements with four UN agencies WFP, FAO, UNHCR, and UN-Habitat in providing a total of 3.8 Billion Yen for humanitarian assistance to those affected in ethnic areas. So we will conduct such assistance through these international organisations.
What do you think of the fighting that is still taking place, despite the peace process still going on, for example in the Rakhine, Shan and Kachin states. How does the peace process look like with all this fighting still going on?
First of all, I want to mention that we have knowledge that this has been still occurring, despite the peace process. But our basic and foremost rule is that we understand that this issue is a sovereign issue for Myanmar and it is up to the Myanmar people and the Myanmar Government to think it through and decide how it should be progressed.
And what Japan wants to do is to provide whatever support that the Myanmar people or Myanmar Government needs. But that support should be provided to support whatever the Myanmar people decides or the Myanmar Government decides, that should be done to move forward the peace process.
We don’t want to push around the Myanmar people, say this should be done or that should be done. We are not going to be saying that. And what we were thinking we could do and can do under these circumstances is as I have mentioned, to provide support to alleviate people who are suffering, both in terms of the welfare and also in terms of improving the humanitarian situation. And also to provide whatever that the Government of Myanmar or the Myanmar people are going to be doing.
And as I mentioned before, we have great hopes. The Myanmar government is now, as we have seen over the past few weeks, they have been establishing a framework to be moving forward the peace process. And whether it be the peace process or the situation in Rakhine, as you rightly mentioned, the new government is going to be getting wider support concerning these issues, based on the framework that they have been constructing concerning these issues. And what we have great hopes for is that whatever policy or whatever that the Myanmar Government or the Myanmar people is going to move forward with, we are going to be providing whatever support that make sure these reforms, or these policies, are well implemented.
When we talk about the Myanmar friendship and relationship, I think the private Japanese citizens play a very important role in strengthening their relationship between the two countries and peoples. Do they continue to actively after the country opened up, from 2010? What role do they play now, if they continue to play a role?
When we look at the role of private citizens and the relationship between Myanmar and Japan, we feel that relations are in a very good state, maybe the best right now, and what we feel is forming the base of such good relations between our two countries is the fact that at various levels between Japan and Myanmar from the private citizens to the government, there has been various and many human-to-human, people-to-people ties between our two countries. Between our two governments, maybe there have been some periods of difficulties, between the government, and the government level. But even in those years, the people to people ties between our two citizens or two peoples have not been severed.
When we look at the situation during World War Two, we had inflicted damage and suffering towards the Myanmar people, but even under those circumstances, Myanmar had[taken]such generous stancewhen we were discussing reparation treaty, and we very much appreciatedthe kindness of the Myanmar people towards Japan, even under those difficult circumstances during the war. And especially when people were in the military during those years of the war, they felt the kindness of the Myanmar people when they were here. And many of these, not a few but fairly many people who were under the situation felt the kindness of the Myanmar people and have felt a genuine feeling to become a bridge between our two countries.
Now and also in the past, we have many people who are said to be Burmese crazies or [Birumero in Japanese], and this is from a very good point of view, because they have interacted with the Myanmar people, they felt the warm hearts of the Myanmar people, they so fell in love with Myanmar. They are now probably calling themselves like that. And so we feel that such interactions is the basis or the base on which such terminology is being created. So that just in itself shows the good relationship between our two countries.
I would like to discuss a little bit more this people to people relationship, as well as the relationship between the two countries. I agree that despite whatever happened during the war, there is a very strong fondness and also understanding between the people. And there were some ups and downs when Burma was under the military government. Now we see a growing relationship. What about the future over the next 10 years?
Just going ahead and letting you know my conclusion concerning your question is that despite all the difficulties in the past years, the people to people ties and relations are going to continue and going to deepen.
And when we look at the specifics in these people to people, we see for example in tourism field, there are many Japanese people who visit Myanmar now. And during this past Thingyan, many Myanmar people had the chance to visit Japan. In terms of business, we have already talked about the expanding business ties between our two countries. There are many students who choose to study abroad in Japan and there are many people who go to Japan as technical trainees. And also in terms of the academics, there are increasingly many relations between our higher level education [establishments], university to university ties.
One last question. You have been supporting the National League for Democracy government very actively. There have been exchange visits, both politics and business, and other levels. What in your opinion are the main challenges for the new Myanmar government?
What we understand is the new administration led by the NLD has garnered the support of the majority of the Myanmar people. And 70 percent of the Myanmar people live in rural areas. And what is important for them and also the new administration is that the livelihoods and the lives of these people are uplifted in terms of the health care, the access they have, and also the education and incomes improvement. And what we feel very important is balanced development in the rural and urban areas. That is very much important, but it is easier said than done. And many countries, including Japan, have experienced the difficulties in trying to achieve a balance development. It is very difficult. There is a need for development, not just in terms of the economy. What we are going to be doing is to support Myanmar and the new administration’s efforts there.
Maybe saying this off the record might not be possible but one issue. I have been thinking of Myanmar is the development of the industry. The industrial sector is possible in Myanmar. With the development of the industrial sector, many employment opportunities are going to be produced but there are going to be many social issues surrounding these types of development. And what I have been seeing over these past two years or so, since coming over here and assuming the role as ambassador, is that over 70 percent of the Myanmar people lives in the rural. Myanmar is very large, because of the large land area, size of this country. When I go to these rural townships, we see that it is so difficult for many of these villagers to access hospitals. It takes five to seven hours just to carry a patient to a township hospital of a township health centre that has a doctor and a nurse who can look at them. I feel this is a very large obstacle solving the issue of health care and access to health care.
And when we look at education and the issues surrounding education provision, the same thing applies. There may be primary schools or middle schools in a township but in order to access a high school, children have to walk five hours by foot to the nearest high school and that is a very big problem for these children, wanting to go to high school. This is not going to be possible if they need to take five hours just to commute to school, and so I feel, this is the big thing that surrounds education provision and also the same thing that applies to livelihood improvement. For example, the access to markets. Even if these people are able to grow many quantities of crops, if they can’t have access to the markets, they can’t have access to the income coming from those crops.
So I feel it is important to develop the major rail transport and also maybe the inland water transport on rivers, when we look at the nationwide development of Myanmar. But I feel it is also important and we don’t forget about the importance of each closely knit rural township networks that is going to be improving these situations in terms of, as I said, the medical situation and the education situation, or the access to market situation. I feel that it is important that Japan provides assistance in those fields as well in order to improve the situation for these people.
Also when we talk about these rural villages, we understand that maybe 50 percent or up to 80 percent of the people living in these rural villages are engaged in agriculture, many of these people do not own land for themselves and are working for these villagers who own the land. Even the people that own the land, they don’t have access to use agricultural equipment. Many times they have to rely on labour to be conducting agriculture and in order to get access to such equipment they have to borrow at a very high interest rate loan schemes. And even if they borrow anything from these schemes after they get their crops for the year, they sell these crops, when they pay for the rent or these people who are working for their paddies, they have to get loans again to prepare for their next year’s crop. What we feel is very important is that these people get access a low interest rate loan scheme that they can get advantage from. And Japan wants to introduce this to the people and we call this a two-step scheme. We feel it is possible for us. So we want to provide a scheme idea for the Myanmar people and these people working in these rural villages.
We understand this issue has many issues intertwined and we feel that this programme might be able to improve the situation in many problems. For example, not only the fact that these villagers can’t get access to good equipment. When we look at the situation of these villagers, when they want to have their children go to school, up to maybe Grade 3, around that age, these children can go to school but after grade 4, as they can work in the field as well, their parents may decide to ask their children not to go to school but work in the paddies. In this two-step loan scheme, not only villagers themselves but small and medium size entrepreneurs in rural areas can also take advantage of or borrow from the scheme. These small scale entrepreneurs may be able to go into the food processing industry, they might be able to generate new jobs coming from these new entrepreneurships. So this can be one of the ways to solve some of these problems, such as the education problem, or the lack of jobs issue in these rural areas as well. So we feel it is important not to forget about these issues that the rural villagers carry, and we want to provide our assistance to Myanmar taking into account these issues. It might be able to solve these issues as well.
These challenges, access to health care, access to education, good quality health care and good quality education, and also connectivity, electricity, all these are major challenges for now but also involve massive financing. Will Myanmar be able to deal with this?
Of course this all depends on what the new administration decides should be the priority as you mentioned electricity and infrastructure, such as railways and roads, ports, including deep sea ports. Many of these are yet to be developed in Myanmar. And Japan is very much prepared to provide loans. We have already provided and we are still prepared to provide more should the Myanmar government need it. And of course in terms of what the priorities are going to be and where we want to provide our help, we want to coordinate and discuss with the new administration but we feel that it might be difficult to just decide okay we are going to be developing power plants for electricity or we are just going to be developing deep sea ports, it might be difficult for them to decide on one or two or a small number of priorities for consideration towards to the balanced development of Myanmar as a whole. And right now it is an era of freedom of the press, freedom of speech here in Myanmar, and Myanmar is a democratic society in which the voices of the people is going to be important. And when we think about just national development strategies in general, maybe the short-term strategy might be for the development of hard infrastructure, for example the roads, the railways, such hard infrastructure. This might be good in order to achieve effective development in the short term. But when we also look at the need for agreement and understanding that is necessary from the people of this country, it might be difficult to gain the understanding or empathy from the people of Myanmar if we don’t also think about the need to the livelihood, the day to day lives of these people so I feel that the new government is going to need to put consideration into that sort of aspect. Not only development of the hard infrastructure but also improvement of the lives of the people.
Yes, of course, you are right in commenting that it is going to need a lot of money to develop these infrastructure and when we look actually at Myanmar’s international loan situation, this is based on the figures that the Myanmar government has announced, it is still about 900 million dollars and that is when you compare it with the GDP standard of Myanmar, it is only 20 percent of the GDP and we often hear international organizations statements about what a healthy loan GDP loan standard is, that is often said to be below 40 percent. So Myanmar still has more leeway to borrow more money from international donors. But when we feel, we understand that we all know that a lot of money is going to be needed to develop everything. And when we look at the situation, we feel it might be important for Myanmar to continue growing its GDP. That is going to be the base. And also grow its foreign exchange growth this might be done through improving the export of Myanmar products for example, agricultural products or industrial products, which have export competitiveness. When the competitiveness of these products increases, Myanmar can gain more on foreign exchange reserves that also contributes to the growing of the GDP that also improves the capacity for Myanmar to borrow more money to invest in these infrastructure projects. And when we look at the options for Myanmar to borrow from other countries, our Japanese Yen loan is – just to say simply – it is the most advantageous loan programme that Myanmar has access to. It has a very low interest rate, and when we look at the repayment period, it is very much advantageous for Myanmar compared to other loan programmes by other donors. And I feel that it is a balancing act that the Myanmar government needs to do, how to balance, how to borrow, that will be a base, that is very much important.