Myanmar’s Speaker of the Lower House Shwe Mann: Economic Reforms Needed Ahead of 2015 Election
June 19, 2013
On June 10, Myanmar’s speaker of the Lower House of Parliament, Thura U Shwe Mann, during the first official visit to the U.S. by Myanmar’s Parliament since the reform process began two years ago, confirmed he would run for president in 2015. Shwe Mann, a former general and widely considered a “key architect” of recent reforms in his country, told Radio Free Asia in Washington, D.C., that he would run for president “because it is the key post to work for the betterment of the country and the people’s interest.”
With that exciting news as the backdrop, he and five other key parliamentarians, accompanied by Richard Nuccio, senior resident director of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) based in Myanmar, met with members of Congress and the Senate in D.C before moving on to New York and San Francisco, with the goal of not only improving U.S.-Myanmar relations, but also allowing the leadership of the Myanmar Parliament to learn more about the legislative process in the United States.
On their final stop before flying back to the capital, Naypyidaw, the delegation visited The Asia Foundation’s headquarters in San Francisco, for a breakfast event co-hosted with the Pacific Council and featuring a conversation with Shwe Mann on Myanmar’s transition. After an introduction by Asia Foundation President David D. Arnold, Shwe Mann began by emphasizing the strides in political reform that have occurred in his country over the last two years and reinforced the need for reform to continue apace. He warned that “people need to see enhanced socio-economic standards and economic reform ahead of elections. While we were successfully able to accomplish our political reform efforts … economically we have yet to see developments.” Until those economic needs are met, he continued, people in the country – the majority of whom are still struggling with poverty – will have concerns and doubts over the reform efforts. Despite signs of growth, Myanmar is one of the poorest countries in the region with roughly 37 percent of its population unemployed and about 26 percent living in poverty.
Shwe Mann, who was elected to the Parliament in the 2010 multi-party general election and was elected as the speaker of the Lower House on Jan. 31, 2011, in the very first regular session of that body, recalled his positive impressions of the Library of Congress in D.C., and recognized The Asia Foundation’s donation of a special collection of books in 2012 to the Parliament of Myanmar, speaking about the broader implications of such support.
“The Parliamentary Library will not only contribute to the work of the Parliament; it will help to maintain the interests of the country and our people. It is also important for the international community, because I also believe that organizations like The Asia Foundation, as a non-profit organization, are working not for an individual country but for the international community,” he said.
He also spoke of the need for greater emphasis on education in his country, noting that the current educational situation is “not line with what we need today.” He announced that the country is looking to pass a National Educational Bill, with legislation to help strengthen not only basic education but the university system and vocational schools as well.
Myanmar had one of the most admired education systems in Asia until the 1960s, producing a highly literate culture with a deep reverence for learning. The country still maintains a high literacy rate, but education standards have deteriorated due to decades of under-investment. Schools are poorly equipped and educational materials are often outdated. Although primary school enrollment is compulsory, enrollment drops to 52 percent for girls and 49 percent for boys by the time they reach secondary school.
In response to a question about Myanmar’s ethnic conflicts in the border regions, Shwe Mann said he was increasingly more optimistic due to the recent movement on cease fire agreements. The Government of Myanmar has now entered into ceasefire agreements with 10 of the 11 insurgency groups in the country. The conflict in Kachin State, in the north of Myanmar, is the last remaining conflict.
Speaker Shwe Mann also announced “full intentions for economic cooperation with the private sector and the international community in the country’s development future,” and referenced the revised foreign investment law signed by President Thein Sein in November 2012. However, he also recognized that basic infrastructural improvements are needed for that to happen successfully, citing electricity, transportation, ICT (mobile and internet penetration rates are still very low, no higher than four and two percent, respectively, of Myanmar’s over 50 million people), communication, and the banking and financial sectors. He concluded by noting that “legislation, laws, transparency, accountability, as well as rule of law and tranquility – only when these are fully accomplished will the development of Myanmar enjoy economic prosperity.”
The Asia Foundation maintained a resident office and country program in Myanmar from 1958 to 1962. In May 2013, The Asia Foundation signed a memorandum of understanding with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Government of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar to advance their shared development goals. Read more.
Alma Freeman is The Asia Foundation’s global communications manager and editor of this blog. Julian Rhoads is executive assistant to the president. They can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org, respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and not those of The Asia Foundation.
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