Belt and Road should not dictate infrastructure priorities: Melvyn Pun

Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) should not dictate Myanmar’s infrastructure priorities despite the importance of Chinese finance, according to the head of Yoma Strategic. Infrastructure should be developed for Myanmar’s national interest.

During the 2nd ASEAN-Myanmar Forum hosted by the Singapore Institute of International Affairs in Sedona Hotel yesterday, Melvyn Pun, the chief executive officer of Yoma Strategic, said that China is an important trading and infrastructure partner for Myanmar while Myanmar is also vital to the success of the BRI. He also added that China recognised the need to move towards responsible investments in its Southeast Asian neighbour.

Launched in 2013 as “One Belt, One Road”, the scheme involves China underwriting billion-dollar investments, mainly in infrastructure, in countries along the old Silk Road and new routes – linking Asia, Europe and more remote areas in Africa. Beijing’s grand design covers about 65 percent of the world’s population and about one-third of the world’s GDP. The core of all these is establishing an extensive trading network.

“China recognised Myanmar as an important strategic partner in the BRI.

“I expect significant investments from China in the coming years,” he said.

The businessman made the remarks during the panel discussion on “Building an inclusive Myanmar with foreign investment”. Other panellists include Sean Turnell, an economic adviser to the National League for Democracy-led government as well as Yotaro Agari from the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ (MUFG).

During a sideline interview on the same day, Mr Pun told The Myanmar Times that Myanmar is a very important for both the land and maritime components of the BRI.

“If you look at the actual roads and railways, Myanmar stands in the middle of a lot of those routes.

“I do believe and I do hope that the Myanmar government will embrace the BRI. And there is no sign that they are not embracing it,” he said.

BRI’s value lies in China’s importance in financing Myanmar’s infrastructure gap, especially transport and ernergy security.

“The opportunities around the BRI, in the initial phase, are really about infrastructure.

“When you think about what Myanmar really needs … it is the infrastructure. The lack of infrastructure is hampering the growth of the country.

“You repeatedly hear that whether it is the lack of electricity or congestions in the city or even the Yangon-Mandalay highway, all of these are infrastructures which need improvement. And it is not easy to do [so] unless you have some major backers from a financial perspective.

“China can play a very important role,” he noted, before chipping in more cautious thoughts.

Many domestic companies have expressed their desire for the government to actively carve out its own involvement in the BRI, instead of allowing the scheme to shape its position.

Mr Pun said that Myanmar needs to develop infrastructure in a way which serves its own interests, and not for the sake of the BRI.

“Myanmar needs to do things in our own way.

“I don’t think we should have infrastructure built in order to facilitate the BRI. Myanmar should have infrastructure built which supports and benefits Myanmar.

“If that means we can actually tap into the BRI, I think that’s a win-win not just for both countries but also the whole region,” he said.

When responding to other media questions, Mr Pun highlighted Japan’s long-time support and his view that Myanmar should be able to choose her partners in any ventures.

“There is no doubt in my mind that Japan is a very important partner for Myanmar and has been a very good supporter. Japan came in very early and many of the trading companies have been here for a long time.

“The importance of that role should not be understated. From my own experience, I know that Japanese companies have a long-term view of the country,” he continued.

“The influence of China should not be viewed as a threat to Japan.

“Myanmar has a lot of choices now and we need to make our own choice in each area,” he said.

The interview also touched upon other issues. Among them, the ease of doing business under the new government, compared to the previous regime.

“Doing business in Myanmar is very exciting but not easy, and, frankly, not supposed to be easy. As with any frontier or emerging markets, you do have to face a lot of issues,” he said.

The challenges he cited were the lack of clarity on rules and regulations, the difficulty in predicting the business development in three months or a year ahead, and the change in the country’s political leadership.

“Generally, people are still optimistic but it is not as easy as before.

“Personalities have also changed. Businessmen naturally feel like they used to know someone very well [in government] but now it’s a different person, that creates an extra layer of uncertainty,” he said.
Compared to five years ago when reforms just started, Mr Pun said progress has been made.

“There is an increasing level of clarity on everything from rules and regulations to the bureaucracy and timeframe.

I see it as a slow but steady progression towards more transparency and more certainty over a lot of these issues. So I’m very optimistic.

“U Thein Sein’s government had done a lot of work to encourage foreign investments, that’s the first phase of change.

“In the last one year with the NLD government, we have seen relatively less [sic] changes in the first six to nine months, from April to December.

“Since December, over the last six months, we have seen increased level of dialogue, and a lot of conversations to see how the government can help businesses do better, in terms of regulations and implementation of policies which make it simpler and less time-consuming to gain permits,” he remarked, referring to the decentralisation of the Myanmar Investment Commission and reforms efforts brought about by the new investment law.

Source: Myanmar Times

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