A wide-ranging interview with Australian Ambassador Mr. Nicholas Coppel by the Global New Light of Myanmar and MRTV touched upon democratic and economic reform, peace process and bilateral relations between Australia and Myanmar.
Q: Myanmar and Australia established diplomatic relations since 1952 and became closer after 2011 because of Myanmar’s political and economic reforms. Can you give your reflections on the progress of the two countries’ diplomatic relations?
A: You’re right, the diplomatic relations began since 1952 but we continued right throughout the military regime as well. At no stage did we close the embassy or withdraw the Australian Ambassador, we kept it open. And nor did Australia have the complete trade embargo that some of the other countries imposed against Myanmar. So Australia has taken a slightly different approach from many other countries over the course of Myanmar’s history. And the reason for that is while we were not happy necessarily with the government, we also felt very sorry for the people of Myanmar and we didn’t want to have measures in place which would hurt the people who were already suffering a lot under the regime.
So we didn’t have the full trade embargo but of course we restricted exports of military equipment and contact with the military. That was the limit of our sanctions against the regime. So in 2011 after the reforms, we were able to relax even further but more in relation to contact with the government and we started early on in delivering our aide program through the Myanmar government ministries rather than working through bilateral partners. We started to slowly build up our experience and our confidence as the changes were real.
The bilateral relationship has always been there and it is now at a period where its much warmer and much closer than it has been for many years.
Q: Please share your impression on progressing federalism, democratization, peace and reconciliation process in Myanmar.
A: Federalism is a critical process for the peace process. Australia is a federal system of government, so are the United States and Canada and so on, but no two are exactly the same. So what is important for Myanmar is to go beyond just saying federalism. What type of federalism is important? And the different ethnic organisations and the government need to reach a consensus on the way forward on the type of federalism which Myanmar wants for Myanmar’s situation. And this is going to be an essential question for the peace process.
Q: What is your impression on the ongoing reform process?
A: Both political and economic reforms began under the previous government and both types are important. Political reforms give a voice to the people but the economic reforms are also about giving a voice to the people, where people can choose what they buy, businesses can choose what they make so there’s much more freedom and free enterprise and they support each other. The political reforms are not the end by any means but a very critical point with the first fully contested election in November 2015. Economic reforms had begun before than are continuing; we’ve seen a new investment law, a new company’s law is soon to be released and these are very complex types of reform. I think some of the early ones are the easier reforms but now we’re getting into the more difficult phase. The business community has to understand that they need a little bit of patience because these are big tasks. But the decisions are for the parliament and the people to make.
Q: Australia has normalized trade and investment relationship with the appointment of a trade commissioner to Myanmar. What is your impression on Myanmar as it strives for political reforms in parallel with economic reforms?
A: We have put in place a trade commissioner in the Australian embassy who is here to promote Australia’s business and commercial interest in Myanmar, both in trade and investment. To be honest, Australia doesn’t export a lot to Myanmar. At the moment the two-way trade is around $200 million a year. Our main export item is grain and wheat which is made into flour and then into noodles and bread. We hope to grow into the interest Myanmar has in getting an education in Australia. Another area we’re keen on is broadly called the extracting industry like oil and gas and mining as it’s well known Myanmar has a lot of potential in offshore gas. Several Australian companies want to explore for gas and hopefully if they’re successful it will contribute to Myanmar’s energy needs as well as to Myanmar’s export income.
We also have companies involved mostly in the services sector concerning the construction industry. Agriculture is a strong feature of the Australian economy with some similarities with the geography of Myanmar. We both have a dry interior and a tropical north so many types of the agriculture you see in Australia are very suitable for Myanmar. So there are opportunities for us to export the seeds and the technologies to Myanmar.
Q: The government is now emphasizing exporting raw products rather than quality export products. I think the technologies for processing these are very important.
A: I think there are two areas of importance. One is the technology for the value adding by further processing the raw material. The second is to improve the quality of the seeds, the pulses and the rice so that you can command a higher price for the product.
Q: Myanmar is also facing the challenge of the ASEAN economic community. So for that kind of thing we have to produce quality value-added products so that we can be parallel with the market economy. I think we need a lot of technical support in this area.
A: The opening up of Myanmar is very good for the economy and very good for the people but it also puts new pressure on the businesses. With products coming in from other countries, Myanmar businesses have to become more competitive. If they want to take advantage of the opportunities from the ASEAN economic community or the Free Trade Agreement with ASEAN and Australia, they have to be very competitive offering a quality product at a good price.
For many years, Myanmar was largely a closed economy and not subject to those normal commercial pressures so the business community now has to become a little faster in adopting new technology, new ideas, new products and new designs. Even the packaging, the marketing and the advertising system needs to be a little more sophisticated.
But this is part of where growth comes from. It comes from companies and individuals adopting better processors, techniques and having greater productivity and being able to take advantage of the opportunities that are out there.
Q: We want to learn more of Australia’s development assistance to Myanmar. We’ve learned that the presence of the Australian Aid and the Australia-Myanmar Business Taskforce, so please elaborate about these.
A: The Australian Aid program is not new; we’ve been providing development assistance to Myanmar for many decades. At the moment it consists of what we call a bilateral program and it is roughly AUD 75 million or USD 59 million in value.
Our largest investment is in Myanmar’s education sector. We believe that education is the critical ingredient for Myanmar’s success. Education is needed for government, for NGOs, for business and for everything for Myanmar to be able to take advantage of the opportunities coming its way.
It is also a sector that has suffered a lot in Myanmar’s history. Expenditure on education had declined year after year for many decades. Universities were split up or closed and it’s really suffered with a small budget from the government. And we see that today the younger generation is not as well educated as their grandparents were. In most countries, today’s students are better educated than their grandparents but it’s the other way around in Myanmar.
Education is the largest part of our Aid program and we’re focusing on basic education, primary level education through Myanmar’s Ministry of Education. We give support to school grants and stipends to make it more affordable for children to go to school and for schools in rural areas to have more resources for basic needs. A lot of work still needs to be done on curriculums and teacher training as well.
We’re contributing on the margins but of course the biggest contribution is from Myanmar’s budget. We want to help more in the ideas and in the ways of delivering an education system that is suitable for Myanmar in the 21st century.
We promote the peace process through the multi-donor trust fund called the Joint Peace Fund which also supports those who are participating in the Panglong Peace Conference. Through this peace fund we provide assistance to ethnic armed organisations to prepare themselves either in capacity building or in workshops for working out questions on federalism for example. We do not have an opinion on what the answer is for Myanmar and we do not interfere in the process. We support all the parties to the process so that they have the resources to come together to negotiate amongst themselves towards a peace agreement.
We also provide humanitarian assistance to communities affected by conflicts in Northern Shan, Kachin and Northern Rakhine State. We mainly provide assistance to UN agencies who then deliver the assistance to these communities.
Q: What do you think about the participation of Myanmar women in the economic workforce?
A: Well, I’m an outsider in this country but I have been here for two and a half years so I have my observations. Women participate more in certain aspects of Myanmar’s economy than you see in other countries but there are elements as well where women are absent. For example, in the area of medicine and education, women dominate Myanmar but there are almost no women in the military. What that means is that in senior levels of government where, traditionally, retired military officers have moved into senior government positions, they have been exclusively male. We also see a number of women who are prominent in business and that’s very encouraging.
Q: Gender equality is another challenge for our workforce.
A: Among the elected representatives, there are not a large number of women in Myanmar’s parliament but there are twice as many now than there were before. We too don’t have anywhere near 50 per cent female representation in Australia’s parliament. Equally important is creating a greater demand for women, so it’s not just the supply. That’s important in politics because it’s an elected office but in business, it’s your own business so you can do as you please.
Q: Can you tell us about the opportunities and challenges about investing in Myanmar?
A: There are a lot of opportunities with a country rich in natural resources, enormous gas deposits, mineral deposits, fishing, logging and many other areas. I think the importance for development is that it happens in a sustainable and responsible way and it needs good governance structures around that. It needs a government that is capable of correctly regulating, not in an exclusive licensed sort of arrangement, but in regulating to ensure that the environment is protected, worker’s rights are protected, communities that might be affected are either adequately compensated and consulted to the development but also ensuring that taxes are properly collected so that the benefit goes to the people.
The challenges I think for farm businesses here are the labor force. While it’s an opportunity in the sense that it is a large labor force, the education levels of the workforce needs to be up scaled. I think the biggest constraint is to find good employees and some businesses have problems related to land. Many businesses have problems with continuous power supply. Sometimes if there is a dispute and you need to go to the courts, the independence of the justice system and the transparency of the justice system also need to be strengthened.
Q: Please elaborate about financial access since now they’ve opened international banks here.
A: Well access to finance is an issue for everybody in Myanmar like the ordinary poor people who wish to get loans are usually getting loans from other people and paying interest rates of 20 per cent a month. This is extremely expensive money. Yes, there’s microfinance schemes coming in but still many people can’t access that. Rural areas and farmers also have difficulties in accessing finance for their farming practices. The foreign banks that have come in have a very restricted banking license so they can’t lend to Myanmar companies.
Q: Please share your experience in tackling issues like trans-border crimes, human trafficking and drug trafficking.
A: These issues are important ones and they don’t respect borders so they are also problems for your neighboring countries and also for Australia.
Myanmar today is still the second largest producer of opium and heroin and it’s the largest source of opium coming into Australia.
Issues of human trafficking are a human rights concern. They’re putting people on boats and their lives are at risk. They are sold a promise of a good life and have work somewhere but really they have a treacherous journey and many lose their lives at sea. These are not problems that one country can solve by itself so it needs regional cooperation. We have a Federal Agent from the Australian Federal Police working in the embassy since 1990 and primarily focused on assisting the Myanmar Police Force in countering drugs.
We have also appointed another person at the embassy from the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection and we’re providing assistance to customs and the border force on border control issues. It’s a small contribution but it’s recognition that these problems are not unique to Myanmar and they are not problems that can be solved by one country alone.
Q: Terrorism is a global issue, can you give some comments?
A: That’s right and terrorism is like drugs and human trafficking which doesn’t respect borders. No country is immune from terrorism so the governments of the world need to work together. They need to cooperate and share information and assist each other to combat terrorism.
Q: Is there any capacity building for customs or immigration or border defense force?
A: We have ongoing programs in all of those areas. It’s not a large amount of assistance but it’s very much appreciated. It’s primarily assistance of knowledge and methods and methodology, some resources and equipment too.
Q: Please share any future plans for strengthening bilateral relations between our two countries.
A: We’ve got big plans for the bilateral relationships. We’re hoping to grow the bilateral trade and investment relationship. We’re trying to boost in particular the people-to-people connections either through education.
The new Colombo Plan is about Australian students coming to learn in Myanmar either by being enrolled in Myanmar universities for a semester program or for short courses or study tours. It’s important that the youth of Australia become more aware of and have a better understanding of all of Southeast Asia and North Asia.
It’s important for the members of the Australian parliament to have an understanding of the situation here so that they become more supportive of what their government is doing in terms of government assistance in
Q: I think the new Colombo plan is about recruiting young ambassadors to understand more about Myanmar.
A: This is not a volunteer program, it is an education program.
Q: Anything else you want to share for our MRTV audience?
A: Well, Australia has been a long term friend of Myanmar and I think we will continue to be. The political and economic reforms have only enabled us to do more in Myanmar. We hope to cooperate more with the government and the people and to build a brighter and better future for Myanmar.