Myanmar Times | While economic growth has not been listed as one of the top three priorities in the ruling party’s manifesto, politicians are paying more attention to the private sector ahead of the upcoming November elections compared to 2015.
Investors believe the new administration, scheduled to take over in April 2021, would continue the economic reforms undertaken by the current administration under Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, according to a panel of corporate executives who participated in a recent election webinar organised by the Myanmar-Hong Kong Chamber of Commerce and Industry (MHKCCI).
They agreed that whoever wins the November elections should recruit ministers who understand how business works and harness their private sector experience to improve the Myanmar economy.
In his opening address, MHKCCI vice chair and Memories Group CEO Cyrus Pun lauded some of the key initiatives taken by the Myanmar government intended to engage with the private sector and reform the market, including the new landmark corporate laws, exchange-rate standardisation and the slew of government-backed investment conferences in 2019.
But he added that the next five years would be crucial for the country’s reform ambitions. “The electoral outcome would shape the political and economic agenda and programme for government over the next five years and beyond,” Mr Pun told a crowd of corporate executives, diplomats and journalists gathered via Zoom.
Newly-elected lawmakers and military MPs will convene in a new parliament next February with the key task of picking the president, Myanmar’s head of state, who will then form his or her cabinet. All economic ministries are under the purview of the civilian government.
The panel included U Nyantha Maw Lin of Burgundy Hills Co, Daw Thiri Thant Mon of Pegu Partners, Vicky Bowman of the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business and U Zaw Naing of Mandalay Technology.
More attention on economy than 2015
Peace, constitutional amendment and security – not the economy – are the top three priorities in the ruling NLD party’s manifesto, said Daw Thiri Thant Mon. But she said more emphasis has been placed on economic growth.
“The NLD seems to have become more focused on the economy… They now talk about job creation, the need to support the economy… whereas if you go back to five years ago, the election manifesto was very thin on economic policies,” she said.
Daw Thiri Thant Mon argued that the elections represent an opportunity to reshuffle the cabinet and bring in ministers who understand and are able to work closer with the private sector.
“It’s important for the country to have ministers sitting on portfolios that they understand and that they can deliver on.”
Businesses want stability and see consistent and clear rules and regulations coming from the authorities, and want to be consulted before new policies are announced, she added.
U Nyantha Maw Lin warned that the pandemic poses immediate and long-term threats to the country’s institutions, including its economy and healthcare system.
He said COVID-19 has necessitated a debate about building a relevant social and financial system for Myanmar, and that public services will “feature heavily” as politicians vie for support among the electorate.
As a businessman in the agriculture sector, he said these national issues also affect his industry as well as the broader economy. “What kind of trade policy do we want? How do we weigh that vis-a-vis other aspects of foreign relations? To what extent do we intend to overhaul our existing financial system to make it more accessible to SMEs and farmers?”
U Nyantha also highlighted the need to make way for future generations to join the cabinet and take part in the decision-making process, as well as to reduce barriers for new talent.
“As a result of the military rule we lived under, there is very little dialogue and huge political or ethnic divides. To acquire those talents, it will require making a leap and reaching across some of these aisles which have so far prevented dialogue and understanding,” he said.
The People Pioneer’s Party, led by former NLD lawmaker Daw Thet Thet Khine, has been positioning itself as the pro-business party, said U Zaw Naing. “Daw Thet Thet Khine herself and many founders in her party are business owners or leaders from the private sector.”
The party has placed a lot of emphasis on economic development and business-friendly policies in their campaigning, he added, pointing out that U Myint, the chief economic adviser to President U Thein Sein, is now advising the party.
“At the same time, this doesn’t mean other parties are not pro-business or that they do not care about the economy. The NLD, Union Solidarity and Development Party and Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, for example, have been engaging economists and members of the private sector,” U Zaw Naing continued.
He thinks that the economic disruption caused by COVID-19 will the NLD leaders realise the need to embrace digital technology and bring in younger ministers who understand technological challenges faced by the economy.
Be responsible during the elections
Businesses should also be responsible during the elections. They should encourage employees to exercise their civic rights and vote, including granting them leave to do so, said Vicky Bowman.
Where companies make political donations, Ms Bowman said it is good practice that these should be approved at the board level and published by the company, and not be used as a means to influence a decision-maker on the company’s interests.
More than half of major companies surveyed by The Myanmar Times last month do not disclose whether they have made political donations ahead of the November parliamentary elections. This newspaper asked 22 of the country’s largest and most active companies about their policies on political donations and amounts given, in money or kind, to parties and candidates.
“The more competitive Myanmar’s elections become, the greater the risk of a descent into ‘money politics’. That is why it is important for the next government to adopt campaign finance laws which include a requirement for parties to publish the source of all significant donations,” the MCRB director explained.