After half a century of military rule, Myanmar has dramatically fallen behind its peers in the region. Lay, vice-president of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce & Industry (UMFCCI), which groups 26,000 members and 69 affiliate organizations, said Myanmar needs foreign investors including Filipinos to move the economy forward and help prepare it for the Asean Economic Community (AEC) in 2015.
“We hope to learn many things from the Philippines,” Lay, a respected business leader and medical doctor, said in a press briefing here with Southeast Asian journalists.
Lay noted for instance that the Philippines has one of the cheapest mobile phone systems in the region and welcomed potential investments in the telecommunications sector.
The Philippines, which posted the highest first quarter economic growth in the region of 7.8 percent, has been dubbed by Standard & Poors, a credit rating agency, as the new leader of ASEAN.
In June, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III said after the World Economic Forum for East Asia held here that three Philippine companies, chaired by corporate tycoon Manuel V. Pangilinan, are eyeing to invest in the telecommunications, water and sanitation and energy sectors of Myanmar.
Pangilinan, owner of Philippine telecommunications giant Smart Communications, announced in April that he is considering teaming up with local partners in Myanmar for a shot at a potentially lucrative market.
“If we want to enter Myanmar telecommunications market we have to partner with any of the qualified bidders because we can’t do it on our own,” Pangilinan said, referring to bidders that are vying for the telecommunications market in Myanmar.
Pangilinan’s other businesses, power utility firm Manila Electric Co. (Meralco) and Maynilad Water Services Inc., a water concessionaire, are also open to partnering with Myanmar businessmen for possible joint venture deals.
“All these businesses, we welcome them,” said Lay.
“We welcome them, indeed. It’s a very warm welcome. We share common goals, common faith and common aspirations. We wish to share together and it will be a win-win for all our countries,” he said.
Myanmar President Thein Sein issued the same message back in June when he said his country is seeking the assistance of the Philippine government in the energy and agriculture sectors.
“President Thein Sein was asking us to help in, mostly in agriculture and also in energy,” President Aquino said after the Forum held from June 5 to 7 in the capitol city of Nay Pyi Taw.
Last year, the two countries had agreed to improve bilateral relations in business following a meeting between Philippine vice-president Jejomar Binay and Myanmar President Sein on the sidelines of the ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit. In the area of agriculture, the Philippines agreed to help Myanmar by sharing banana and rice technologies.
Pyae Sone Oo, a rice trader, said that Myanmar, which exported 600,000 tonnes of rice last year (double check), could benefit from better technology, post-harvest facilities and training of farmers.
“We need to educate the farmers,” he said.
UMFCCI’s Lay said all the investments they can get from regional peers would help them prepare for the AEC 2015, just one a half years away.
Lay said that compared to its peers in the region, Myanmar still has a long way to go to catch up.
“We are lightweight compared to the heavyweights in the region. Our fundamentals are not strong. Our banking system is weak,” he said.
He said they need all the help they can get to prepare for the AEC.
“It (the AEC) has made us a bit jittery. We are not ready for the big event there is fear but we can learn from you guys. We look forward to working together,” he said.
The AEC is envisioned to be the goal of regional economic integration by 2015. It hopes to create a single market and production base and a competitive region that is fully integrated into the global economy.
Lay said Myanmar’s transition to an open economy is happening fast.
“We are struggling with transition. It’s so swift that we’re not ready. That’s the problem, we’re not ready,” he said.
He is optimistic that the people of Myanmar will benefit from the new development because of its resilience and eventually find its place in the Southeast Asian region.
“After nearly 60 years of internal conflict and the sounds of artillery and gunfire, we will not hear them anymore. The will of the people is there. We will try to be the best that we can be,” Lay said.