July 22, 2017
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Chinese professor funds Myanmar students to pursue university education

  • Written by Xinhua
  • Category: Features

China's Myanmar-language professor Su Xiuyu provided stipends on Sunday for 27 poor and outstanding Myanmar students to pursue university education under the name of "Professor Su-Xiuyu Fund".

Su, who won one of the highest religious medals of commendation in honor of her excellent performances conferred by Myanmar President U Thein Sein, is a retired professor from China's Beijing Foreign Languages University.

The 27 students are from nine regions and states who just passed the matriculation examination and are to join universities, while 15 more from other five regions and states are expected to receive the sponsorship once they are enlisted.

The funding was arranged with the help of Myanmar-China Friendship Association in accordance with the wishes of Professor Su.

This batch of students will each soon obtain 200,000 Kyats (206 U.S. dollars) education stipend for the first academic year of their university learning and more stipend will be provided for their second academic year and even until their graduation.

The stipend presentation ceremony was attended by Chinese Ambassador Yang Houlan, Chairman of the Myanmar-China Friendship Association U Sein Win Aung, dignitaries of Myanmar-Chinese community, donors of the Fund and pupils of Professor Su totalling about 100.

Ambassador Yang and Chairman U Sein Win Aung appraised Professor Su's acts of loving kindness, calling on the people to learn from Su for her great spirit of cherish for education and students.

Representatives of recipients thanked Su for the provision of the stipends, pledging to study hard and endeavors to fulfill the will and expectation of Su and make efforts to serve the country and the society after graduation.

The 85-year-old Professor Su said at the ceremony that she has devoted her life to education activities. "Despite my old age, I still has my dream. My China dream is to contribute my might in disseminating Paukphaw friendship and promoting the friendship."

She added that "My Myanmar dream is to do public charity for Myanmar society, especially that related with education and nurturing of human resources."

Professor Su won the title "Saddhamma Jotikadhaja" conferred by the President early this year for her outstanding contribution to the cause of education, religious affairs, social welfare and China-Myanmar friendship.

Su is a native of Fujian and was born and brought up in Myanmar. She graduated from Yangon University and passed high level examination of Myanmar Buddhism subject.

During her residence in Myanmar, Su was a teacher with Yangon Nanyang High School and headmistress with Fujian Girls High School.

In 1965, at the invitation of the Chinese government as a Myanmar-language expert, Su, returned to China and worked in Foreign Language Department and then Beijing Foreign Language University.

Over the years of her teachership, Su cherished and nurtured many pupils. Especially in Myanmar, students, whom she brought up, have become leaders and strongmen of the society.

Similarly, several students she nurtured in China have also become high diplomatic officials.

Working for social affairs and public welfare, Su once took up posts for a number of  major social organizations at home and abroad.

For several decades, Su has devoted to the development of China-Myanmar neighborly and friendly ties and enhancement of the Paukphaw friendship of peoples of the two countries.

On March 30 this year, "Professor Su-Xiuyu Fund" was established, under the name of which Su launched charity activities for the first time in Myanmar on April 11, making donation of a large batch of rice and stationery as well as presenting Myanmar new year gifts to orphans and pupils accommodated in a monastery in the outskirts of Yangon.

Sunday's move of Su marked the second charity activities of the Fund.

An Undemocratic Transition

  • Written by Ko Ko Gyi and Staff Writers
  • Category: Features

Suu-Kyi-at-Forum-2000-Conference-Czech-Republic

Aung San Suu Kyi speaks out against Myanmar’s flawed political process

Aung San Suu Kyi cut to the core of the doublespeak that passes for Myanmar government political and economic reform to challenge the naypyitaw government at a human rights and democracy forum on a visit to europe recently.

Myanmar opposition leader and chairperson of the main opposition national League for Democracy, Suu Kyi, marked her first visit to the Czech Republic as the keynote speaker of the Forum 2000 Conference, which officially opened on September 15, with an attack on the much-heralded democratic and economic reform process underway in her country.

Suu Kyi has tended to be restrained in her public criticisms of President Thein Sein’s political and economic reforms when she is in Myanmar. But, as her comments in this forum abroad make clear, she feels less inhibited away from home. She is also inclined to continue to use the name “Burma” to refer to her country, which was changed to “Myanmar” by the previous military regime.

“Burma needs to change its Constitution as fast as possible to put the country firmly on the path to democracy,” the nobel Peace Prize winner told the forum in Prague. “We need to amend the present Constitution that we may truly become a democratic country. This constitution is anti-democratic.”

Suu Kyi did not mince words in her condemnation of the process launched by the former military regime to come in from the cold over the last three years.

As she stressed, Myanmar’s transition was not a process of participatory democracy, unlike the changes seen two decades ago in Poland and Czechoslovakia – now the Czech and Slovak republics.

“We have to face much more complex problems, because of our ethnic situation, because of the fact that our transition is not one that was negotiated between the democratic forces and the military regime. This is a transition which is tailored and implemented by the regime, in the same way the Constitution was drafted and adopted by the regime, not by representatives of the people. So our situation is a lot more difficult than yours was more than 20 years back,” she said, referring to changes that took place in the wake of the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

Myanmar is moving rapidly towards a general election in 2015 but the system is stacked in favor of the military, which still holds the reins of power.

“We need to be conscious of the urgency to amend the Constitution which is under consideration in the legislature,” she said, adding that it needs to be amended “if we want Burma to be a peaceful, united democracy.”

The crux of the problem is the Constitution, stacked in favor of the military and the status quo. “This does not meet the needs of the ethnic nationalities, the democracy problem will not be solved by this Constitution,” she said.

A process is underway to consider changes to the Constitution but the opposition leader fears making radical changes to the political landscape will be a tough call.

Suu Kyi is currently barred from becoming president, should her party with the 2015 elections. The current Constitution includes an article – allegedly written to specifically block her – that says those with spouses or children who are foreign nationals are barred from the presidency.

Just as worrying, according to the opposition leader, is the stranglehold the Myanmar military has over the parliament and the running of government.

“Amending this Constitution itself is so utterly undemocratic that I think it would be difficult for anybody to speak up for it. For example, to start the amendment and get the amendment going you need more than 75 percent of the members of the legislature, more than 75 percent, and 25 percent of the legislature are nominated military men, nominated by the commander-in-chief, and he can change those people at any time he pleases. They are not nominated for the life of any one parliament. So in effect the commander-in-chief alone can decide whether the Constitution can be amended. now is it democratic in a country of an estimated 60 million, [that] one man alone is in a position to decide whether the constitution can be changed in a way we would like it to be changed?” she asked.

Suu Kyi told the forum she did not want to detail the provisions in the Constitution, written by the military, which make it “undemocratic,” but “the very provision for amendment makes it quite clear that we are not heading for a genuine democratic society. So we need this changed and we need it changed as soon as possible.”

Suu Kyi is aware that as she goes off for trips abroad, the democratic and economic reform process is hostage to a government with little to be gained from making significant change.

Time is of the essence. “The committee for the reassessment of the Constitution will be filing its report by the end of this year. So before the end of this year, we in Burma are working hard – when I say we, I mean the national League for Democracy, and our allied ethnic nationality parties - are working hard to come out with a joint statement with regard to the need for amendment of the Constitution.”

She said they need to follow through on this process, noting that people in her country have a saying that if you are going to see somebody off, you need to take them right to the harbor, not drop them halfway.

The 68-year-old prodemocracy advocate spent nearly 15 years, until november 2010, restricted to her home. She won the Rafto Prize and the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 1990 and was awarded the nobel Peace Prize in 1991, while under house arrest, for her peaceful and non-violent struggle under a military dictatorship.

With all the hype over the opening up and loosening of restrictions in Myanmar, it is easy for observers to believe real democratic change is underway, particularly as the mainstream Western media has tended to run with this theme. But the reforms in many way are a façade pursued by the military to remain in power and avoid being taken to task for their decades of authoritarian rule that included extrajudicial killings, jailing, torture, forced labor, and vicious military actions in the ethnic states.

The atmosphere on the street may have improved dramatically over the last three years since the 2010 elections, with the public feeling freer to speak their mind. But there are many critics and commentators, speaking publicly, who recognize that real democratic reform is not underway.

Khin Maung Swe, leader of the national Democratic Force, told the Business Magazine that the current series of political reforms pursued by the by reformminded senior government officials still don’t impact the grassroots in the country. Current reforms of this quasi-civilian government are just part of what is a liberalization process but is not intended as authentic democratic reform. he complained that Parliament is not efficient and capable of enacting new laws, rules, and regulations to protect rights, and strengthen economic laws. he said there was concern about the rights and safety of the public during this transition.

Suu Kyi talks about urgency, but Khin Maung Swe says amending this armydrafted Constitution will not be done in time for the 2015 elections. “The main reason is that the country doesn’t yet have national peaceful agreement between the Union government and armed ethnic groups. These armed groups will call for practical autonomy and other rights.”

There are some positive changes, according to Ye htut, an MP of the Shan national League for Democracy. “If selected MPs are qualified and committed to fulfill the requirement of the people, it wasn’t so bad for the public in reality. In my township, residents don’t get frightened by the local authorities so much compared to the past because they understand they can call on their MP to solve problems. But, most other areas [of reform] don’t happen like this.”

There are fears that a handful of men hold the country hostage. Myo Yan naung Thein, director of the Bayda Institute said: “Ongoing reforms go forward based on a personal rivalry between Lower house Speaker Shwe Mann and President Thein Sein. The current reforms will not be revised based on these current conditions. The country will be subject to person rivalry, rather than institutional checks and balances.”

Suu Kyi, who appears freer to speak more openly in public when abroad, offered a warning:

“I have repeatedly spoken out against over optimism which could cause us to lose our way. We must recognize the difficulties in our path. I do not think he would have approved of blind optimism … It is now which is the most challenging time for us. The opportunities available to us now may never come back again for a long time. To make the right choice at the right time is most important at a time of transition.”

According to Forum 2000, the theme of this year’s conference stems from the legacy of the founder of Forum 2000 Václav havel, who devoted his life to fighting for freedom and human dignity in the face of a repressive regime and who strived to transform his country into an open and prosperous democracy. Apart from Suu Kyi, guests who gathered at the 17th annual Forum 2000 Conference entitled “Societies in Transition” from September 15–17 included his holiness the Dalai Lama, the American singer and activist Joan Baez, who sang at the opening ceremony, and the former South African President and nobel Peace Prize winner Frederik Willem de Klerk.

Suu Kyi has been a Member of the Forum 2000 International Advisory Board since October 2012. The Forum 2000 Foundation was not only hosting the Myanmar opposition leader but was also the main coordinator of her second european trip since she was released from house arrest.

This article first appeared in the September 26 edition of M-ZINE+.


M-ZINE+ is a business weekly available in print in Yangon through Innwa Bookstore and through online subscription at www.mzineplus.com

Trouble in Store?

  • Written by Gordon Brown
  • Category: Features

Gas and Oil Rich Malaysia’s Energy Problems a Warning for Myanmar

Electricity

Electricity prices in Malaysia are likely to be increased for the first time in more than two years as the government there struggles to cope with the spiralling cost of subsidies in the face of international prices for oil and gas.

It’s a problem which could soon be confronting Myanmar despite its rich natural gas resources and probable oil reserves.

Although Malaysia is technically self-sufficient in oil and gas, much of what it produces is exported.

To help keep inflation and the cost of living down, the Malaysian government has for years resold gas and oil for domestic users at below market rates – a practice which is now costing the state US$3.65 billion a year, said the chief executive of MyPower Corp, Abdul razak, in a statement last week.

MyPower is a government agency in charge of proposing and implementing reforms in the country’s electricity industry.

The subsidies go mainly on the price of domestic gas sold to the power generating businesses, which are able to buy it at only one third of the international market rate, said The Star newspaperin last week.

Natural gas fuels about 50 percent of Malaysia’s 20,000 megawatts generating capacity.

Myanmar at present has an electricity generating capacity of barely 4,000 megawatts for a population about three times the size of Malaysia.Only 26 percent of Myanmar’s estimated 55 million people have access to mains electricity, the Asian Development Bank said in a recent study.

The Naypyitaw authorities have said a number of foreign firms have proposed building new power stations with a total capacity of about 2,000 megawatts. Several small gas-fuelled plants are being constructed in the Yangon region mostly to try to improve electricity supply to factories forced to stutter along on limited power.

In July, Myanmar’s Ministry of Electrical Power said the country would need to buy natural gas from overseas suppliers to meet rising domestic energy demands.

The ministry said it was inviting tenders to supply up to 200 million cubic feet of gas per day up to March 2014 to fuel power plants and “will increase the amount to 500 or 600 million cubic feet of natural gas daily after 2014,” the trade newspaper Natural Gas Asia reported.

The Naypyitaw government is also considering the rent or purchase of a costly offshore floating import terminal, known in the industry as a Floating Storage and regasification Unit, to handle liquid natural gas (LNG), said the paper.

While Myanmar makes plans to increase the use of natural gas to fuel rising electricity demand, the Malaysian government is trying to reduce gas dependency by building coal-fuelled power plants and also more hydroelectric systems.

Malaysia is one of the world’s three biggest exporters of gas in LNG form but slowly declining production caused a domestic shortage in 2011 which forced the state power distributor Tenaga Nasional to import electricity for several months from long-time rival Singapore.

“The government’s plan is to move towards marketbased prices. But it is also conscious of how this move is going to impact customers,” said the chief executive of MyPower Corp Abdul razak in a statement last week.

“Higher [international] gas prices had made subsidies unsustainable and the prospects of having to import liquefied natural gas at market rates to alleviate the country’s energy supply challenges had only added to the woes,” The Star newspaper of Kuala Lumpur said.

“As a country, it will be difficult for us to sustain the level of subsidy that is now being enjoyed,” the chairman of Tenaga, Leo Moggie, said recently.

The root of the problem, likely to also soon be faced by Myanmar, was highlighted in an unusually frank statement by Malaysia’s stateowned oil giant Petronas to clarify what it said was “misconceptions” by the Malaysian public about the cost of domestic fuel products.

“The current retail pump prices of petroleum products in Malaysia does not reflect the real cost of producing the commodity as it does not track and reflect the changes in [international] crude costs,” said Petronas on September 4.

“As Malaysia exports and imports different blends of crude simultaneously – similar practice can also be seen in other oil producing nations – we are inevitably susceptible to the changes in global crude oil prices. Over and above the price of crude oil, the petroleum product prices needs to factor in logistics, infrastructure as well processing costs.

“Despite this, the current retail pump prices of petroleum products in Malaysia do not reflect the real cost of producing the commodity as it does not track and reflect the changes in crude costs.”

This blunt explanation by Petronas, which has clearly been made to soften up Malaysians for electricity and vehicle fuel price increases, is perhaps also unintentionally a warning to the Naypyitaw government to manage its energy housekeeping budget – or be lumbered with heavy subsidy debt.

This article first appeared in the September 19 edition of M-ZINE+.


M-ZINE+ is a business weekly available in print in Yangon through Innwa Bookstore and through online subscription at www.mzineplus.com

New Entry Points

  • Written by Reinhard Hohler
  • Category: Features

Myanmar continues to open the country

Bagan remains a major draw for tourists. CREDIT JM Hullot

Myanmar government officials continue to take steps to open the country to the outside world, this time literally by allowing foreigners holding a visa to freely choose to travel to the country via any of its six most important entry channels.

The channels cover the three land border crossings with Thailand in Chiang rai’s Mae Sai district, Tak’s Mae Sot district and ranong’s Muang district and three air entry ports through Myanmar’s airports in Yangon, Mandalay and Naypyitaw.  

A ceremony was held to launch the new arrangement at a border crossing between Mae Sai district and Myanmar’s Tachileik on August 28. The event was presided over by Shan State Security and Border Affairs Minister Col Aung Thu and attended by several Thai officials, including Mae Sai district chief Boontham Tipprasong and Col Yongyuth Laoketkarn, deputy commander of Pha Muang Force’s 3rd special unit. Col Aung Thu said the change is aimed at boosting relations between Thailand and Myanmar, and boosting tourism.

In 2012, Myanmar saw 1 million tourists, many of whom came to see the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Golden rock at Kyaikhtiyo in Mon State, Old royal Capital of Bagan, Mahamuni Buddha in Mandalay and Inlay Lake in Shan State.

The border crossing at Mae Sot-Myawaddy saw the attendance of Union Minister Htay Aung, Ministry of Hotels and Tourism, who traveled from Naypyitaw in order to preside over the official opening of this land border checkpoint. Also attending was the Minister of Immigration Khin Yi. Political analysts speculate that a plan is underway to repatriate some of the 140,000 Myanmar refugees living in Thailand.

In the context of the recent religious strife in Mandalay on July 21 and in Sagaing region at the end of August, Myanmar seems keen to clean up its political image. Tourism Minister Htay Aung explained the opening up of the country was a matter of “connectivity” between the neighboring countries ahead of the establishment of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) set for the end of 2015, if all goes to plan.

The opening up of the Mae Sot-Myawaddy border point to international visitors will help facilitate the promotion of the East-West Economic Highway that crosses from Da Nang in Vietnam via Laos and Thailand to Mawlamyain in Mon State. Also, Myawaddy is connected to Yangon and via the Mandalay region to Tamu on the Indian border.

How the security for tourists will be arranged when traveling in Myanmar?      

Myanmar police have tightened security measures to protect tourists. recent communal riots have encouraged rumors of possible terrorist attacks, though the details of the supposed threats are unclear.

The Tourist Police Department is now working together with local police forces in implementing these measures. As the force is still young, there is a need to improve the services offered, according to Police Colonel Myo Min Oo from the Tourist Police Department. Local police departments across the country are also involved in holding public talks to ensure tourist security.

As a senior police officer from Nyaung Shwe Township Police Department in Shan State told Mizzima Business Weekly, his area sees many foreign tourists. “So our police force patrols the area every day. We have also taken necessary preventive measures in the area. A day before, we had persuaded a foreign couple to proceed to a nearby hotel as they said they would stay by the roadside for the night. We give help as much as we can.”

In another development, Thailand’s Nok Air flew from the Thai border town of Mae Sot in Tak Province to Mawlamyain in Myanmar’s Mon State for the first time on September 1. Tak Province Governor Suriya Prasartbundit was aboard the inaugural flight, which he said would boost border trade between the two countries. Suriya, who was joined by some 25 Thai and Myanmar businessmen, also urged Thai people to invest more in Mawlamyain’s tourism industry. Nok Air, a budget carrier, is the first foreign airline to fly to Mawlamyain, which is the fourth largest town in Myanmar.

Mawlamyain (formerly Moulmein) is a charming town at the mouth of the Thalwin river (Salween river). It is easily accessible by road and rail from Yangon. Sites to see in Mawlamyain are the impressive Kyaikthanlan Pagoda and Uzina Pagoda perched on the hillside. About 34 kilometers from Mawlamyain south is Thanbyuzayat, an Allied War
Memorial Cemetery for the prisoners of war who lost their lives during the building of the infamous Death railway during World War II. Scenic Setse Beach resort is nearby as well as the Kyaikkami Yele Pagoda and pilgrimage site at the seaside.

Mawlamyain will also become the gateway to the southern towns of Dawai, Myeik and Kawthaung in Myanmar. The pristine Myeik Archipelago with its 800 largely untouched islands is high on the agenda of the local tourism industry to be opened up and developed for international tourists.

Boni Yin, a tour operator from BIS Travel in Chiang Mai and native of Mawlamyain, says air tickets from Mae Sot to Mawlamyain cost 1,700 baht one way. The flight is daily and lasts only 20 minutes, he said.

This article first appeared in the September 19 edition of M-ZINE+.


M-ZINE+ is a business weekly available in print in Yangon through Innwa Bookstore and through online subscription at www.mzineplus.com

Football Business

  • Written by Rory Briggs
  • Category: Features

Moving the Goalposts in Myanmar’s ‘Beautiful Game’

Fighting-between-Yangoon-United-FC-and-Naypyitaw-FC-3

Myanmar's professional football league is a nutshell of the country itself: burgeoning with potential, still sketchy in places and with a “have” and “have not” gulf between top and bottom.

The MNL (Myanmar National League), which began in 2009 as a reinvention of the Myanmar Premier League inaugurated in 1996, is still finding its feet in professional and competitive competition.

As an emerging football market, the sport is unrivalled for popularity in Myanmar and no other sport comes close. If it follows the examples set by other Southeast Asian nations like Thailand and Malaysia in harnessing what Myanmar is missing - large and loyal fan-bases and committing to FIFA-backed youth development - the MNL could become a starting place for rising stars as well as a way to unite the country.

But sitting in the stands of the Aung San stadium in downtown Yangon watching players lug a ball back and forth about a waterlogged pitch during the rainy season recently shows that this is not yet a beautiful game. The monsoon season wreaks havoc on the non-artificial surfaces that are de rigueur in European stadiums. Myanmar’s fans would rather watch English Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, Germany’s Bundesliga, the Italian Serie A and maybe even Ligue 1 at a stretch than go and watch their own league football slog it out on the pitch.

Match violence

Marring the climax of the 2013 Myanmar National League (MNL) season, marking its fourth year in existence, the final league game of the season on between league champions Yangon United and second place Naypyitaw FC did not reach half time as disorder and destruction erupted in the stands and eventually spilled onto the pitch at the brand new 30,000-seater Wunna Theikdi stadium in Naypyitaw.

The arena was built ahead of December’s 2013 SEA Games and is planned to be the centerpiece of the games in Myanmar’s capital, staging the opening and closing ceremonies.

The fighting, although blamed on a section of drunken fans amongst the 20,000 attendees, revealed persisting problems that put question marks over the MNL’s ability to curb crowd violence to create a safe spectator environment ahead of the first international sporting event to take place in Myanmar in this new era.

Yangon fans and players claim it was solely the wrongdoing of Naypyitaw fans. The fans who tore up seats and invaded the pitch getting within “one meter” of Yangon United players were, as one player said, “jealous” of Yangon pipping their team to the post to win a third consecutive league title.

Myanmar Football Federation spokesman, Soe Moe, told AFP that 150 seats had been destroyed and a stage area damaged.

What happened at the final game held in Naypyitaw was an embarrassing display of juvenile mentality that unfortunately still permeates the league, as fighting broke out between players. One Naypyitaw player, Khine Htoo, displayed a martial arts-inspired kick at a Yangon United player’s face. He has been banned for the entirety of next season. Yangon United coaching staff were also targeted in an awkward reminder that a level of respect is desperately needed to instill professionalism in emerging leagues such as Myanmar.

Naypyitaw midfielder Zaw Lin will not be allowed to feature for the first five matches of next season as well as being fined 500,000 Kyat. Tin Zaw Moe and second-choice goalkeeper Zaw Myo Oo also face five-match bans, both with 200,000 kyat fines. The team’s technical director also faces a fine of 500,000 kyat. Yangon’s only penalized player is a rising star Kyi Lin. He faces a three-match ban and a fine of 500,000 kyat.

For the MNL’s runnerup, blind hooliganism is not the precedent a top club should be setting.

It was a sight that must have had organizers and officials with their heads in their hands after successfully annulling their ban from the World Cup 2018 russia qualifying rounds-imposed after serious crowd problems at home in Myanmar against Oman in 2010.

Remembering the golden era

It didn’t used to be like this. As Yangon United Chairman Phyo Tayza told reuters last year, “You know how cricket is for England, football is for us.” Myanmar may be football-mad but its interest is still far too limited in its own domestic league. During the Premier League season people will gather round the TV to see Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, eyes glued to the screen like insects to the streetlights.

Myanmar’s football story mirrors that of the country’s political story of the past 50 years. Once known as ‘the rice bowl of Asia’ for being the world’s largest exporter of the commodity, Myanmar became the region’s poorest and one of the world’s most isolated countries with two long consecutive militarycontrolled dictatorships. But what is not as well known is Myanmar’s past glories as a footballing powerhouse in Asia. The national side was not the minnow it is now during the 1960s and early 1970s, coming runners-up in the 1968 Asian Nations Cup.  Burma, as it was then called, was crowned football champions of the SEA Games five times between 1965 and 1973. Burma’s appearances at the Asian Games were also respectable, winning twice in 1966 and 1970.

International isolation brought with it a bleak footballing abyss. Meanwhile, Japan and Korea soared in the football stakes and eventually co-hosted the FIFA World Cup in 2002. Myanmar did not even enter the qualifying stages, nor had they in any FIFA World Cup until 2010. They failed to qualify for the group stages ahead of both South Africa 2010 and next year’s tournament in Brazil.

Two years prior to transition to the quasi-civilian led government, new life was breathed into the rusty lungs of Myanmar’s domestic football scene with the creation of the Myanmar National League (MNL). Big investment and strong commitments from the Myanmar Football Federation (MFF) have brought an increasingly professional-looking league that consists of fourteen clubs from around the country.

International Football legends have paid recent visits to the football-mad country with Manchester United’s 1990s heroes Andy Cole, Lee Sharpe, Dennis Irwin and Clayton Blackmore and Liverpool’s John Barnes making charity appearances.

MUTV, Manchester United’s in-house TV channel will go live in Myanmar in a deal with SkyNet, a local broadcaster that’s also acquired the rights to show the premier league 2013-14 and the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

Will an ageing legend come to a Myanmar club in the near future? It’s unlikely but if Myanmar follows the model laid before them by neighboring Thailand and Malaysia and club owners are prepared to offer vast sums of money in salaries then it’s not a distant dream.

Neither is an English Premier League Club visiting on tour. This summer has seen Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool, Sunderland, and Manchester City play in Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Japan and Australia.

But more importantly the question is whether MNL clubs are focusing enough on producing homegrown players with enough quality to energize a league to rival other Asian leagues and re-invigorate a woeful national side. The country’s best ever FIFA world ranking was 97th in April 1996 but in July of this year they were placed at 163rd - one behind the Solomon Islands and just ahead of Gambia – indicating their dribbling skills were more in line with babies than David Beckham’s nifty moves.

Myanmar faces many obstacles before it can be a truly professional league. With most of the league games taking place in Yangon, some teams have never played a league game on home turf.

With 60 million people, Myanmar is in desperate need for focus on building academies thereby investing in the sustainability of the league.

“Ten to fifteen years” is how long some MNL coaches believe it will take for the league to overcome its obstacles and banish its growing pains.

Rising Stars

But what is perhaps more enviable than facilities are two rising stars with performances this year warranting a move abroad. Yangon’s 20-year old wonderkid, Kyi Lin, has recently been touted for a move abroad to the Malaysian Premier League.

Ayeyawady FC Head Coach Marjan Sekulovski says this would be “a good opportunity for him,” adding, “There a quite a few other Myanmar players who could try out abroad and it’s good for them because they will take on a lot more experience from a really professional level because if you play in Malaysia the league is an increasingly higher standard in the region in terms of coaching, technical staff, physios and other players.”

This experience could help invigorate the Myanmar field.

“If five, maybe 10 Myanmar players begin to play at this professional standard then they can really contribute to the Myanmar national team,” he says.

Another 20-year-old rising star is Kyaw Ko Ko, who fans compare to Liverpool’s Luis Suarez for both style and temperament. Sekulovski believes the young prospect is the national side’s “only really good quality striker.”

When Sekulovski first saw him play for Zeyar Swe Myay, he remembers, “in my mind, I thought what is this player doing here, why doesn’t he go to Europe, he’d have a great opportunity. If he settles his injury and little mentality problem then technically and tactically he can move to the next level. I also hope he will play for Myanmar U-23 at the SEA Games because if he’s not there it’s a big deficit in the Myanmar senior national team and they don’t have problems with selection but for U-23 there aren’t enough players, especially in the strikers’ position, to choose from.”

Others see promise. “He [Kyaw Ko Ko] is a really good player. He has a special set of skills and can use his speed,” says Serbian striker MNL 2012 top goalscorer Sasa rankovic.

Rankovic, 33, began life in Myanmar at Southern Myanmar before moving to play for fourth-place outfit Zeyar Swe Myay. “But it would be damaging to his development if he [Kyaw Ko ko] does not try to play in some other stronger league soon,” he adds.

Youth development

The MFF is picking up the pace. The federation has completed two academy projects so far. One project is in Mandalay and the other closer to Yangon in Pathein, the largest town in Ayeyawady Division.

Completed in 2011 at a total cost of US$750,000, the Pathein Football Academy is a promising step forward. The building itself has two stories with bedrooms, dining hall, training rooms, classrooms, offices, common room and instructors’ quarters.

$250,000 was donated by the Asian Football Confederation and the remaining $500,000 donated by the Ayeyawady Foundation, a charity founded by MFF President Zaw Zaw whose company Max Myanmar Construction Co. Ltd completed the two-year project.

FIFA President Sepp Blatter, a friend of Zaw Zaw, opened the Mandalay academy in 2011 during an inspection of the FIFA Goal Projects in the country.

In Mandalay, the FIFA Goal Project 2 had a total budget of US$1.49 million for a fully-fledged Football Academy for 10-16 year olds from rural areas with Goal contributing $400,000 to the project. Tay Za’s Htoo Trading Company was paid $848,727 for construction of the project.

A third Goal Project was introduced in March of last year to provide the Mandalay youth academy project with daily training sessions, full-board accommodation and education for 60 young players at U-15 level.

In September 2012, FIFA approved Goal Project 5 to establish a Football Academy in Yangon which will cater to the young talent in the country’s largest city at U10, U12, U14 level and to help the development of young talent for the future U17 national team. The academy building at the National Football Training Centre is set to include dormitories, offices, classrooms, cafeteria and a gym.

Zaw Zaw is often cited as the driving force behind Myanmar’s major football developments. Having close relationships with the government he has worked hard at changing his image of being close with the former military junta with his philanthropic pursuits in both football and his charity organization, the Ayeyawaddy Foundation.

He told Mizzima Business Weekly in July of his love of the MFF job, “Since the very beginning, I have worked as the MFF chairman not because I want money. I work only because I love my country. The football federation needs to spend several million of US dollars. I have to almost solely contribute my own money to the funding [of the MFF].”

MFF general secretary Tin Aung said that since Zaw Zaw began working as the chairman of the MFF, Myanmar’s football sector has achieved better international status whilst also receiving many opportunities to cooperate with FIFA.

“U Zaw Zaw wants Myanmar’s football sector to improve. Myanmar’s football sector has markedly improved during his tenure. So, even FIFA has to praise it,” said Tin Aung.

Last year’s Myanmar Cup winning coach Sekulovski of Ayeyawaddy FC says, “The MFF president and the people around him are doing really great things to promote the sport. Only in the last fifteen months they have brought three or four international tournaments here to Myanmar. The president has a big respect for the AFC Cup (Asian Football Confederation Cup) and the AFC Federation as well as with FIFA where he has a good relationship with Sepp Blatter.”

But so far only Yangon, Naypyitaw and Yadarnabon have their own academies, whilst the teams lower down the table are yet to invest.

Ayeyawady’s Sekulovski calls the clubs’ lack of investment in the youth system “a big problem.”

Yangon United’s Ivory Coast star striker, Adama Kone, spent time in Thailand before coming to Myanmar, most recently at Thai Premier League outfit FC Phuket. Coming from one of Africa’s best football nations he knows just how important youth development is in order to produce better players and attract bigger clubs from abroad.

“I think they should have more academies,” he says, “because it is important to have good coaches teaching players when they are young. Like in Ivory Coast they have so many academies and across Africa. At Yangon United there are many young players but there is no academy building.”

Zwekapin FC Technical Director, Toni Jakimoski, thinks club owners need to think beyond immediate results. “They must build an academy. This is the most important for changing the mindset and style of play. Because us foreigners give them the knowledge and they give us the money, this is the point, they must also be thinking about beyond that, for sustainability, because this country is so rich in potential. I’ve been explaining to the boss that it’s good if you spend the money on one complex. If you’re building players in your own school its good because these talents will be thinking this is my club, I was born as a player in this club, if he has the good progress tomorrow you can sell this player and put the money back into the academy to make new stars. But he [the owner] says okay, okay, I don’t like this, this not my job. He’s only focused on the moment.”

MNL-2 club GFA’s CEO, Ti Ti, is more optimistic about the country focus on youth development.

“Because of our MFF President, through his grace and through his help in Myanmar a lot of young people now have opportunities. They can earn the money and they can survive and they become a professional. Our nation has recently moved towards democracy so it is young people who need to be motivated and controlled from drugs and all these things so that’s why the nation has a strong interest in the sport to take on board all these changes.”

Ivan Kolev, the current Yangon United FC coach who previously managed the Myanmar national team told Fifa.com at the end of last year: “If I compare Myanmar’s football now to the situation six years ago during my spell as national team coach, I can say that the country has made huge progress in terms of infrastructure and technical development. They have understood that the only way to move forward is through a dedicated grassroots program.”

According to Fifa.com, since 2001 FIFA has invested more than US$2 million in Myanmar’s football development through the implementation of the four Goal projects. To produce more Kyaw Ko Kos and Kyi Lins it is projects such as these that the country must focus on, not as a token piece but as the bedrock of the national team, if not solely for the MNL’s benefit.

Club investment

Business tycoon U Tay Za, owner of Htoo Group, created Yangon United FC as one of the founding MNL clubs. The club’s shirt sponsor Air Bagan, one of Myanmar’s leading domestic and regional airlines, is one of his Tay Za’s airlines. His son, Phyo Tay Za, is the club’s chairman. Since 2009, he has pumped a considerable amount of money into improving the image and facilities of Yangon’s sole representative in the Myanmar National League (MNL).

Yangon United has added glamour to the league and in some respects is the envy of many in the league with its training facilities that include its own private ground with an artificial asphalt layered pitch at the Yangon United Sports Complex. Add to the mix a well kitted out private gym and outdoor swimming pool.

Kanbawza Bank, one the largest banks in Myanmar, owns KBZ FC who have remained one of the more successful clubs in Myanmar since they founded in 2005.

They have since been attracting some of the best foreign imports and local talent rivaling Yangon. Their coach, P.N.Sivaji is the former Head Coach of Singapore. The club’s home ground Taunggyi Stadium  at the town of Taunggyi, near Inle Lake in central Myanmar still only has a 7,000 capacity and no academy.

At the grounds  

For the time being Myanmar’s football clubs attract few supporters despite the sport having such strong following throughout the country. The reasons blamed for low turnout are the relatively high ticket prices, and games being played mostly midweek and in the searing afternoon heat. The average attendance in the MNL is only 1,000 in Yangon and 5,000 in Mandalay.

One of the FIFA Goal Projects was to create international standard stands at the Thuwana Sports Stadium. The budget for the project was $655,396 financed jointly by FIFA and FAP (FIFA’s Financial Assistance Program) with Guangdong Province Dong Fang Import and Export Company contracted for the renovations.

Although the stadium’s capacity is 50,000 it is often nearly empty during the MNL season. Myanmar’s next biggest stadium is the ageing former national venue Aung San Stadium blackened with mould in Yangon’s city centre. If refurbishment is not on the agenda this ground could quickly become a worn-out relic.

Like Thuwana it is often near empty during league games despite its 40,000 capacity. The ground is often said to be extremely difficult to play on especially in the rainy season. Yangon United’s Bulgarian coach Ivan Kolev after one game compared it to playing “water-polo, not football.”

FOREIGN PLAYERS

Macedonian football agent, Dragan Jakovleski, 28, looks after eleven foreign players and two foreign coaches in the MNL.

“Amongst SEA countries, Myanmar’s football ranking is not so bad,” he says, noting that “year after year they are going up, but they need to work harder and try to invest more money in the league in order to build on this to keep going higher up.”

Attracting foreign players to an emerging league can boost local fan interest and bring about further international recognition of the league. But how much is this restricted by the current Asian Football Confederation imposed limit of three foreign players and one Asian player?

Jakovleski sees more room for foreigners in club’s squad would be beneficial for both immediate results and providing enough experience for local players to learn from.

“Maybe it would be a good idea to have a total of five or six foreigners in the squad, but in the line-up can only be just four, and two foreigners can replace just foreigners on the pitch,” he says.

“The MNL must have foreigners. I don’t think it is time yet in the MNL to cut out foreigners…just increase the limit by one or two more because with this decision, it is good for the motivation of local players for learning from their experience to improve,” he added.

Foreign players receive around $3,000-5,000 per month, according to the agent.

Leandro Duarte arrived three years ago and now plays up-front for Ayeyawady FC. “The league gets stronger every year, players of various countries are playing in Myanmar now. This helps in improving the quality of football,” he says.

Finding the right balance of experienced international arrivals and strong local talent is key to teams across emerging footballing countries. Asian countries have signed some of the biggest football names in world football but more for set-piece shirt-selling opportunities that don’t necessarily improve the league or its potential.

In the early 1990s, England’s Gary Lineker joined Japanese club Nagoya Grampus Eight, to only make 18 appearances. Liverpool legend robbie Fowler played thirteen times in the Thai Premier League for Muangthong FC between 2011 and 2012.

But it is the Chinese league that has struggled with big name foreign imports. recently former Chelsea strikers Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka both moved to Shanghai Shenua but the moves were heralded as a failed sporting experiment.

Myanmar’s football imports are generally more experienced journeyman players who’ve circulated amongst other similar emerging leagues, with the longest staying in for three years and others a matter of months.  

How instrumental foreign players are to the fortunes of MNL clubs has been varied. Some clubs that had not signed any foreigners struggled this season but Southern Myanmar surprised many when they escaped relegation despite having no foreign players at all except English coach, Ken Worden.

“The year we started we brought in five foreign players and won nothing and this year with no foreign players we’ve managed to avoid relegation and beat some bigger teams than ourselves,” says Worden, the Southern Myanmar coach.

Rakhine United is another team that has suffered after not taking any international arrivals until too late. They have now been relegated to the MNL-2.

Rakhine United’s Portuguese forward, Nimes Pina, a 30-year-old striker, says, “The fact it that having foreigners in the team is very important, it counts very much.”

A foreign injection of talent helped. “Rakhine United started without foreigners and they made only one point,” he said. “After me and Benson came things improved, we’re the only two foreigners, sometimes we play against teams who have four foreigners.”

Pina started life at Sporting Lisbon’s academy and in one game played against a 16-year-old Cristiano ronaldo. Pina went on the play in a mixture of countries from Moldova to Cyprus.

In the top ten highest scoring players in the league this season only second placed Soe Min Oo from KBZ FC is a Myanmar national. Brazilian striker Cesar Augusto has netted 19 times for Yangon United.

Two other Brazilians, KBZ’s Nunes and Ayeyawady’s Leandro Duarte, made it into the top six.

For Ayeyawady coach Marjan Jekulovski, foreign players are not the primal concern of his club. What he feels needs more consideration in the transfer windows is tracking the better Myanmar nationals.

“For foreigners, if you have more money, you can get better quality, if you have less money, you will need to create this quality. Everything is about money in football. But for me the most important thing is the development and improvement of the Myanmar national players is if they are at better level, foreigners must be much better,” he says.

He believes this season Myanmar players have performed better than any previous year across the board.

Despite the Myanmar National League “becoming stronger every year,” Jekulovski still thinks good foreign players are still put off coming to Myanmar.

“The problem is that there hasn’t been too much good quality foreign players coming so far. Here they don’t have the possibility to take better money, so they go to Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and then players who are nearer the end of their careers come to Myanmar. In a way it is a problem that many players who come here are over 30 or around that age. I think after the next two seasons there will be better financial conditions and a better quality of player will start coming. It is impossible to find big quality foreign players who like to come here, this is
their last station to stop at in Asia,” he says.

Promoted club GFA’s CEO admits, “The reason we must take the foreigners is mainly to help our team. So sometimes all the young people will play but we need the foreign players with much experience to help them, next season we will take two.”

PROMOTION & RELEGATION

The 2013 season is the first to include a promotionrelegation system between MNL-1 and MNL-2. It is this increasing level of genuine competitiveness that gives the country an edge over other emerging Asian leagues.

Two MNL-2 clubs, GFA and Chin United will now enter the top flight after clinching first and second place. GFA, or Gospel For Asia, is a Christian-focused club, as is Chin United.

GFA CEO, Ti Ti, says, “When we say GFA is a Christian club we don’t mean this is a kind of extreme religious club, rather it is based on the views of the Christians. We also have a lot of Buddhists and other religions but as you ask me, when we say Christian, it doesn’t mean an extreme religious message but we mean most of the players are based on the Christian views as are the people who are involved in this team.”

GFA is largely made up of young players and this youth-focused mentality is driven by the club’s vision for helping young people who live in poverty.

“Most of our players are youths. They are mainly from the mountain areas, Chin state, Kayah, Karen states, from areas where they have difficulties in living, where people are poor and not able to come to Yangon, so we go and get them from these very far-away places.

We collect them and train them up. So football gives them a new hope.”

Keen and energetic recruits are needed. “Our dream is not to spend money to throw away but to have a team of young people in a modern way, in a sporting way, in an ambitious way, we’re able to help them. The young people can have a lot of fun in the sport.”

Chin United FC, another Christian club representing Chin State (western Myanmar), will play in the MNL next season.

Soccer on your mobile

Zeyar Wai Phyo, Cofounder of Myanmar+, a mobile-apps and web development start-up and Soccer Myanmar, one of most popular football news sources in the country. It can now boast 57,000 followers on Facebook and 15,716,312 unique visits since 2009.

How did soccer Myanmar start?

Back in 2008 there was nothing like it. The Internet was still very slow and not a lot of people were using it. Also at the time there were not a lot of Burmese websites. The problem is that a lot of people like to read about it [football]. Burmese people really love the English Premier League, they are crazy fans for Man United, Chelsea, Arsenal. People are mostly passionate about this league. They really like to able to read about it in Burmese because on the Internet they don’t really like to read it in English and maybe if they aren’t so fluent in English they cannot have this connection.

At the time there was zero online writing about Myanmar sports. If you wanted to read about it you had to look at a small section in the newspaper, just a little bit about it. Back then there were a quite a few sports journals but there would only be on one page, a small article about something and only now with the SEA games coming up they have more pictures and articles.

The MNL hadn’t started yet we didn’t know about it yet but we wanted to write about European football so in preparation for the MNL we hired some journalists to get it going and people really liked it.

Who writes the articles?

Right now, we have more freelancers than previously when we had more permanent writers. It started with me and my friend Moe Wai, he left to work for the Ayeyawady Foundation. But we started this as a hobby.

Are you surprised at how well it has done?

(laughs) Yes, we’ve been really surprised and we really didn’t expect it to get this huge. Because Burmese people really like to read local news but they’re much in consensus over the local league. For the Premier League, it’s a different story.

On the premier league they fight online and this generates a lot of traffic and interesting debate. This is another success of the website is that we give them the opportunity to comment. But at the same time, we are very busy to moderate the comments after that we integrated the Facebook comments and we leave them, they do their own.

We only started with shared hosting which was really cheap like only $50 a year. But it crashed. So we needed to upgrade to a server for about $200 a month so the traffic’s really huge.

Zeyar Wai Phyo is now focusing on start-up media and tech company Myanmar +.  The Soccer Myanmar app is now available on HTC One smartphones.

CONTROVERSY

Back in 2010, when The Guardian newspaper published the U.S. government leaked cables, Myanmar and football were the subjects of one piece of intelligence. According to a leaked cable from the U.S. Embassy in Yangon, General Than Shwe was supposedly considering making a US$1billion dollar bid for Manchester United. The cable reported that he had been urged by his grandson to make a bid for the premier league club. “One well-connected source reports that the grandson wanted Than Shwe to offer $1bn for Manchester United,” said the June 2009 cable to Washington. “The senior general thought that sort of expenditure could look bad, so he opted to create for Burma a league of its own.”

In an interview with reuters, Phyo Tayza “denied that former dictator Than Shwe had ordered the tycoons to create the league to satisfy the whims of a soccer-loving grandson.”

SNAPSHOT OF AYEYAWADY FC

MARJAN: “Myanmar players have naturally strong stamina, good endurance and agility but the problem is they don’t work systematically, they need time to improve this. Also technical skills are at a good level. But the biggest problem for Myanmar players is the tactical elements of performance. Because they started to play football at a professional level too late and sometimes it’s difficult to adjust them to that tactical style. Also, a little problem is mentality. The MNL is only four years as a professional outfit and its needs more time to improve and develop this mentality of professionalism. The neighboring countries needed maybe 10 years to improve and develop these areas of the game. Now they’re at a respectable level. The MNL is still in its infancy. Especially with a lot of the young generation, they need to ensure this is taught at academy level and this will help a lot.”

“The big problem for my team is facilities. Especially in the rainy season, the ground field is flooded and I believe in the last six months my team has had only six training sessions in the last two months on an actual clear training field. Sometimes we use one very old and very dangerous gym like a training gym. In the last two weeks, we tried to find some training field near Y.T.C stadium and go there but this was too late.”

This article first appeared in the September 19 edition of M-ZINE+.


M-ZINE+ is a business weekly available in print in Yangon through Innwa Bookstore and through online subscription at www.mzineplus.com

Cleaning Up

  • Written by Gordon Brown
  • Category: Features

Corruption Probe in China’s Oil Industry May Reach to Myanmar Gas Deal

Secret agreements reached between the former military regime of Than Shwe and China National Petroleum Corporation on Myanmar gas sales could be scrutinised by a top-level anti-corruption investigation under way in China.

The former boss of CNPC, Jiang Jiemin, is the most highranking of several top leaders of China’s giant state-owned oil and gas businesses now being investigated.

Jiang, who only recently moved into an even higher position as chairman of China’s State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission, has not been seen in public since it was announced in the state media last week that he was being investigated for “suspected serious disciplinary violations” – code in China for corruption.

The sale to CNPC in 2008 of practically all 200 billion cubic metres of natural gas in two blocks of the Shwe field in Myanmar waters of the Bay of Bengal has always been surrounded in secrecy. No financial details of the deal have ever been made public.

Under the terms of the deal, CNPC can take gas from the offshore field for the next 30 years.

Similarly, the crude oil and gas pipelines just built through Myanmar by CNPC are also controversial because of allegations of land theft, forced removal of people on the pipeline routes and forced labor in their construction involving the Myanmar Army.

“Jiang’s case brought out concerns regarding corruption within SOEs [state-owned enterprises]. They control a huge amount of state assets without much competition from the market or strict supervision from the public, making corruption in SOEs even easier,” said Wang Wenzhang, a professor at the Institute of Social Development at Peking University, interviewed in Beijing’s Global Times.

“Corruption has become the top concern of today’s society as it aggravates people’s discontent over inequality in wealth,” Wang said.

This officially-sanctioned comment appearing in the Chinese press almost mirrors the views of campaign groups in Myanmar who have been arguing for years that the Shwe gas deal and the pipeline linked it were unfair.

“Natural resources should be used to benefit the country, not to enrich a select few at the expense of the environment and human rights of the affected communities,” the coordinator of the Shwe Gas Movement, Wong Aung, said recently.

“Our country has an opportunity to learn from past mistakes, but instead abuses are continuing in connection to the extractive industries.”

Some China watchers think the corruption investigation will lead to a restructuring of CNPC and other Chinese state oil and gas businesses, and might even open up what is at present a very tightly controlled market.

“One thing I can say with regard to the investigations is that it will affect the status of CNPC as the biggest NOC [national oil company] in China significantly,” senior research fellow Keun-Wook Paik at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies told Mizzima Business Weekly.

“How far the restructuring will go depends on the decision on the investigation of the level of corruption. Many of CNPC’s subsidiaries will be affected by the level of investigation,” Paik said.

Jiang left CNPC only in March this year to become head of the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC), a body directly linked to China’s supreme authority, the State Council.

The CNPC Shwe gas deal was negotiated through the Myanma Oil & Gas Enterprise (MOGE) which was closely controlled by the military.

An unreconstructed MOGE was a primary reason why an international bidding round for 30 new offshore oil and gas exploration blocks in Myanmar coastal waters was postponed for months last year. There had been objections from major Western oil firms – under pressure to engage only in clean business – about the state agency’s continued involvement.

MOGE has since supposedly been cleaned up to make it more transparent and accountable, but few details of any changes have been made public.

“The broadening crackdown on corruption may send a message that Chinese authorities will increase efforts to break the oil industry’s monopoly by stateowned giants,” commented ChinaScope Financial in Shanghai.

The opening up of Myanmar with the end of direct military rule has forced Chinese state companies operating in the country to become more conscious of issues such as human rights and public objections.

This was underlined by the decision of President Thein Sein to suspend the hugely unpopular giant river hydrodam project at Myitsone which was being built by the China Power Investment Corporation.

At least five other senior executives in CNPC are also now being investigated on corruption allegations.

They include Li Hualin, a vice president for oil and natural gas exploration and development.

The corruption allegations involving CNPC were sparked by a routine audit of Jiang Jiemin when he left the company this year, said the independent Beijing business magazine, Caixin.

“Ordinary Chinese people find it difficult to accept these are supposed to be civil servants and yet they make a tremendous amount of money in terms of salaries and bonuses. In the socialist economy, this is a bit unthinkable,” Joseph Cheng, professor of political science at Hong Kong’s City University, was quoted this week by the Interfax China news agency.

This article first appeared in the September 12 edition of M-ZINE+.


M-ZINE+ is a business weekly available in print in Yangon through Innwa Bookstore and through online subscription at www.mzineplus.com

Little Change

  • Written by Ko Ko Gyi
  • Category: Features

Arrest of activist indicates speaking out against big business interests still taboo

The imprisonment of a leading activist in Myanmar raises questions about the sincerity of the government’s reform agenda and whether natural resource extraction projects will get precedence over the rights of the people.

Naw Ohn Hla, a leading woman activist from Yangon, joined over 50 villagers in Monywa, Sagaing Region, on August 13 to call for the suspension of the controversial Chinese-run Latpadaung Copper Mine and to amend the 2008 Constitution. After a tense stand-off and a lot of shouting, police moved in to arrest Naw Ohn Hla and nine other protest leaders, forcefully dragging them into police trucks. So violently was Naw Ohn Hla seized that her clothing was partially pulled off.

On August 29, Naw Ohn Hla was found guilty of disturbing public tranquility under Section 505(b) of the Myanmar Penal Code and sentenced two years in prison with hard labor. And she also remained to be tried under Section 18 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law for allegedly holding a protest without permission. She had requested official permission prior to the protest but was refused.

The Women’ Initiative Network for Peace (WIN-Peace) has called for the immediate release of Naw Ohn Hla and the nine other women who were arrested following the peaceful protest.

Ms. Thanda of the network told Mizzima Business Weekly that they strongly object to the harassment and behavior of the authorities and police officers when they were arresting the women.

She said that their organization planned to launch a signature campaign not only for the arrested activists but any people who have been imprisoned unfairly.

Naw Ohn Hla is not a newcomer to protests. As a former member of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party, she led prayer services for democracy activists hoping for the release of Suu Kyi when she was under house arrest. All in all, Naw Ohn Hla has been imprisoned more than seven times since 1989 for her efforts to free political prisoners and assist Buddhist monks during the 2007 Saffron Revolution uprising and her links to the NLD.

Ba Htoo, one of the activists at Latpadaung commented: “The government detains and arrests some activists while freeing prominent and long-term political prisoners as part of their reform process. This represents the tricky actions of senior policy makers. The protestors don’t have any rights to defend themselves in accordance with the law.”

He said he has mixed positive and negative views on the certain role of Aung San Su Kyi who oversaw an inquiry into a crackdown on Latpadaung mine protestors that led to many injuries, including the alleged use of phosphorus as a riot deterrent.

“The investigative committee led by Aung San Suu Kyi made the suggestion that the mine project should continue operating without considering the environmental concerns. The commission failed to advise the government to take action against government officials who committed crimes against the peaceful protesters,” he said.

The commission pointed out that local residents in the project areas did not receive adequate land compensation from the mining company, and called for transparency in terms of the contract, he said.

Ba Htoo claims little has change from the bad old days of the former military regime.

“Arresting those activists (in this latest incident) means that the quasi-civilian government still behaves and practices old and terrible actions,” he said.

Susanna Hla Hla Soe, head of the Women Organization Network of Myanmar, and cited in a press release from the NGO WIN-Peace, claimed disappointment with the developments: “We are seeing a series of cases of judicial harassment and violence against women human rights defenders and peaceful protestors all around Myanmar, which is very disappointing and disheartening. It is vital that women play a front-line role in defending the rights of their
communities, and the Myanmar authorities must allow them the space to do so.”

Critics say that although the government has been releasing political prisoners in well-publicized gestures, activists are also being locked up. This raises the question of whether the political and business elites continue to have precedence over the rights of people, communities and the environment, they say. Naw Ohn Hla’s incarceration indicates little has changed when it comes to freedom of speech under the “reformist” administration of President Thein Sein.

This article first appeared in the September 12 edition of M-ZINE+.


M-ZINE+ is a business weekly available in print in Yangon through Innwa Bookstore and through online subscription at www.mzineplus.com

Fight to save Orwell's Burmese inspiration

  • Written by William DAVIES / AFP
  • Category: Features

File picture from July 24, 2013 shows the house in Katha, where British writer George Orwell is believed to have lived in the 1920s. Katha is a small trading post on the banks of the Irrawady river, 13 hours north of Mandalay. A group of artists in a remote town in northern Myanmar has launched a campaign to preserve the house. AFP PHOTO/William DAVIES

Cobwebs cover its furniture and its rooms are long deserted, but a crumbling house in northern Myanmar is at the centre of a conservation battle by locals who say it was once home to George Orwell.

The remote trading post of Katha on the banks of the Irrawaddy -- and the house lived in by Orwell in the 1920s -- were immortalised in the acclaimed British author's first novel, "Burmese Days".

Decades later, as the country emerges from nearly half a century of harsh military rule, a group of artists has launched a campaign to protect the legacy of one of literature's most scathing critics of dictatorship.

"I am trying to do what I can to restore all the buildings in the book and to attract attention to the country and to the town," said artist and Orwell fan Nyo Ko Naing.

The two-storey house stands abandoned in an overgrown tropical garden in the remote town which lies about 250 kilometres (155 miles) -- or a 13-hour train ride -- north of Mandalay.

The campaigners want the home and nearby European country club turned into a museum, in a country where many colonial-era buildings have already fallen victim to the wrecking ball as investors flock to what they hope will be the region's next hottest economy.

A young Orwell, then known as Eric Blair, arrived in Burma -- now called Myanmar -- in 1922 and stayed for five years, working as a policeman in the country, which was under British rule at the time.

In the novel, Katha is called Kyauktada, but everything else is the same.

"The Tennis Court, British Club, jail, the police station and the military cemetery are in the book and really exist in the town." said Nyo Ko Naing.

The wooden and brick house has been empty for 16 years.

Some old pot plants have withered and died and the upstairs balconies are too unstable to stand on. The empty rooms echo with Nyo Ko Naing's footsteps, which leave prints in the dust that has built up over the years.

"Orwell took many raw materials for his book 'Burmese Days' from here," Nyo Ko Naing said. "I think this house and all the other places in Orwell's book should be turned into a museum."

"Burmese Days" is a scathing critique of British colonial rule, with the European characters' constant drinking and poor treatment of the Burmese locals a running theme.

The Burmese characters also come in for harsh criticism, with the magistrate portrayed as scheming, obese and corrupt.

Myanmar is now opening up and over the past couple of years more and more tourists have come to Katha, on the trail of Orwell.

"The country is open now. It is no longer isolated," said Oo Khinmaung Lwin, the headmaster of the local school. "I will teach my students so that they know more about George Orwell."

Although long thought to be Orwell's home, there is some doubt whether a policeman would have lived in such a grand house.

Across the road from the house lies the tennis court, and beyond that the European club.

In "Burmese Days", the club is described as "the real centre of the town... the spiritual citadel, the real seat of the British power."

Today it is the offices for a local business cooperative, and the bar where the Europeans would have spent most of their time has closed.
 
The local Anglican church, the setting for the climax of the book, still stands and is still in use. The local priest points where the book's protagonist, John Flory, would have sat.

"People come here from Germany, Sweden, America," Reverend Daniel Say Htan told AFP. "They come here to see the real places in the novel."

Orwell's time in Burma helped shape his future career -- he became one of the 20th century's most important writers, with novels such as "Animal Farm" and "1984" providing some of literature's most biting criticism of authoritarianism.

But those who met him when he was in Burma would not have guessed at those feelings.

"The few accounts of people who met him whilst he was in Burma suggest he was a perfectly conventional policeman," D.J. Taylor, who wrote the award winning biography, "Orwell: The Life", told AFP.

"He actually went out to the East with standard beliefs. Half of him believed in the rights of the Burmese and the other half didn't as he was often so sick of them," he said.

But his time serving in the British Raj did begin a slow change in perspective.

"Burma provided the raw material for plenty of thoughts later" Taylor said. "It is a crucial early step in his political development."

The work of Orwell, who died in 1950, still resonates with readers today. When the recent National Security Agency scandal broke after revelations by fugitive former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, sales of his novels raced up the best sellers charts.

Artist Nyo Ko Naing has read the book five times, in both English and Burmese, and says he will carry on doing all he can to preserve the places that form the basis for Orwell's long road to greatness.

"We are trying collectively to maintain and restore everything related to George Orwell, Burmese Days and Katha town as we regard it as a precious legacy," he said.

Selling Online

  • Written by Naomi Ng
  • Category: Features

Myanmar’s emerging e-commerce

Every month, Su Larb Yadanar makes a purchase for a handful of Korean and foreign branded cosmetics online. But instead of paying online, she hands over a bundle of cash when she picks up the goods at a friend’s house at the end of the month.

“This is how we work here without credit cards,” says the 20 year-old, business school student.

While online shopping in Myanmar is still in its infant stages and more reserved for the younger, techno- savvy generation, the fledgling e-commerce industry is prepared to take flight as the country gears up for transitioning from a cash-based economy to one in which cards and online purchases take on more importance.

As of today, the country still functions without any domestically issued credit cards, and only three international payment cards, namely VISA, MasterCard and China Union Pay (CUP) have been accepted in the country with a limited number of holders at this stage. Recently, Japan Credit Bureau (JCB) has been added to the list and is expected to be accepted nationwide in a few months time.

Even with Internet penetration reaching only up to 2 percent of the population, this hasn’t stopped local online service providers trying to get ahead of the game.  One of the online web stores, omyanmar.com was set up by iBiz Service Provider Co. Ltd in 2010. At that point, official statistics from state-owned Internet service provider, Myanmar Post and
Telecommunication (MPT) put the numbers at 400,000 Internet users all over the country.

How online shopping works in Myanmar

Omyanmar.comis dubbed “the online shopping mall” and sells a variety of products and goods, including electronics, books and even household items such as washing machines from 60 business merchants. Others, such as Cherry Shan Fashion Couture – aimed at young women – are getting into the act. Without any official online payment services in Myanmar, most online shopping sites only offer two payment options. Customers can pay by cash on delivery, or transfer money to the merchant’s bank account.

Win Tun, founder of iBiz Service Provider Co. Ltd came back to Myanmar after seven years of studying and working in the e-commerce business in the United Kingdom.  Although he knew that Internet usage and public awareness was fairly low, he still saw potential for developing e-commerce and set the wheels in motion.

According to him, shopping online this year has spiked in popularity, but it was not easy to convince merchants to use his web service.  

“At first, our clients were afraid of these things (creating an e-shop), they thought we were robbing them and believed they could do their own business well without the Internet,” Win Tun says.

Although he was aware that e-commerce was still a strange concept in Myanmar, he decided to give his idea a test run. In 2011, he created an online expo for his clients, allowing them to showcase their products for a month where customers could also make online purchases.

Necessity for centralized online payment

However, he believes that without a centralized online payment service, e-commerce cannot truly take flight in Myanmar.

“We are expecting a payment provider next year, but right now without any official online payment services, people cannot use online shopping services properly to its full potential,” he says.

He also adds that problems arising from the online store are derived from the lack of a proper online payment solution.

“Businessmen hesitate to join us because they cannot get their payment instantly. If they are able to, they will be more interested,” he says.

He makes reference to cases where merchants have been reluctant to send goods because it is not profitable for them to deliver small quantities. Instead, they would inform the customer that the particular product is out of stock.

Social media and e-commerce

Su Larb Yadanar, who is wary of fraudulent online websites, chooses to go for Facebook online stores, believing they are more trustworthy based on the number of likes the shop page has accumulated.

Most are Myanmar individuals who have connections with friends owning small stores in neighboring countries like Thailand or Singapore - countries with easy access, and cheaper price tags for international products. The page showcases the products, and customers submit an order form. A few weeks later, they pay in cash when they pick up the goods at the “shop owner’s” house in Myanmar. Local Facebook shop pages range from a few thousand likes, up to 30,000 over the course of one year - a small, but substantial amount given the low Internet penetration level.  

Using social media sites, especially Facebook, is not uncommon as a marketing strategy for individuals who are starting small. The low-cost start up combined with an extensive sharing network online allows individuals, and small shops to expand their customer base.

“I see new shops each day I open Facebook on the sidebar advertisement,” says Su Larb Yadanar. In the past year, she has spent a total of US$150 per month on Korean cosmetics, some of which can be found in Myanmar.

Like most South East Asian countries, the dominant Korean craze and obsession with pale skin as a trademark for beauty is prevalent amongst younger women.  As the country is opening up for foreign investment, Korean cosmetics giants like Etude House, Tony Moly and Nature Republic have been flooding into the country in the past year.

While Su Larb Yadanar could not contain her excitement upon hearing that her favorite brands were finally setting foot in Myanmar, she was disappointed to see that prices of the products at the counter were three times as much as the original prices elsewhere and online.

E-commerce regulation needed

However, the lack of a comprehensive, legal regulatory framework could potentially become a dangerous breeding ground for e-commerce developers. Currently, with no Internet or e-commerce law in place that protects both customers and merchants against varieties of fraud, online web stores find it difficult for e-commerce to reach its full growth potential.

Myanmar Computer Fed-eration (MCF), a governmentlinked organization told The Irrawaddy that the controversial Electronic Transactions Law that oversees disseminating online information is set to be revised soon.

“We will have to adjust the law so it is appropriate for nowadays,” says director of the MCF, Myint Myint Than.

The organization has been seeking comments and suggestions from the IT industry to help amend the law so that it may include regulations on recently developed fields such as e-commerce.

As Internet access and mobile penetration continues to grow, the demand for related laws will escalate alongside the developing infrastructure in the different sectors that needs to be able to support the new incoming technology.

Developed technology awaiting infrastructure

In Myanmar, companies have already developed the technology for online payment solutions, but are waiting in the wings for infrastructure from institutional bodies to come into place. MyanPay, a local take on PayPal, is one of the online payment systems available.

Founded by Soft-Gate Technology Co. Ltd. in 2010, MyanPay acts as an online payment gateway based on bank transactions in Myanmar. Instead of having the MyanPay account linked to a credit or debit card, customers can buy a MyanPay balance for online transactions from the MyanPay bank account at their preferred local bank.

While MyanPay is not an official partner with any banks, the company has opened MyanPay accounts in nine local banks.

According to Yan Naung Soe, managing director of SoftGate Technology Co. Ltd, the majority of MyanPay accounts are personal, with over 65,000 personal accounts and 800 business accounts. He claims that there have been over 80,000 sales transactions online.

Like many other online payment systems, MyanPay is looking to work with the Myanmar Payment Union (MPU), the only central payment network in the country that is facilitating the transition and upgrade of the cash-based economy to help push e-commerce nationwide.

The MPU currently has 17 member banks, but only nine are in full operation in issuing MPU ATM cards. With an MPU ATM card, the cardholder is able to withdraw cash at any of their member banks.  Zaw Lin Htut, chief executive officer of MPU says that after this step, they are looking towards developing infrastructure to enable e-commerce platforms.

“In the near future, the e-commerce platform will join MPU. It is the more efficient, centralized solution,” he says.

Changing local habits and mindsets He adds that before spreading to different channels, gaining public confidence and increasing stakeholder participation is key.

“The infrastructure needs to be good enough before the public has confidence in banks, but at the moment, we don’t have stable connectivity, and problems with ATMs can happen. If people have confidence in using banks, then the merchants will come to us,” he says.

One way of facilitating the payment transition is to get people used to the idea of cashless transactions. Up to now, the MPU has issued 350,000 ATM cards in Myanmar. A few months ago, he says most companies with large staff changed to adopt the payroll system and have money transferred directly to their bank accounts instead of handing out their salaries in cash.

“Imagine if you have 1,000-2,000 employees, you would need to prepare the cash three to four days ahead of time. Now they will have to start using their ATM cards to withdraw money,” he says.

Staying flexible during change

While there are many forces at play to assist the payment switch, Michael Sieburg, manager of the Vietnamese branch of Solidiance, a marketing consultancy firm with an expertise in the technology sectors in Asia cautions against a too aggressive approach during the transition.

“It’s a matter of taking the step of an in-between online and offline payment - by making use of convenience stores and kiosks as agents for online payments where customers can come into the stores to pay in cash for their electricity or phone bill,” Sieburg says.

He advises e-commerce sites to be flexible with consumers over time and emphasizes the importance of still offering cash on delivery options alongside online payments as it comes around.

Online shopping on Ebay or Amazon around the world has revolutionized consumer behavior and catapulted some businesses into “retail heaven.” While Myanmar has several challenges including modernizing the telecom and banking sectors, many are starting to realize the growth potential, but understand that it is a matter of time before it really can get on track with the rest of the world.

Kick-starting entrepreneurship

  • Written by Naomi Ng
  • Category: Features

Preparing Myanmar’s next generation

Go big or go home. Over the years, successful businessmen have been preaching this golden rule to young entrepreneurs who dream of making it big. Project Hub Yangon has newly launched Myanmar’s first co-working space and incubation program to cultivate six budding entrepreneurs and start-ups to make their dreams a reality.

The 1,000-square-foot place is spruced up with a smattering of art deco with a touch of an oriental vibe, a stark contrast to the musty interior of the rest of the building.  The room is divided into a few areas; one that can be partitioned into a meeting room for semi privacy with a drop of the curtains, a work-friendly space with tables, whiteboards and audio visual equipment, and a cozy space surrounded by beanbag chairs with an unlimited supply of coffee served on a traditional-looking food cart.  

One of the co-founders of Project Hub Yangon (PHY), Peter Silvester, explains to Mizzima Business Weekly about how important it is to create a supportive environment for entrepreneurs to develop their businesses.

“At the moment in Myanmar, there aren’t a lot of people starting new businesses. There are a lot of established people starting businesses, there are a lot of people that would like to start new businesses but there are a lot of impediments or obstacles in their environment.”

From getting funds to the technological know-how of setting up websites or registering with the government, these are few of the many obstacles that entrepreneurs have to overcome in getting a head start.

After a year of entrepreneurial research for a year, Silvester has identified the top three needs for entrepreneurs to start their business: A good Internet connection, affordable space and a community of likeminded people.

The hub aims to address these needs by starting with an affordable co-working space, and offers memberships for those who are weary of their usual Internet café hideouts downtown, and can pay on a weekly or monthly basis instead of having to pay a year up front required for renting any space in Yangon.

Through the co-working space, the hub is also running an incubation program - Project Hub Fellowship, with the support of Ringier AG, a Swiss digital media company. Six successful Myanmar applicants, including two duo teams, and four entrepreneurs, will undergo a five-month program guided by mentors, including workshops, networking events and an investor pitch night.

“We’re not doing training, or education, but it’s sort of an informal gathering place where we can do talks by developers, and networking events. That’s a part of the benefit of the co-working space, which you’ll see all around the world,” he says.

While PHY is not under the same brand as The HUB Company, a global network of more than 30 independent local hubs worldwide, such as well-established ones in Silicon Valley, Singapore and London, it works in the similar spirit and mindset in providing opportunities for starting entrepreneurs. Silvester has talked extensively with the team, but has no plans for the global hub network to start in Myanmar yet.

“We would like to see the hub network, we’d like to see them adapt their value proposition to better suit the developing country context because Yangon is not Zurich, it’s not Amsterdam, it’s not New York in many ways,” he says.

But like most start ups anywhere, money is often the most pressing issue. Erik Oo, 25, and Stephen Kyaw, 26, form a public relations agency called T3PR and is also one of the teams selected for the fellowship. They are trying to revolutionize the public relations sector by creating mobile apps to establish a connecting platform for their clients and the general public.

“Without money, we will always be stuck at the idea phase and won’t be able to develop it into a real business. Right now, we’re under negotiation with investors and offering them corporate video and advertising packages in exchange for investment,” Stephen Kyaw says.

Just for the idea development phase, they estimate a need for US$30,000, which will cover hosting events, outsourcing and advertising. One of the obstacles they say is to ensure investors they are trustworthy and worthwhile of investment. Now armed with a novel concept and the support of Ringier and the fellowship program, they hope their improved reputation will be enough to convince investors to chip in.

And that’s only the tip of the iceberg, both Erik Oo and Stephen Kyaw are currently juggling full time jobs, because let’s face it, someone’s going to have to pay for lunch. But starting a business is no part-time job, or hobby for the weekends. Now with the fellowship program on the go, they’re willing to quit their jobs to fully dedicate themselves to the business.

Another fellow member in the program is Htet Wai Phyo, a recent university graduate who is looking to create the first local Myanmar search engine, Bindez. Together with another friend, he came up with the idea and hopes to turn it into a business.

“We want to create something sustainable, and share our vision with other people. I want to work with other people doing what I love, not just for fun,” he says.  Even after two years of hard work, he says almost everyone still tells him it’s too big of a game to play.

“They keep asking me why I don’t go to other countries like Singapore and Australia where you can make a lot of money working in the IT industry. But I think we have something to contribute here,” he says.

With the country having just opened up, Stephen Kyaw says that many of the young generation still fear the risk of starting their own business as they feel they remain under the shadow of the government and the army.

“Many people think to start a business you need to know high ranking officials in the government or have a network in the army,” he says. As of today, the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (UMFCCI) is one such body that aims to act as a bridge between the state and businesses in the private sector. Currently it boasts of more than 20,000 members and offers a wide range of services such as training to local companies.

Knowing and talking to the right people could be a make or break moment, but Wai Phyo, managing director of Cho Cho Co. Ltd, Myanmar’s instant noodle manufacturing giant, says it’s not the most important thing.

“Entrepreneurship is about finding a different way of doing things. You can start your own business and try in a more customer and consumer centric way rather than a godfather centric model where you need this guy’s blessing or help to open doors for you. That may have been true in the past, but nowadays it’s much more open. I don’t think these young guys should be so afraid to take that step because they don’t have a general or minister that they know,” he says. Wai Phyo, also the president for Myanmar Young Entrepreneurs Association, however cautions the fledgling entrepreneurs about potential foreign competition, which should be one of their biggest concerns.

“These foreign companies are going to come in soon, and young entrepreneurs have to look out for them because they are going to live, eat and breathe innovation,” he says.

Htet Wai Phyo has high hopes for his Myanmar search engine that one day it will be good enough to rival Google, like how Chinese users are loyal to Baidu – China’s number one search engine, but the development phase still has a long way to go. He fears he won’t be able to compete when foreign companies surge into the market with their plethora of resources and vast capital.

One thing foreign companies do not have is the home court advantage. They may be bigger, but Wai Phyo says local Myanmar entrepreneurs and companies have an edge that will put them a few steps ahead.

“How well you understand the market will reflect how well you do. They are multinational companies, but they’re not homegrown, they’ll need to take the time to learn,” he says.

He adds that although foreign competition is a force to be reckoned with, it could prove to be beneficial in the long term.

“If you look at any country, foreign companies have shown to have long-term positive effects. Everyone complains about them eating up the market share but in the long term, they’re a weeding out process. The strong become stronger, the benchmark becomes higher and the local guys become better,” he says.

The influx of foreign companies will prove to be a testing fight or flight period for Myanmar. Those who fight could possibly become the next national pioneers in the country.

There is a reason why Myanmar is branded as the Golden Land, rich with natural resources but also teeming with opportunities. To Wai Phyo, now is the best time for entrepreneurs to take the gamble.

“It’s a great time to be in Myanmar. In the past, we had monopolies and state-owned enterprises. Now they are torn down and privatized. Entrepreneurs need this freedom to express and try out their own ideas,” he says. With Myanmar remaining as one of the few countries in the world that is largely untouched by Western brands, the market is open and up for grabs. Co-founder of PHY, Silvester strongly believes that the foreign-run fellowship program has much to offer to
locals.

“The great thing about encouraging Burmese companies to start up to solve problems is that they do it sustainably, they’re not donor dependent. They’re not employing a large amount of foreigners, they’re Burmese people coming up with Burmese originated solutions, innovations to solve Burmese problems,” he says.

He adds that when these entrepreneurs are able to run successful businesses, it could prove to be a “hugely catalytic force”, opening up employment opportunities and providing a nurturing environment for Myanmar companies to grow and flourish.

The road ahead for young entrepreneurs often starts with a downhill track. The risks and sacrifices they have to first undergo in the beginning will be the test to see if they can withstand and endure the next uphill climb to the peak. 

This article first appeared in the August 29 edition of M-ZINE+.


M-ZINE+ is a business weekly available in print in Yangon through Innwa Bookstore and through online subscription at www.mzineplus.com

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