World leaders, politicians, journalists, businesspeople and observers from across the globe agree that Myanmar’s political and economic transition has been dramatic, unprecedented, and remarkable. In two short years, the country has pursued an astonishing number of reforms at an exceedingly fast pace.
When one visits Naypyidaw, it is clear that the capital is an active community of civil servants, many of whom are working around the clock to support the country’s political and economic changes. In our work, we often meet highly dedicated government officials who labor through long hours, in order to contribute to the country’s national development.
Unfortunately, decades of isolation imposed by the international community has detrimentally impacted the development of the civil service. Civil servants have had few opportunities to update skills, as a result of limited training and interaction with counterparts in other nations. In addition, government workers have not had easy access to the latest resources on global governmental policy trends, or an evidence base for making policy decisions.
To add to this, the demands of the transition on policymakers have been very challenging for a number of reasons. First, a great deal of Myanmar’s legislation has not been updated for quite some time. While there is a strong legislative base and many laws are adequate, there are also laws that are in urgent need of updating.
Second, policymakers are juggling wide-ranging reforms across several sectors. Few countries around the world simultaneously need to focus on issues ranging from immigration reform to export promotion policy to social welfare provisions, land tenure rights, and investment protections. Prioritization and sequencing of reforms have been difficult to manage. Policymakers and agenda setters have had to ask: What are the most integral reforms that take precedence? Are there overarching laws that must be reformed before any other reforms can take place? What must be done to enable legislative reforms across a whole sector?
Third, policymakers and officials are still determining the role and function of new policymaking institutions, including the Hluttaw, i.e. parliament, which convened for the first time only in January 2011. Although the institution is nascent, its strength and robustness has been growing steadily over the past two years. In the coming years, cooperation and combined efforts from the executive and parliament will be integral to moving forward on a number of challenging reforms.
Finally, policymakers face domestic and international pressure to expedite the country’s reform process. This pressure and urgency compound the difficulty of the civil servants’ jobs.
Given the intensive demands on policymakers, consultation with both domestic and international experts, advisors, and civil society has been an important tool of policymakers in Myanmar’s transition. However, this process has been asymmetrical. In a number of cases, some leaders have driven productive consultations with the public. At other times, leaders have relied only on internal knowledge. For example, in the case of the draft Press Law Bill, the government’s failure of the authorities concerned to consult the public resulted in disruptive public outcry from constituents and journalists.
Foreign investors can also play a role in this consultative process, by offering their global expertise and knowledge for capacity building in Nay Pyi Taw. So far, Myanmar policymakers have been encouraging investment that promotes technology transfer. The country could also significantly benefit from capturing policy and regulatory knowledge from multinational companies.
Foreign investors are in a position to advise and contribute to policy reforms in Myanmar, for a number of reasons. As many multinational companies have a strong presence in the Asia Pacific region, they have a deep understanding of regional regulatory issues. Many of these companies are experts and leaders in their sectors, and they are aware of the latest trends and issues in regulatory best practices. These firms know exactly how regulation and policy affects their business. Finally, multinational firms can offer advice in sectors that are not prioritized or funded by international institutions and donors, such as the UN and World Bank, but that are integral to Myanmar’s economic development.
Multinational firms are usually keen to offer expertise and human resources to advise and assist governments. Typically, this function falls under each company’s ‘responsible investment’ plans. Companies want to ensure that their activities are in line with their host government’s priorities and with societal objectives; interacting on policy and regulatory issues helps to promote shared values. In Myanmar, multinational companies are focused on responsible investment, which is encouraged both by the Myanmar government as well as the companies’ home governments.
When companies offer advice, they are aware that the government will likely independently consider the companies’ counsel and balance the companies’ input with perspectives from other sources.The corporate advisors should ensure that the advice they offer is relevant and applicable in Myanmar. Advisors should provide case studies that offer lessons, but also offer direct ideas for tailoring cases to the local context. Another important requirement for companies is ensuring that they provide advice in Myanmar language, through translation and interpretation if necessary, and that they coordinate closely with other firms and governmental agencies to make sure there is no overlap, which could waste civil servants valuable time.
In conclusion, Myanmar has achieved a great deal in only two years, and the country can achieve much more in the near future, especially if advice and counsel from international investors is leveraged and utilized. It is an exciting time for policy change in Myanmar, and foreign investors are ready to contribute.