Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi called for investments that create jobs to avoid a “time bomb” of youth unemployment on her first trip abroad in 24 years after the former dictatorship shifted toward democracy.
“I’m extremely worried about the high level of unemployment in my country, particularly youth unemployment,” Suu Kyi told reporters at the World Economic Forum on East Asia conference in Bangkok today. “That’s a time bomb. Many of our young people are already following the wrong path.”
The former political prisoner who won the Nobel Peace Prize during her 15 years under house arrest became a lawmaker last month after her National League for Democracy party won 43 of 45 seats in April 1 by-elections. The move prompted the U.S. and European Union to ease economic and financial sanctions as the former dictatorship loosens its grip on power.
London-based WPP Plc, the world’s biggest advertising company, and Tata Motors Ltd., India’s biggest automaker, announced moves to expand in Myanmar last month, while General Electric Co. and Honda Motor Co. are among other companies considering investing in the nation of 64 million people. Myanmar is “set for economic takeoff” if it implements the right policies, the International Monetary Fund said last month.
Suu Kyi warned companies that Myanmar’s investment law “would be of no use whatsoever” in a dispute because the country’s legal system remains unreliable. She called for transparency in all investments and aid projects, saying projects like Italian-Thai Development Pcl’s plan to build an $8.6 billion deep-sea port in Myanmar left people “completely in the dark” about what the contracts contained.
“Whatever investments, governmental agreements, whatever aid might be proposed, please make sure that this is transparent,” she told reporters in a briefing after her speech. “We have to make this quite clear, otherwise we may find the benefits go to one particular group or one particular person even.”
Suu Kyi declined to say which types of investments she wanted to see Myanmar attract because “I might be giving the kind of signals I should not be giving at the moment. But let me say I’m thinking in terms of low-hanging fruit because we require quick creation of jobs.”
Suu Kyi, who also spoke on a panel about women’s rights that included Telenor ASA Chief Executive Officer Jon Fredrik Baksaas, called for the elimination of licensing requirements that make it difficult to acquire mobile phones. One in 30 people in Myanmar have a mobile phone and less than 1 percent of the population has an Internet connection, Nomura Holdings Inc. said in a March 14 report.
Suu Kyi also called for companies to help train employees in the services industry to meet demand from “a tremendous flood of tourists.”
“You would be helping our economy to go forward in a very acceptable way,” she told participants in the forum. “Short courses can give people a start in some job that will also give them an opening into a higher level of employment.”
Myanmar announced yesterday it would allow visas on arrival for investors from 26 countries, including the U.S., Germany, China and the U.K.
Thai Beverage Pcl, Thailand’s biggest producer of beer and whiskey, is exploring potential investments in the country.
“It doesn’t have to be an acquisition,” Chief Executive Officer Thapana Sirivadhanabhakdi said yesterday in an interview with Bloomberg Television in Bangkok. “We have been discussing with the local partners there and that would be a great opportunity going in to one of probably the most attractive markets at the moment.”
Since arriving in Bangkok three days ago with a seat in the airplane’s cockpit, Suu Kyi has met throngs of Myanmar migrant workers and discussed their plight with Thai Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yoobamrung. She called for better treatment for the estimated 2 million laborers, about 60 percent of whom are unregistered and thus ineligible for health care and a 300 baht ($9.43) minimum daily wage.
“If we were able to offer them the job opportunities that they get here, then they would not need to come here,” Suu Kyi said. “It was very touching to meet our workers and to find out how much they long to go home.”
Thai rubber plantations will face labor shortages as workers from Myanmar leave for their home country, Pongsak Kerdvonbundit, president of the Thailand Rubber Association, said at the World Rubber Summit in Singapore last week. A lack of workers represents “the most important issue in Thailand now,” he said.
The IMF estimates Myanmar’s unemployment rate at 4 percent compared with 0.7 percent in neighboring Thailand. Myanmar’s per capita gross domestic product amounts to about 15 percent of Thailand’s, according to data from the IMF. The government has moved to connect with the global financial system, dismantling a fixed exchange rate earlier this year and revising investment laws.
Suu Kyi returns to Myanmar on June 3 and will travel later this month to Europe. She visits Geneva and Norway before arriving in the U.K., where she’ll address both houses of Parliament on June 21. Suu Kyi graduated from the University of Oxford and married a British citizen who died in 1999.
Myanmar President Thein Sein, who declined an invitation to attend the WEF event, took power 14 months ago and has won praise for freeing political prisoners, loosening media restrictions and persuading Suu Kyi to stand for parliament. Suu Kyi, while welcoming the suspension of sanctions, said Myanmar’s reforms must be seen with a “healthy skepticism.”
“These days I’m coming across a lot of what I would call reckless optimism,” Suu Kyi told the World Economic Forum participants. “That is not going to help you. It’s not going to help us.”