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ASEAN Agrees to Myanmar’s Financial Inclusion Proposal
ASEAN finance ministers have agreed to Myanmar’s proposal to enhance a “financial inclusion” system which aims to help all people in the region get access to financial services, a minister said.
“We agreed to enhance ASEAN’s finance cooperation in our endeavours for economic integration in order to support implementation of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC),” U Win Shein, minister for finance, said at the 18th ASEAN Finance Ministers Meeting in Nay Pyi Taw.
Further discussion about the proposal will be made at a conference level, U Win Shein, who is also the chair of the regional meeting, said.
The meeting discussed the regional and global economic outlook, a post-2015 vision for the AEC and challenges in banking sector reforms. It focused on developing the financial inclusion system in order for everyone to get access financial services as Myanmar people are “very weak” in using financial services, U Win Shein added.
He said the ministers are “committed to facilitate robust economic growth in the region and to increase the region’s resilience against challenges.”
In a joint ministerial statement the ASEAN finance ministers said: “We reaffirmed our commitment to realising the goals of the AEC. We continued our activities in various areas under the Roadmap for Monetary and Financial Integration of ASEAN.”
The ministers also exchanged views with the Asian Development Bank (ADB), World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the ASEAN+3 Macroeconomic Research Office (AMRO) on the risks and policy challenges in a bid to maintain financial and economic stability.
Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Naoyuki Shinohara said at the meeting that Myanmar’s economy, despite opening up three years ago, still has challenges ahead, adding that it is “an advantage for the country’s economy to invite manufacturer-based investment.”
Takehiko Nakao, president of the Asian Development Bank, covered the outlook for ASEAN economies and policy challenges for the region.
After a strong economic performance last year, ASEAN’s economic growth is forecast to remain steady at 5 percent for 2014, accelerating to 5.4 percent in 2015, according to ADB’s latest Asian Development Outlook.
The macroeconomic fundamentals of the ASEAN countries are much stronger than in 1997, Nakao said. “It is clear that ASEAN members are working hard to address structural weaknesses especially in those countries with current account and fiscal deficits. Strong commitment to pursuing these policies helps build market confidence and thus reduces risk.”
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Myanmar Developer Yoma Sees Long Road to ASEAN Integration
Myanmar-focused conglomerate Yoma Strategic Holdings Ltd said Southeast Asia needs to work exceptionally hard to realise a balanced, European Union-style integration of such disparate economies.
Yoma is listed in Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member Singapore whose advanced island-state economy contrasts with that of fellow member Myanmar, rich in gems and natural gas but paralysed by decades of military rule and isolating sanctions.
Elsewhere in ASEAN, communist Laos has an economy that is less than 3 percent the size of that of monarchist neighbour Thailand, according to The World Bank. The population difference would suggest a size of 10 percent.
“That we will all share the benefits of integration is beyond dispute,” Yoma Chairman Serge Pun said at the Reuters ASEAN Summit. But a “lopsided” result where some members benefit more than others “is not sustainable.”
“I think we will make it happen,” Pun said. But “I feel that there has been ... over expectation of what ASEAN integration will do for all of us.”
The ASEAN chairmanship this year resides with Pun’s native Myanmar, which has been looking to attract foreign investment since a quasi-civilian government took office in 2011.
Asia’s second-poorest country after Afghanistan has no functioning stock market from which companies can raise funds, and foreign banks cannot open branches, just maintain representative offices from where they can offer companies nothing beyond advice.
“I think we have a fairly long way to go to develop our financial sector, which always is the most important sector to support the growth of an economy,” Pun said.
The government plans to permit limited foreign bank activity this year – good news for Singapore’s Overseas-Chinese Banking Corp Ltd which has had a representative office in Myanmar for around 20 years.
“When it opens up we are quite interested to establish a business presence there,” chief executive Samuel Tsien said at the summit, at the Reuters office in Singapore.
“We think that’s a market in which many Singaporean companies have engaged with for quite some time. There are quite a lot of Myanmar businessmen in Singapore who are already doing business with us,” Tsein said.
Sectors in Myanmar offering investors the highest growth include infrastructure, transportation, tourism and agriculture, Pun said.
His Yoma conglomerate earns almost all of its revenue in Myanmar from property. It also leases vehicles and runs balloon tours as it aims to diversify by raising non-property revenue to 50 percent.
Last month, Yoma said it would spend $20 million to set up what could become Myanmar’s biggest coffee plantation. It also said it would diversify by investing $46 million in dairy, $12 million in cold storage and $1.3 million in vehicle rental.
“I think we are very focused on Myanmar,” Pun said. “For the moment, I don’t think we have any plans to do anything outside of Myanmar.”
“We think this is a once-in-a-life-time opportunity and we intend to fully capitalise on the major reforms that have been going on, fully capitalise on the good prospects of the economy,” Pun said.
Shares of Yoma have fallen 5.3 percent so far this year compared with a 2.0 percent decline in the benchmark stock index. Reuters
‘To Overcome the Mistrust, It Takes Time’
CHIANG MAI — The Elders, a group of independent world leaders, paid a visit to Burma and the Burmese community in Thailand last week. It was the group’s second visit to the country in six months to assess the country’s reforms and meet with key figures.
On this visit, The Elders focused on learning about Burma’s peace process and listening to refugees’ voices. The Irrawaddy reporters Nyein Nyein and Lin Thant chatted with delegation members Gro Harlem Bruntland—the deputy chair of the Elders, former Norwegian prime minister and former director general of the World Health Organization—and Martti Ahtisaari—the former President of Finland and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. The pair discussed their trip and gave their views on the peace process and the situation for refugees on Burma’s borders.
Question: What is The Elders’ role in Burma’s peace process?
Gro Harlem Bruntland: Our impression is that they, both the government and the leadership across the border, are willing to meet us, which is important. We are grateful for that, which is why we can come back and continue a dialogue and discussion with them. We are not mediators. We want to have a supporting role, getting to know key people in the process and encourage the process.
Q: How would you evaluate your meeting with Burma President Thein Sein and the military’s commander-in-chief, Snr-Gen Min AungHlaing, in Naypyidaw?
GHB: The main points are they are working to promote the peace, to get ceasefires and to start the political dialogue and to deal with the constitutional questions. They are expressing this in a positive way as their intentions, as you can imagine. We hear all the voices when we meet the number of other groups who are experiencing conflicts, feelings and concerns, who are not happy, who feel things are too slow and who don’t trust.
We get a picture there are considerable distances between different parties to this conflict, that there are problems to be overcome. Also compare to their intentions and their hopes we heard half a year ago, things are going slowly as you know. The chief peace negotiator [Minister Aung Min] who we also met twice, [hoped for a quick peace process], which has not been fulfilled. We can observe there is much to be overcome and a lot of issues that need to be addressed in the political dialogue, because there are no clear solutions to many of the issues.
Martti Ahtisaari: We have been involved with conflicts all over the world. I don’t think conflict in Myanmar is any different from those in a sense. There is enormous mistrust. Yet it is a natural thing and takes a long time before people can overcome mistrust. It is, you sit and you talk, and the dialogue hopefully is inclusive in a society that people can feel they have a chance to express what they think. Perhaps some of their views can be taken into consideration into the peace process. But the important thing is to encourage people to move forward now.
Q: As you said, both parties play a key role in the ceasefire and political dialogue. In the case of Burma, the Tatmadaw is one of the key players. But, in reality, it is still fighting in northern Shan State and Kachin State, and other areas. Did you discuss this issue with Min Aung Hlaing?
GHB: We have asked questions. In fact there still are conflicts going on. Also he [Min Aung Hlaing] explained in the last four weeks or so, it is less than it was in Jan and Feb. Again it moves maybe in the right direction, although there is no stopping of every conflict yet. And there is not really a fully agreed ceasefire either. So it illustrates the need to get to the point of ceasefire, a reality so that people can get peace, and feel confident in their own areas. It is not easy to have political dialogue when shooting is happening. This is again an argument: it is important to get to a ceasefire so we can avoid these kinds of incidences, which create uncertainty, fear in the people.
Q: You also visited a camp for internally displaced persons in Myitkyina, Kachin State, and a refugee camp in the Burmese-Thai border and learnt about the peace process and the healthcare situation for those people. How would you describe the situation? And what should the international community be doing about that?
GHB: We will urge and encourage a more inclusive process, to listen to the different groups and including thinking about the importance of expertise and training that has been going on, on health and education in the border areas here, so that that capacity there does not get lost, but it is used and incorporated into a future peace situation. We have been asking those questions. Also the chief minister in Kachin State explained that health and education is crucial. It is raising conflict about the uses of natural resources, and human rights issues. But development means human rights to the people for health and education…. You invest in the people of your country, so they are healthy and educated.
MA: I must say that we both have been visiting many camps in our lifetimes. Both camps we visited, we were impressed, because they were well run, people were very professional and are hard working. You always see when you see children; they cannot act. It is always nice when you walk around and see smiles on their faces. We feel very comfortable when seeing that sort of professionalism there. What we of course notice when people have to be there for this case, many have not seen anything else except the camp, it is a big area on the Thai side for instance. It is important that we encourage the international community to continue its assistances because the conflict is not yet over. Discussions are starting, more or less because the political dialogue has not properly even started yet. There are issues that we can tell when we meet our colleagues in different international organizations, in public debate and so on. It was a very positive visit to those camps, but it is always impressive when you see how well people are taking care and they themselves are actively participating in that process.
GHB: It illustrates also there is human capacity built in those clinics [like the Mae Tao clinic in Mae Sot] and those camps. They are valuable to the future of Myanmar and should be taken care of, should be used.
Q: What would be your suggestion to solve Burma’s conflicts and the problems it is facing in its transition to democracy?
GHB: I think, as I said before, more inclusiveness, listening to all the different ethnics and other groups in such a way that political dialogue can be real and include all the needs and the points of view, it is a broad range. The inclusiveness is necessary.
MA: There has not been that much dialogue, as conflict has been raging for decades. So it is not easy to move from that to an inclusive process. We know that from all over the world; that is the best medicine at this stage. It is very demanding and not an easy process, because people, government particularly, had not been inclusive in the past. They have different behaviors and patterns. To change that it is a challenge. We need wisdom, both wise men and women, now on all sides; common wisdom in the society. We have seen very wise individuals as we have been talking to them.It is our task to help them and try to encourage them and recognize them at the same time, that it is not the very smooth route. To overcome the mistrust, it takes time.
North Korea Artillery Fire Prompts Military Response from South
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North Korea Artillery Fire Prompts Military Response from South
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South Korean students take shelter at the South Korea-controlled island of Baengnyeong near disputed waters in the Yellow Sea as North Korea undergoes a live-fire drill, March 31, 2014.
AFP PHOTO / ONGJIN COUNTY OFFICE
North Korea fired more than 100 rounds of artillery across its maritime border with South Korea into the Yellow Sea on Monday, prompting the South to fire back and scramble fighter planes in response to the drill, reports said.
Pyongyang’s three-hour live-fire exercise comes amid ongoing joint South Korean-U.S. military drills in the region and follows the North’s launch of missiles last week and threats to conduct a “new form” of nuclear weapons test over the weekend.
North Korea fired some 500 shells beginning at 12:15 p.m. on Monday, more than 100 of which landed in South Korean waters, according to defense officials in Seoul.
The South responded by firing more than 300 rounds into North Korean waters and scrambling F-15s on its side of the maritime border, officials said.
"The South Korean and U.S. forces have stepped up their surveillance and vigilance with increased military assets in all parts of the nation to prepare for possible provocations," South Korea’s Yonhap news agency quoted defense ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok as saying.
"If North Korea uses the live-fire drill as an excuse to launch provocations near South Korean islands and shores, we will sternly respond."
Residents on five front-line South Korean islands spent several hours in shelters during the firing, and ferry service linking the islands to the mainland was temporarily halted, according to reports.
A presidential spokesperson from Seoul said that South Korea would be “fully prepared to resolutely respond to further provocations from North Korea” and that the military would “take measures to secure the safety of residents” on islands in the Yellow Sea and near demilitarized zones.
In November 2010, North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong Island just south of the sea boundary, killing four people and triggering concerns of a full-scale conflict.
The maritime boundary is not recognized by Pyongyang, which argues it was unilaterally drawn by U.S.-led United Nations forces after the 1950-53 Korean War.
Monday’s exchange of fire drew concerns from the international community, which urged restraint amidst a ratcheting up of tensions on the Korean peninsula.
White House National Security Council spokesman Jonathan Lalley called North Korea’s recent actions, including the firing of artillery rounds into South Korean waters, “dangerous and provocative” and said the country’s threats would only isolate it further, according to a report by the Reuters news agency.
"We remain steadfast in our commitment [to] the defense of our allies and remain in close coordination with both the Republic of Korea and Japan," Lalley said.
The report said that Russia had also voiced concern on Monday over the exchange of fire and threats by Pyongyang that it may conduct a new nuclear test.
"We are worried about the mutual toughening of rhetoric, including the declaration by North Korea that it could conduct a new nuclear test," Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement urging restraint and criticizing the U.S. for holding military exercises with South Korea which it said were aggravating the situation.
North Korea’s drill coincided with ongoing joint U.S.-South Korean training which ends on April 18 and is part of a series of annual exercises.
Pushing for talks
Pyongyang took the unusual step of announcing to Seoul its intentions to hold the live-fire exercise, leading analysts to suggest that the move was an expression of frustration at a lack of improvement in ties with the international community, rather than a prelude to military action.
Yonhap reported that North Korea had notified the South by fax early on Monday that it would conduct the drill in the Yellow Sea, demanding that Seoul control its vessels near the region.
Pyongyang said that the move was a response to the U.N. Security Council’s condemnation of its recent missile launches and what it sees as threatening military exercises by the U.S. in the region, though both Washington and Seoul maintain that the joint operations are routine and defensive.
North Korea also accused the South of “abducting” one of its fishing boats last week and threatened to retaliate. The South said the boat had drifted into its waters and was returned after a brief detention.
Park Won-kon, a North Korea expert at the South’s Handong University, said that despite Pyongyang’s increased rhetoric, its recent actions were an attempt to force bilateral talks with the U.S.
“The main reason for North Korea’s provocations is resume talks with the U.S.,” Park told RFA’s Korean Service.
“However, since [ally] China is adamantly opposed to these provocations, North Korea informed the South in advance as an attempt to legitimize its strategy.”
Reuters quoted Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, as saying that “the North is unlikely to be reckless enough to do anything that will lead to a sharp worsening of the situation,” in light of the highly sophisticated joint South Korean-U.S. military exercises.
"There is an element of trying to show displeasure at the South Korea-U.S. drills and to pressure the South, but it doesn't seem the North wants this to blow up into something bigger."
Threat of ‘new’ test
Six-party aid-for-disarmament talks among North Korea, China, the U.S., Russia, Japan, and South Korea have been stalled since Pyongyang walked away from the forum in 2009, stepping up its nuclear bomb-making activity and firing a series of atomic and missile tests in defiance of U.N. resolutions.
North Korea’s Foreign Ministry threatened over the weekend to carry out a ''new form'' of nuclear test in a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency, one year after its third nuclear test prompted the U.N. to tighten sanctions against the rogue nation.
The statement did not clarify what was meant by a ''new form'' of test, but Washington has long suspected North Korea of trying to develop nuclear devices capable of being delivered to targets atop intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The U.N. warned North Korea last week that it could face additional sanctions because of its missile tests in past weeks that flouted Security Council resolutions banning its testing of ballistic missile technology.
Reported by RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Bong Park. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
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Japan to Offer Myanmar ¥24b in Fresh Loans
Japan has pledged to provide Myanmar ¥24 billion yen ($234.8 million) in fresh loans to finance a power plant and electricity networks.
Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida made the pledge for the loan at his meeting President U Thein Sein, state-run daily New Light of Myanmar reported.
Kishida, during another meeting with his counterpart, U Wunna Maung Lwin, confirmed Japan’s plan to provide an additional aid of about ¥8 billion ($7.8 million) to build a train operation monitoring system and to provide advanced medical equipment to hospitals.
Since Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe came to power in December 2012, his government has pledged assistance totalling more than ¥160 billion ($1.56 billion) to Myanmar, in a bid to make way for Japanese companies to foray into the Myanmar market and beat out competitors from the United States, the EU and China.
During their meeting, discussions were made on implementation of Thilawa Special Economic Zone (SEZ) by Japanese companies, research on repair of Yangon-Nay Pyi Taw-Mandalay railways, extension of Mandalay International Airport, assistance for Myanmar’s information and TV sector, human resources development, health and education, water supply for Yangon region, and food security for farmers, the report said.
Kishida also made a request for cooperation on efforts to collect the remains of Japanese soldiers who died in what was then known as Burma during World War II. A study has indicated that the remains of as many as 45,000 Japanese soldiers are in the country. The two foreign ministers also agreed to continue to conduct military exchanges.