Myanmar moving toward democracy, openness

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Myanmar moving toward democracy, openness

NAYPYITAW, Myanmar - Ending decades of isolation under its military junta, Myanmar, also known as Burma, seems to be slowly on track to opening up its economy for reform and changing its political climate to democracy.

A recent four-day visit to the capital, Naypyitaw, and largest city, Yangon, was just too short to witness all the economic and political transformation under way, but the Myanmarese will tell you how willing they are to reset things in order. And Myanmar is seeking assistance from Korea, a country that has experienced a military government and traveled the path of democracy and rapid economic development.

“In Korea, you had the Saemaul movement where the living standard of rural areas improved,” said Aung Lynn, director-general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) affairs department at Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “We’ll be happy to further learn about the experience.”

In the hearts and minds of many Koreans, Myanmar is remembered for the October 1983 bombing at Aung San Cemetery in Rangoon that was orchestrated by North Korea in an attempt to assassinate South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan. Seventeen senior South Korean officials were killed, including the vice prime minister and foreign minister, and 15 injured.

“It was an unexpected event and tragic event,” Lynn said.

After Myanmar found North Korea was involved, the country severed diplomatic relations. In 2007, the two countries restored their ties at the North’s request.

“Since our country’s foreign policy is to have friendly relations with all the countries in the world, it was not good for us to refuse,” Lynn said. “But it wasn’t Myanmar that started the process.”

President Lee Myung-bak visited Myanmar in May, becoming the first South Korean leader to travel to the capital since the assassination attempt in 1983.

During his term, Lee has emphasized the importance of ties between Korea and Southeast Asian countries, including Myanmar, where a new civilian government led by President Thein Sein emerged after elections last year.

In a speech last year, Sein said Myanmar would move toward democracy and the country has begun to implement a reform process, allowing the National League for Democracy and Aung San Suu Kyi to enter parliament. Recently, the government also has permitted more press freedom, including the publishing of newspapers and magazines without prior approval from the government.

“Media reform is one of our priorities in stepping toward democracy,” said U Soe Win, deputy information minister. “We are allowing more press freedom but with more responsibility, which is what democracy is all about.”

The country is also opening up its market, in an attempt to attract foreign investment. Due to international economic sanctions, Myanmar was essentially closed for business the past five decades. Sanctions were eased this year after Sein introduced political reforms.

“Many Korean delegations are visiting Myanmar,” said Aung Soe, director of international trade promotion department of the Directorate of Trade in the Ministry of Commerce. “Korean companies are expressing interest in participating in construction projects.”

U Tun Zaw, director of the foreign economic relations department at the Ministry of National Planning and Economic Development, invited more Korean companies to participate in Myanmar’s growth plans. Currently, China is Myanmar’s biggest investor, followed by Thailand, Hong Kong and Korea.

“This year, we expect our economic growth to be over 7 percent,” Zaw said. “We are implementing projects in various sectors, including education, forestry, aggregation, health, rail transportation, science and technology.”

By Lee Eun-joo [angie@joongang.co.kr]

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