There is a need for the Philippines to fully review and assess the benefits and opportunities that it can derive from Myanmar’s impending reintegration to the world economy. From this, it is hoped that the Philippine government can design a strategy for constructively engaging Myanmar with the aim of partaking in that country’s looming economic bonanza.
The Philippines and Myanmar established diplomatic relations way back in 1956. However, the history of that relationship had been by and large uneventful. As an electoral democracy, many Filipinos have expressed support for greater political freedoms, if not the full restoration of democracy in Myanmar, a fellow Southeast Asian and ASEAN member country. Many Filipino leaders and groups expressed vocal support for Aung San Suu Kyi whose dedication to the democratic cause in her native country earned for her the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize.
Having lost democratic rights during almost fifteen years of martial law in the 1970s and 1980s, many Filipinos fully empathize with the people of Myanmar knowing very well the lack of genuine people’s participation in governance, not to mention human rights abuses, which characterize most authoritarian societies ruled by a military junta or a civilian despot in control of the military machinery. It is in this regard that the recent reforms undertaken by the Myanmar leadership have been welcomed by Manila, as well as other governments, as steps toward a positive direction.
This climate of reforms signaled a change in the relations between the two countries. From a critic of Yangon and staunch supporter of pro-democracy protests, the Philippines became part of a coalition of countries calling for the ending of international sanctions to the Myanmar government. The recent June 14-15, 2012 visit of Myanmar Foreign Minister U Wunna Maung Lwin to hold the 2nd Joint Commission on Bilateral Cooperation (JCBC) stresses the warming relations between the two ASEAN countries. This signified the resolve of the two nations to further bilateral trade through exchange of knowledge on the investment and economic laws of each country, holding of trade fairs, and establishment of a joint trade commission and contacts between the chambers of commerce of both countries. This was a follow-up of the 2004 JCBC which expanded mutual cooperation in terms of trade, investment, agriculture, forestry, tourism, culture, education, health, and air services. In 2006 and 2007, policy consultations between the two countries were held in Manila and the Myanmar capital, Naypyidaw respectively.
This is not to say that this wind of change has no prior antecedents. In fact, one of the high points in the relations between the Philippines and Myanmar came as early as 1997 (the year when Myanmar was admitted to ASEAN) when former Philippine President Fidel V. Ramos, himself a former general, paid a visit to reclusive Myanmar, a gesture which was returned the next year by Myanmar when Senior-General Than Shwe came to Manila in 1998.
In 2008, in light of the devastation brought about by Cyclone Nargis, Sen. Richard Gordon, who is also the National Chairman of the Philippine National Red Cross, led the Philippine delegation to the ASEAN-UN International Pledging Conference held in Yangon. The Philippine government contributed US$350,000 to the international relief efforts for Myanmar. This is aside from the contributions made by private Filipino businesses and non-government organizations. Moreover, the Philippines also sent a medical team, medicines and relief goods and provided C-130 plane for airlift purposes.
Unlocking Myanmar’s riches
The re-opening of Myanmar to the outside world had already drawn worldwide attention and interest, not only from governments and NGOs, but most importantly from the business sector. Aside from advancing the cause of political rights and democratic reforms, one major impetus driving the decision of many countries to re-engage Myanmar is economic interest. The mining and energy sector lobby, for instance, is strongly advocating for the lifting of the sanctions. Myanmar is a big resource-rich country endowed with a fertile soil, amiable climate, and hardworking people. Since the time of British colonization, the country had already produced oil, silver, lead and tungsten. The country was also once a major world rice supplier. The country is also renowned for its precious stones, such as jade, sapphires and rubies (with roughly 90% of world rubies coming from the country). On top of this, the country is also strategically located bridging India and the rest of mainland Southeast Asia, as well as guarding the entrance to the all-important Malacca Strait from the Indian Ocean and vice versa.
All these potentials will soon be fully harnessed. In fact, China, one of Myanmar’s biggest long time trading partners, had considered Myanmar as an alternate land route for the transport of its imported energy from the Middle East, a plan which would call for Chinese oil imports to dock at the deepwater port of Sittwe and from there be taken to Kunming, Yunnan via pipeline. Such a move will enable Beijing to enhance its energy security, quickly supplying its southwest region with much needed energy to meet its growing needs, bypassing the Malacca Strait chokepoint and tension-filled South China Sea and saving money in the process.
Many countries had already expressed their desire to invest in Myanmar. Some have already taken measures, while others still wait for further reforms to take place. Among the sectors that are expected to receive a big boost from the entry of foreign investments in the country are energy (oil and gas), mining, agro-forestry and infrastructure. The construction of a network of roads, rail, bridges and ports will support resource extraction, transport and export. The bountiful resources of Myanmar that attracted multinational companies did not escape the attention of its neighbours. Among Asian energy companies currently participating in Myanmar’s offshore hydrocarbon exploration and production include CNPC and CNOOC of China, GAIL and ONGC of India, Daewoo of South Korea, PTT of Thailand and Petronas of Malaysia, among others. Multinational players include French Total and energy companies from Australia and Russia. Many of these companies had been in Myanmar well throughout the sanctions period, enjoying a somewhat privileged position vis-a-vis other industry players.
Benefits for the Philippines
Indeed, the old mantra of criticizing Myanmar for its suppression of democracy and dissent and cutting it off from the international community as a way to delegitimizing its ruling military elite is slowly being eroded despite the best efforts of many human rights organizations to sustain the same. The economic benefits that can be derived from bringing back Myanmar to the international fold had become more pronounced in recent years, with the demand for energy and raw materials to fuel the development, especially of East Asian countries, growing in unprecedented proportions. Besides, the generals had already demonstrated considerable capacity for regime survival despite economic isolation. Furthermore, in keeping with ASEAN’s non-interventionist norms-building approach, engaging Myanmar is preferred over supporting regime change from without. Considering the ethnic, linguistic, and socio-cultural fractures in the country, engaging the present leadership, for all its shortcomings and abuses, may even hold the key in keeping a unitary Myanmar within its present borders with less bloodshed. It is in this context that the Philippine position to support the ending of international sanctions to Myanmar can best be appreciated.
What can the Philippines gain from Myanmar and what can we offer in return? We have an interest in securing future energy supplies from proximate sources, essential and complementary raw materials for our manufactures and a new market for our products and services. We can take part in the development of the country’s telecommunication, banking and hospitality sectors. We have skilled workers who can help in the reconstruction of Myanmar’s dilapidated infrastructure. We have surplus teachers, engineers, managers and professionals who can lend support to Myanmar’s renaissance in the short to medium term or even longer should their services still be deemed indispensable. All these things and more have to be accounted for in maximizing the benefits that the Filipino people can derive from the reintegration of Myanmar to the world economy.
This article was published by the Forging a New Philippine Foreign Policy and reprinted with permission from author.