Personal Reflections on Myanmar and Ways Forward

Chairperson, Ladies and Gentlemen,


Thank you so much for the warm welcome. It is a great pleasure to join you today to share some personal recollections and reflections on Myanmar, and to talk about the road that remains to be traveled.

Over the past year, Myanmar has become something of a global phenomenon. It continues to dominate headlines – with much analysis and commentary devoted to three aspects: the pace of change, the scope of change, and the likelihood of lasting change.

I would like to approach our discussion today from a slightly different angle. As someone who has been part of the process, and witness to many of these developments, I want to share my personal reflections on when the changes began and some perspectives on what I believe helped to motivate the changes, and how to build on these foundations.

My reason for doing so is that many analysts and commentators have treated the Myanmar reforms in a vacuum, implying that the changes, although perhaps unexpected by many, were somehow an inevitable outcome of external pressures.

This is also one reason for the often-repeated concerns about how enduring the reforms will be – because reactionary change seems less likely to last than change as a result of changing mindsets.

External pressures have clearly played a key role, but I am also a firm believer in peoples’ agency. To focus too greatly on external pressures, underestimates the social and political agency of the people and government of Myanmar, whose choices and actions have brought about the changes so many thought would be impossible.

I would also like to spend the last part of our discussion talking a bit about the future for Myanmar, the regional role that it can and should play in Asia and the Pacific.

In this time of global crisis and turmoil, our region must continue and intensify our support to countries in transition. Myanmar is a country of great spirit and promise – our responsibility is to assist the Burmese people in their efforts to realize this potential.

Chairperson, Ladies and Gentlemen,

A Personal Introduction to Myanmar

The change in Myanmar has been brought about through a combination of big events and consistent small steps and determination. It has been accelerated by the commitment of a very committed core of people – inside and outside the country – who have monitored the situation, strategized, and worked together to bring about change.

Although many people have seen these changes as Asian reflections of the Arab Spring, the change in Myanmar predates the Arab Spring. It started with the recognition by the leaders of Myanmar that something was badly wrong which they were ill-equipped to face.

My own personal involvement stretches back to September 2007, when I was appointed by the Secretary-General, Mr. Ban Ki-moon, as the new United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP).

At that time, Myanmar hit the headlines because of protests by the monks – and so, in those first weeks in office, I realized that this was one member State in a really difficult situation.

I also realized that this political situation would make it almost impossible to engage easily with Myanmar on the economic and social agenda – and my first reaction was to rather focus first on other, more receptive, member States.

But then, on the 2nd of May, cyclone Nargis hit. Five days later, I was in Jakarta, attending a Microsoft event with Bill Gates, and we started hearing reports of more than 100 000 Burmese missing or dead – with up to 2 million people affected.

Even more problematic was that nobody at the time seemed to know how best to get access to the country for humanitarian relief because there were severe restrictions on getting aid in.

We got major support from the Indonesians, who had themselves experienced the devastation of massive natural disasters – but who had also used the challenges of the tsunami to transform their own society. There were definite parallels – especially in the role that the military came to play in the recovery and reconstruction efforts in Aceh – where development became a key focus of this transformation.

The Indonesian Foreign Minister went on to raise the issue of Myanmar at the meeting of Foreign Ministers in Singapore on 19 May. The result was the formation of the ASEAN Humanitarian Taskforce – to form a bridge to try to help a very isolated country to engage with the outside world. There was also very strong support from the ASEAN Chairperson at that time, Singaporean Foreign Minister George Yeo, who was personally committed to help.

A donor conference was organized and I accompanied our United Nations Secretary-General into the country. It was a tremendous opportunity because the Secretary General was able to get full humanitarian access after meeting the President at the time.

Chairperson, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Natural Disaster & Developmental Opportunity

For me it was the first of several visits, during which I worked with a number of cabinet ministers – especially the Minister of Agriculture; the Myanmar Chair of the Tripartite Core Group; and the then Prime Minister, Thein Sein (now President).

In spite of the reputation of the Government, what struck me the most was the depth and sincerity of their concern about the suffering of their people because of Nargis. It was a shattering disaster, outside of their experience. They knew something had to be done, but were not certain what that needed to be.

Although they had experienced cyclones in the past, they had never been faced by a disaster of this magnitude before. They were unprepared, the usual resilience of the Burmese communities was insufficient to meet the scale of the destruction, and the images of the suffering of their people shocked them deeply. I knew that PM Thein Sein was on the ground frequently.

To help, I decided to organize a workshop in Bangkok on key regional learnings from natural disasters, bringing together the whole Tripartite Core Group and 20 representatives from Myanmar ministries and the UNCT. We managed to incorporate experiences from afar afield as Pakistan, Indonesia and Bangladesh.

The workshop was a great success – apart from the shared information it was also a real first step by ESCAP towards opening the door to greater regional engagement and support for change in Myanmar. This was followed by two major post-Nargis conferences, organized by ESCAP. The first, a donor conference, was to raise resources of over US$ 100 million for the Prioritized Action Plan and the second, with ASEAN, at the end of the Tripartite Core Group, focused on lessons learned.

It was also followed by Ministerial participation of Myanmar in our annual ESCAP Commission session, focusing on sustainable agriculture, food security and rural poverty - all key challenges for the country.

The Minister of Agriculture then launched our food security and sustainable agriculture Theme Study in Naypyidaw and organized a 6-day road trip for me across rural Myanmar to help me better understand the country, to reflect on these issues, and to get to know the rural communities a little more. At the end of the trip we were able to suggest to the Cabinet ways to bring Myanmar back to being the rice-bowl for the region.

This was all in July 2009 – a very tense time. It was a difficult tight-rope to walk – because Myanmar was deeply politically isolated. The West, especially the United States and the UK, were strongly opposed to the country’s human rights track record. The Secretary-General’s good offices were rightly focused on securing the release of political prisoners – especially Aung San Suu Kyi – and the overall human rights and governance situation within a comprehensive framework. Yet the ESCAP mandate of supporting economic and social development in all our member States gave us the reason to stay engaged. I decided to push as hard as I could on the development front, even when the politics left much to be desired, opening a new chapter for engagement and using the newly forged economic and social space to further the dialogues that put people and poverty reduction at the centre of the development agenda.

The result was the Second Development Partnership Forum – which included the landmark seminar by Nobel Economics Laureate Professor Joseph Stiglitz. It was a very difficult time because the Government didn’t know exactly who we would bring to the forum and the last thing they expected were six Americans and a Nobel Laureate after an American swam across the lake to Aung Sun Suu Kyi’s home. For the first time in many decades, local academics and civil society participated as resource persons, with deep knowledge of their society and what to do in moving forward. The role of Professor Stiglitz was to listen, analyze what he heard, and to recommend ways to proceed.

It could have been a total failure and seen the closing of the small space we had created, but instead the gamble paid off. It brought everybody to the same table – and it was there that the ice really began to crack and the space widen.

I wouldn’t say that there was any one single tipping point, but the changes we have seen in Myanmar have been the result of small steps, little nudges and sometimes large pushes from many people who care. They have also been the result of leaders whose concern for their people brought them to change their authoritarian mindsets and about the value of regional and global engagement.

Chairperson, Ladies and Gentlemen,

The Ways Ahead

One of the biggest challenges we now face is helping Myanmar to manage the change – and to ensure that they don’t become victims of their desire for greater openness and engagement, because there are many challenges ahead. One of these is the fact that the current reform agenda must still be fully implemented. The desire for reform and the willingness to change need to be converted into quick wins for the people.

This will require much greater coherence and alignment of the reform agenda. The vision has to be converted into concrete strategies, policies and programs that reach the people. The present, rather ad hoc reform, needs to become coherent systemic change, to bring greater transformation.

It will also be very necessary to build capacity at all levels in Myanmar – not just in the formulation of policy, but also for implementation. There is, therefore, a crucial need to strengthen the role of both the bureaucracy and of civil society – to establish a solid development partnership between the Government and civil society and a new social contract between government and citizens.

How can we quickly build human capacity? By bringing the best teachers into the country; by building local polytechnics and linking skills development to specific economic sectors; by encouraging skills to come home; and by developing scholarships and twinning with various universities in USA, ASEAN and the EU.

Equally important will be ensuring that the reform process results in inclusive and balanced outcomes. There will be winners and losers in this process – the key will be to make sure that it is not a case of ‘winners take all’ – which risks alienating still powerful groups and destabilizing the country. In this regard it will be critical to look at a developmental role for the military – a lesson which was also learned in Indonesia in the aftermath of the tsunami.

Another example of the challenges posed by greater openness and engagement is the increasing level of interest in Myanmar as a new market and investment destination. It will not be sufficient to simply attract investment to Myanmar – we need to ensure that it is the right kind of investment that provides wealth and decent jobs for as many people as possible.

Private sector engagement in a new market will only be sustainable and supportive of inclusive development if it is transparent, accountable, and premised on a responsible approach to the environment and to people

ESCAP has, therefore, continued and intensified our development partnership with Myanmar – most recently helping to design and conduct a series of workshops in the country on improving the economic and regulatory environment for private investment, from the region and around the world.

I also announced, just two weeks ago, at our 68th annual ESCAP Commission session, that we will be establishing a Regional Technical Support Office in Myanmar. This is in direct response to repeated requests by the Government for development assistance and capacity building.

The office will build capacity in support of small and medium sized enterprises, facilitate technology transfer, and share the best experiences and learning from across the region to accelerate balanced development, where there is shared prosperity, social equity and ecological sustainability. It will assist Myanmar, and other LDCs in the sub-region, to more fully integrate with the ASEAN Economic Community, and to move towards graduation from the least developed category by 2020.

Chairperson, Ladies and Gentlemen,


Economic turmoil, natural disasters, climate change, poverty and food security – these are the real challenges of modern governance.

No country or people can hope to navigate the turbulence and uncertainty of our global and regional challenges alone. It is only through closer sub regional, regional and global cooperation that we can forge the shared and sustainable future prosperity we want.

President Thein Sein has said that the changes in Myanmar are irreversible. It is an assurance with which I agree – not because the changes themselves could not be undermined or undone, but because Myanmar now understands the importance of wider partnerships for development.

ESCAP and the UN system stand ready to continue our work in supporting these partnerships – especially in support of our least developed countries and countries in transition.

I was fortunate to be with the Secretary General and his special envoy, Mr. Nambiar, during the Secretary General’s recent visit when he highlighted his 6-point agenda to support the country as it moves forward. This includes support for the population census, peace building, full UNDP and country team programmes, government efforts to be opium free by 2015 and highlighting the Global Compact and issues on governance.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s participation, last week, in the regional meeting of the World Economic Forum, was well-received and generated tremendous support for Myanmar’s progress. But, as highlighted by the widely-publicized editorial in the New Light of Myanmar newspaper, the key will be true reconciliation. Great transitions require even greater leadership. The international community looks to the Government and democracy icon, Aung San Suu Kyi to set new standards of working together, to forge prosperity for all Burmese – including all minority groups.

It is time for Myanmar to leapfrog into the 21st century and once again take its place in the community of nations. I wish the country and its people only the best. Remember that the UN is your steadfast partner for this great transition.

I thank you.