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translated from japanese mag "sapio (r)
- Subject: translated from japanese mag "sapio (r)
- From: brelief@xxxxxxx
- Date: Mon, 29 Dec 1997 18:56:00
"Cheap and Hardworking Laborers: This country will be Asia's best"
Kenichi Ohmae. Sapio. November 26, 1997
First, Myanmar has tremendous industrial potential. The richness of its
natural resources is astonishing. 1100 km North-to-South and 200 km
East-to-West, its central plain area is probably the biggest in all of
Southeast Asia. The Irrawaddy river which cuts across this plain,
especially the delta at the mouth of the river, is an ideal area for
large-scale rice production. We went to inspect the countryside by bus and
saw the plain blessed with abundant water, perfect for rice paddies.
Possibly Myanmar will be the foremost provider of rice in the future.
Recently rubber and palm oil, which can be cultivated in areas with
fluctuating weather, have been introduced.
Another product is teak. 80 percent of the world's teak supply comes from
this area. With the embargo, Myanmar cannot export to Japan, Europe or the
US, but demand will undoubtedly increase once the sanctions are lifted.
And textiles: jute is said to grow in the wild, and linen which is more
expensive than cotton in Japan is unbelievably cheap in Myanmar. When we
went to the textile factories one square meter of linen cost 500 yen. Their
skill is not quite mature and the designs are not good, but under the
guidance of a Japanese company it would become a powerful exporting
For a country in Asia, Myanmar is well-endowed with natural resources.
Petroleum, gems such as jade, ruby, sapphire, and minerals such as tungsten
and tin are found in abundance. In fact, successful businessmen were those
who invested in mines.
The cost of factory labor is 20 dollars per month!
In addition, labor expenses are very low. There is a two-track system for
the kyat, the national currency. Officially, $1 is equal to 6 kyat, but the
actual value, last September, was 250 kyat to the dollar. There is a
40-fold discrepancy between the two systems. According to the actual value,
the income of government officials would be 1000 kyat, or $4. Rice is
provided by the government, but can one really survive with this income?
On the other hand, young women who work in textile, garment, or marine
product factories receive a monthly average of 5000 kyat ($20) including
benefits. A manager in the factory receives 8000 kyat ($32).
Let us compare to other Asian countries: Vietnam is about $50, Philippines
about $150, China from $100-150, to $500, so Myanmar is very low. In Asian
labor markets which are competitive on an international level, Myanmar's
wages are about a half to a tenth of other Asian nations; compared to Japan
it is about one-one fiftieth.
However, the people of Myanmar have a high level of education and desire to
work. Their sense of morality prevents them from stealing. The population
is close to 50 million. This is an unprecedented top-class labor market.
If foreign corporations invest in Myanmar and it enters the ASEAN market, it
will certainly be very competitive in agriculture and manufacture. In
addition, it has the advantage of the English language. Before the Japanese
occupation in World War II, it was a British territory. Even today,
children learn English when they are in the second grade. I recall the
acceptance speech made by the Foreign Minister of Myanmar at the ceremony
when it was admitted into ASEAN. His English was spectacular. I had
thought that this was due to his position, but the majority of Burmese can
speak English. Most of the businessmen I met spoke very fluently. In China
and Vietnam, English is not common; therefore, the language ability will be
a tremendous advantage in trading with ASEAN and the rest of the world.
In one part of the country people speak Japanese, and there is an increasing
number of people who study Japanese. Children selling on the streets say in
Japanese, "Please buy this" and "It's cheap" or "It's a good buy." Their
accents are similar to the accents of native Japanese, and one can hold a
decent conversation. Increasingly people have been going to Japan to study
or to work, and naturally the relationship between Myanmar and Japan will
Accession to ASEAN to trigger development
Myanmar is also full of tourist attractions. There are numerous Buddhist
ruins, and it is likely that it will gain attention from the world as one of
the best tourist areas. Of course, prices are extremely low. In stores on
the side of the highway, food and drinks are about ten or fifteen cents.
However, in tourist spots, signs indicate the price in dollars, giving the
impression of inflation. In the hotels, a haircut costs $15, a massage
costs $10, and children in the streets charged $1 for twenty postcards.
In the Aung San Market in the center of Yangon city, the prices of souvenirs
are half those sold in the hotels, and are subject to negotiation. One
friend of mine bought a ruby initially priced at $200 but after the
negotiation it was $5. I bought a longyi which was initially $20, brought
down to $10 for two pairs.
What was shocking was the customs procedures. I had expected the
inspections to be thorough under the military regime, however it had been
relaxed since the admission to ASEAN. People who visited last year would be
surprised at the smoothness of the luggage inspections. I had been warned
that cellular phones and computers would be confiscated, and I would be
imprisoned if I did not declare them, but actually there was no trouble.
ASEAN had pressured Myanmar open up at a very fast pace.
I think that if this country would develop very quickly if someone with an
understanding of economics and a vision took a position of leadership, like
Prime Minister Mahathir in Malaysia and former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew
in Singapore. When it is on a stable track to development, I think it will
become the best country in Asia. Even I, with much contact with many Asian
countries, have seen no other country in Asia whose morality is so firmly
grounded in Buddhism. In China, for example, on the surface they appear
sincere and serious, but in reality they do everything for money. In
contrast, the people of this country are conscientious and sincere from
beginning to end.
During World War I, Myanmar experienced anti-British independence movements,
and during World War II it fought Japan who had colonialized it. In 1948
after its independence, it became a socialist country after an internal
battle against Communists.
The military regime was a necessary evil at the time?
According to the native businessmen, internal struggles continued due to the
unstable political situation. In order to maintain order within the
country, there was no alternative but to increase military power. Just when
civil war had subsided, battles against drug lords sprang up. This
situation continued, and it could not have been managed by a democratic
government. Therefore, it cannot be assumed that a military regime is
necessarily bad. It must be understood that the military government was a
necessary evil at the time.
However, the businessman continued, without the threat of communist
influences and the almost complete eradication of narcotics, is the military
regime still necessary? His answer was no. Now the military regime must be
removed from power and a democratic government must be established, he
In Japan, we have never been exposed to such opinion. Although I am not
legitimizing the military dictatorship, from a historical perspective one
might say that the nation survived because of the military regime and now it
is ready to make a transition to democratization. If there was no such
power, drug rings might have controlled the nation from behind the scenes,
as in Colombia.
Finally the threat from within has been eliminated, a situation emerged in
which there is no longer a need for a military regime. Then the natural
progression would be the demilitarization of the government and
Further, Myanmar's regime has not fought a foreign country. As for the
military equipment, they are outdated because they been purchased from
Russia by China and handed down to Myanmar. The tanks probably would be
unable to move forward in combat. The technology is so ancient that it is
unnecessary to fear the government as a military dictatorship.
As I pointed out in the last issue, however, the military government cannot
easily give up its arms in the face of extreme antagonism from the US, who
uses Aung San Suu Kyi as their spokesperson for propaganda to arouse the
public. In fact, the aforementioned businessman said that unfair and
inappropriate interference by countries led by the US is one of the reasons
the military regime consolidating its power.
Again, this is the kind of insight that is unavailable to us in Japan. If
we assume the military authority to be synonymous with evil and impose
democratization to a country of people with $300 per capita GNP, the result
in the long run will only parallel the situation in Cambodia. The elections
in Cambodia were conducted under the supervision of OECD countries such as
Japan and the US, instead of the United Nations. These elections did not
bring any substantial results. If the same thing takes place in Myanmar
today, it is obvious that it will end in failure. Instead, Japan and ASEAN
must mediate and inform the US of the reality of the situation and stop the
speculator George Soros from instigating his "Myanmar Theory."
In getting to know a foreign country, reality will be misinterpreted if
there is a lack of balance of internal and external perspectives. In this
light, I feel the young Japanese people of today should go to Myanmar and
see the current condition for themselves. From Kansai International Airport
there are three flights per week to Yangon. Tours cost about 80,000 yen
($800) for four nights and five days. I would like for them to confirm that
reality in Myanmar is completely different from the image portrayed by
Japanese and American media as "Military dictatorship - repression - poor