The sprawling downtown complex whose symbolization of colonial rule in Burma was shattered when the nation’s first flag was raised in its grounds in 1948 is undergoing a major renovation. Dr Maung Maung Thein is the chairman overseeing the project, one of the many hats he has worn over his decades in Myanmar’s private and public sectors.
Starting his career in the law department of Yangon University, Dr Maung Maung Thein then served in the state shipping line and housing authority. A lawyer by training, he is the executive chairman of ZICO Law Myanmar, but some of his most notable achievements have been at the forefront of modernizing Myanmar’s financial sector.
He has been a main proponent of liberalizing Myanmar’s insurance market and credits himself as the driving force behind the Yangon Stock Exchange (YSX), which began trading in March, 2016. He served as Myanmar’s deputy finance minister from 2012-2015, a time of political and economic reforms in the country.
More recently he has begun working with Myanmar’s first arbitration court. Dr Maung Maung Thein, who has a PhD in international economic law, sat down with MYANMORE to discuss plans for the Secretariat, the economy, tourism and more.
Q: What do you consider your greatest achievement?
My favorite achievements are the stock exchange and [my work in] insurance. I don’t know the greatest, but my heart lies in those two subjects. YSX is the very first step to the development of our capital market. It is an achievement aimed by many previous governments but they couldn’t deliver it. Within a short time I could deliver it.
Q: Trading volumes for the five listed companies on the YSX have sunk since June. What’s your current assessment of the YSX?
During my time it was very successful. When one of the first companies was listed, people were queuing from 5am to buy stocks. But it’s [performance] is because of two things. The first is trust; you have to trust to buy stocks, trust in the market, in the regulator. The second is the economy. If the economy will not grow, people will not buy stocks. Trust and the economy are the reason for the failure of the stock exchange. Stock markets always have ups and downs, but for Myanmar the down time is a long way now. Myanmar has huge potential for economic development; the only thing is how to make it happen and that is people. We need a person or government to implement his or her vision and then the economy and stock exchange and other [sectors] will grow. Even in countries not favorable for geographical development, if their government is good they become prosperous. Look at Japan, Germany; they started from the ashes of the Second World War. Now they are doing very well. Japan has the second largest economy in the world, because of their people and government. They have good policy and vision.
Q: As part of the new Companies Law, foreigners were officially allowed to trade in the YSX. How has that gone?
Under the new Companies Law foreigners can buy up to 35 percent [in local companies]. In the meantime it will not have a big effect on the YSX. Foreigners will not buy shares for the listed companies on the YSX. Because of the current situation of the YSX they will go to buy shares straight from the companies not listed and become solid equity partners. Even so, they are waiting and seeing.
Q: Have any foreigners traded on the YSX?
Not yet. The YSX has not yet come up with special regulations for that.
Q: How does the management of the economy differ now compared to when you were deputy finance minister?
I believe that regardless of the situation, if a man has a will, intellect and experience, he can overcome any situation. Likewise, a country led by experienced and well-versed people can overcome any situation. I got this believe from studying other countries such as Japan, Germany, Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore. The main thing is that you have to choose the right people and that you don’t need to rely on power brokers. If you rely on power brokers, they will cheat you. You have to select people with a proven track record. The power broker is just telling you a very good thing about the person he is broking. So I think most of the problems of the present rest on that thing: wrong people, wrong place.
Q: You played a role in establishing special economic zones in Dawei and Kyaukphyu. How are these projects progressing?
They have started again from the very beginning, back to square one.
Q: How about the latest project you’re involved in, the Secretariat. What will it look like when the project is complete?
The physical appearance will be the same. According to the plan, there will be a Martyrs’ Museum and Parliament Museum. And then another part of the Secretariat will become offices, and a cultural building will be a showpiece for the cultures of our indigenous people. Then there’s a hall for public utilities such as seminars, meetings, where you can book for weddings and all that. It will be open probably next year, April or May. I think it will be 40 percent museums, and the rest will be a cultural and office complex. And there will be a beautiful park where people come to relax.
Q: What companies are behind the renovation?
The project was granted to Anorma Art group composing of Myanmar
Cultural Heritage, which has 51 percent, and Zazzle, which has 49 percent.
Q: Why will it be such an important visitor attraction?
It is very important historically. It is living evidence of Myanmar’s political struggles for independence. It will be the main historical attraction in Yangon.
Q: A cocktail of problems have been plaguing Myanmar’s tourism industry, with the largest being the Rakhine crisis and how it is impacting the country’s image. As the dry season starts, should Myanmar’s tourism industry be worried?
Myanmar’s tourism industry should worry about that, but [the Rakhine crisis] will be settled one day. This is not a permanent problem. It might be a temporary problem. But even so, Western tourists are very fearful of that crisis. They think that Myanmar is an unstable country, but Asian tourists, especially Chinese people, don’t think the way Western tourists think. They are still coming. I think the problem has affected our tourism industry. It affects everything. We have to find ways to attract other tourists. I think our tourist industry should launch a massive campaign to counter the very bad image.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.