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Aung Thaung: ‘changes are taking place but they are not very visible yet’

Union Solidarity and Development Party’s secretary and the Lower House’s Banks and Monetary Development Committee chair Aung Thaung sat down with DVB’s Than Win Htut to talk about the country’s reform process and the state of its finance sector

As a house member taking part in Burma’s reforms, what are your positive and negative impressions of the process? And what do you expect in the future?

I am content to be taking part in this as a member of the house and attending parliamentary sessions. However, we have been out of touch with the parliamentary system for about 40 to 50 years so not everyone is experienced.

For me, I was around during the AFPFL [Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League] era – although I didn’t attend the parliament then, I read about it as a hobby. Since there are more people [who have no experience working within a parliamentary governing system] our parliament is [inexperienced] and we are unseasoned with democratisation – so we have difficulties.

But what’s important is to have a strong spirit – everyone is determined to bring about democracy and we are prepared for that.

You said there are difficulties. Can you give us examples?

We were under the BSPP’s one-party ruling system for 26 years and 22 years under the military government so we have rather limited political experience. And now that democracy and politics are being given precedence – some [people] are confused, some are [adapting] slowly and there are also those working all the time – so this has to be considered and dealt with.

There are some individuals, out of goodwill, who are very keen to expedite the process, but we don’t have the right circumstances for that. Our parliament buildings are in very nice shape, very grand, and surely we can be proud of it. But to work with real determination, we still need a lot of knowledge and experience.

As we were isolated from other countries, we have limited experience and strategies to work off of. It requires us to discuss which laws to abolish, which to approve and adopt while studying the realities on the ground in different areas across the country.

So there are those [in the reform process] who want to take haste and those who want to take it slow – where do you see yourself on this spectrum? Are you one of those moving with haste or taking it slow?

Neither. I want to go at a pace where everyone can get involved – the hasty ones and the slow ones alike. This is where I am. And this is how we are going to minimise errors, to precisely and fully understand what is really necessary without making mistakes for others to point out.

I want it to be solid – if [we] move to quickly then some may get left behind, and some things may be overlooked and if that happens, we will receive a lot of criticism from the people. So in order to solidify the democratic reforms and the democratisation process, we have to try and minimise these errors.

There are different opinions as to whether changes have come or haven’t yet come in the year since the new government was sworn in. What is your opinion?

I think changes are taking place but they are not very visible yet because it’s only been a short period of time. To be honest, we are still juvenile with practising democracy so from an adult’s point of view the changes may be rather slow and not enough. However, there are different points of view. For us, we believe that changes are taking place even though they have yet to bear fruit and may be not very satisfactory but one day they will.

Can you point out one of the sectors that you are not satisfied with?

Mainly, we don’t have a sufficient budget – our financial resources are not strong enough to allow us to implement everything – so the parliament has to take it slow as well as the government.

Difficulties exist when the [parliament] wishes to implement something that the government is unable to finance. Then people observe and think they’re moving slowly. But because I understand the circumstances I don’t see it as slow. I think these are normal obstacles.

More than just a house member, you are also part of the Banks and Monetary Development Committee. What is the committee’s role?

Finance plays an important role in our economic development. Currently, the Central Bank is attached to the Ministry of Finance, which renders it incapable of managing the currency market. The Bank, when making decisions, has to receive approval from the Ministry and then the Ministry has to have approval from senior authorities. They don’t have much authority – we are looking to examine all these points to develop the Central Bank further.

Burma is now quite far behind with respect to banking in Southeast Asia. What are the most important and immediate measures we can adopt?

For an immediate measure, one needs to understand the currency market and must have the capacity to handle it. We need experts who understand and can manage the currency market. We have to be up-to-date with the market news and act spontaneously.

Otherwise, if we wait like one or two months, then our economy could be damaged – in the billions [perhaps]. So we have to be able to stay posted every day and act accordingly. But [currently] we cannot do that, so to be able [address this] we invited the International Money Fund and the World Bank to help. And we tested this out by switching from the 6 Kyat [to one $US dollar] to 800 Kyat and that was beneficial to an extent.

The rate is standing around 870-880 Kyat [to one $US dollar] and that would be good for business if the exchange rate stays stable. Also, regulations should be changed with private banks as well – there’s shouldn’t be too many restrictions.

Previously, there were too many restrictions which left banks with little independence and made them unreliable and weak – at the time we had no resources to mend the errors should something go wrong and we developed a habit of being prudent to prevent errors.

We need to strengthen up these sectors and make ourselves capable of [immediate] trouble shooting just like [other countries]. We have to make changes to the rules and regulations to make it more convenient for communication between people in the business sector and the bankers. We have to make bring about changes on the limitations, obstacles and barriers [within the financial sector].


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