Burma hopes to overtake neighbors Laos and Cambodia in terms of average income per person within two to three years as the country embraces political and economic reforms, Burmese Industry Minister Soe Thein said Monday.
"I hope we will have higher average income per person than Laos and Cambodia by 2014-15. It is possible," he said in an interview with RFA's Burmese service.
Soe Thein was answering a question on his expectations for the Burmese economy in the next five years.
Burma is languishing with a gross national income per capita of U.S. $379.60, based on U.N. figures in 2009, the lowest among its fellow member states in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)—Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.
Laos has a per capita income of U.S. $1,130 while Cambodia has U.S. $830, based on 2011 figures by the World Bank.
The gross national income per capita is the dollar value of a country’s final income in a year, divided by its population. It reflects the average income of a country’s citizens.
A nominally civilian government that took power in Burma in March last year after decades of harsh military rule and financial mismanagement is implementing democratic and economic reforms that have led the international community to ease sanctions on the country.
As part of economic reforms, President Thein Sein's government, with the help of the International Monetary Fund, launched a managed float of its kyat currency in April to help normalize and unify its multiple exchange rates.
Foreign investment law
The country's parliament is also discussing a foreign investment law, which reports say will spell out new tax exemptions, land-use terms, legal structures, and incentives for foreign companies.
"Our existing law [on trade] is already good. But to be able to compete with [neighboring] ASEAN [countries] and to protect the people, to protect our environment, we are drafting the new law," Soe Thein said.
"Actually it was already discussed at the parliament in the first session, and now this is going to be discussed again," he said.
When asked when the much-awaited law will be approved, he said, "It doesn't matter, it will be done at some point."
"Even if this is not done yet, the existing foreign direct investment law is not bad at all. We can apply it for now. When the new law is approved, we can enjoy better benefits."
Soe Thein said Burmese authorities will treat foreign companies on an equal basis based on market forces even though Burma has been close to China for decades, especially under military rule.
"This is a market economy. Local partners will choose. If we consider efficiency, let's say if you buy something, you choose a good product. In business, you have to choose the best partner," he said.
Asked whether foreign investments are flowing into Burma rapidly in line with reforms, he said there could be a significant rise early next year.
"We are going to have it. For now, we are still in the process of discussions. I myself have been discussing this many times already. There will be a lot more progress by the beginning of next year, I think. Meanwhile, there is some increase."
On potential employment benefits, the minister said some 110,000 jobs had been created over the last year with a potential for one million jobs when the government enters into peace with ethnic armed rebel groups.
"When the peace process is done, we will have more job opportunities in the [ethnic] regions [through the efforts of] international donors. Creating jobs is considered the number one criteria. We choose factories that can provide more jobs. Eventually we will have up to a million [jobs]."
The government has struck ceasefire agreements with several ethnic armed groups, but their leaders have said that ceasefires are just the first step of a process that must include political solutions.
Clashes have been reported regularly in Shan state, Karenni state, Karen state, and most notably in Kachin state, where rebels have not reached a truce despite several rounds of negotiations.
Reported by Kyaw Kyaw Aung. Translated by Khim May Zaw. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.