RANGOON — Pledging its support for plans to develop the Thilawa port near Burma’s largest city, the Japanese government stressed on Wednesday that the success of the project would depend largely on the commitment of the Burmese government and people.
“They [the Burmese] must take chief responsibility for this project, since it is in their country,” said Ichiro Maruyama, the deputy chief of mission at the Japanese embassy in Rangoon.
Speaking at a press conference on Wednesday, Maruyama said the Japanese government would help Burma if it can’t afford to pay for its 51 percent stake in the project, which will turn the Thilawa port, located about 25 km south of Rangoon, into a special economic zone (SEZ).
Deputy Minister of National Planning and Economic Development Set Aung, who is also the acting chairman of the Thilawa SEZ Management Committee, told The Irrawaddy that Japan has asked the Burmese government to form a public company to get the project off the ground.
“They [Japan] asked us to form a company as a first step to bring in private investors, and they also want the government to buy shares in the company to demonstrate its commitment to the project,” he said.
“If the government buys into the company, Japan will be more confident about getting involved,” he added.
The project faces numerous hurdles, including Burma’s chronic power shortages and its still shaky legal infrastructure for foreign investment. However, Maruyama said that Japan is committed to doing its part to make the project a success.
“Japan caused a lot of problems for Burma during the Second World War, so this is why we want to help now,” said Maruyama, adding that Japan is also keen to support Burma’s ongoing democratic transition.
To support the Thilawa project, and as part of its efforts to help Burma develop its economy, Japan has also pledged to open technical institutes in the country that will bring in experts from around the region.
Burma and Japan signed a memorandum of understanding in December agreeing to cooperate on the Thilawa SEZ, which will include factories for both high-tech and labor-intensive industries. The project covers an area of more than 2,000 hectares and straddles Thanlyin and Kyauktan Townships in Rangoon Division.
Japan is Burma’s 12th largest source of foreign investment, having injected just US $217 million into the country’s economy since 1988. However, in the wake of recent political and economic reforms, Japanese companies have shown a strong interest in returning to Burma to take advantage of its young labor force and abundant natural resources.
Japanese Finance Minister Taro Aso traveled to Burma last week, offering to provide $576 million in fresh low-interest loans by March after writing off overdue debt totaling around $5.8 billion by the end of January.
Aso visited Thilawa last Friday after meeting President Thein Sein in Naypyidaw the previous day. It was the first overseas trip by a member of the newly formed cabinet of Japan’s recently elected Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.