Thet Thet Khine is the vice president of Myanmar Women Entrepreneurs Association and managing director of Forever Gems, a gold and jewelry firm. She spoke at Burma’s first Women’s Forum in Rangoon on Friday. In an interview with The Irrawaddy Thet Thet Khine, 46, talks about her experience as a woman entrepreneur in Burma, her background and her plans to enter politics. Born in the ruby mining town of Moe Gok in Mandalay Division, she holds a medical degree from the Institute of Medicine 1 at Rangoon University and an MBA degree from Singapore’s Nanyang University.
Question: When did you decide to become a businesswoman?
Answer: I started my gold trading business called Shwe Nan Daw [Golden Palace] in 1994. We worked with my husband’s family in this business as they supported us.
Q: Why did you choose to become a business woman and not a medical doctor, as you’ve been trained to?
A: At that time, my husband is a doctor too, but his mother wants us to stay near her as she was not in good health. So, we can’t go to rural areas to work as medical doctors. Then we become businesses people. I agree that most people believe that a medical doctor should serve his field, but depending on the situation, we can do business too. If we don’t become doctors, we can also serve our community as entrepreneurs.
For instance, we had only two staffers when we started our gold shops, now we have more than 450 employees. We created a lot of job opportunities within 20 years. The [employees’] lives can improve, while we are also paying taxes regularly to the government. It means we can serve for our country and our community.
I also wanted to improve people’s health, though I am busy with my business. So, I began working together with my old university friends and we founded the Ananda Myitta Foundation. It provides public health care through a mobile clinic. We’ve treated about 850 people around the nation. This is part of my social activities.
Q: What are the challenges for Burmese women who want to have a career, but who don’t have the support of their husband and family?
A: I agree that they might have many challenges, as for me I get a lot support from my husband and both our families, so my business life is easier. There might be lots of women who didn’t get this kind of support, so associations are quite important to support such women. That’s why my association is helping such women to share experience and provide them with networking opportunities.
As we discussed in the forum, men and women are equal by Burmese law, but men and women are not experiencing equality. It means that we, women, need recognition of our exclusive requirements. We need special rules to support us. For example in India, women have received micro credit from the government. We need such kind of planning here.
Q: What is your Myanmar Women Entrepreneurs Association doing to support Burmese women?
A: Members of my association mostly have their own business and work for other businesses, so we are sending them to foreign countries for further study. We also provide micro credit to our model village in Kayin Seik in Thanlyin Township [Rangoon Division]. There we have schools, clinics, and we are helping girls from this village too.
Q: Do you have any plan to become a woman parliamentarian? A: Actually, I realized that this is the time to get involved in the political field as I have strong finances and good education, among other factors. This is my personal goal as I am now 46 years old.
I was under my family’s obligations in my childhood, and then I was struggling to build my business while growing up. After becoming a successful business woman, I tried to keep this status. So now, I want to serve my country by using my experience and leadership skills. That’s why I realized that this is a good time to become politically active.
Q: What experiences have made you interested in politics?
A: I am a native from Moe Gok town in Mandalay region. My family owned many gems mines in past, but under the Burma Socialist Program Party [in the 1960s], all were nationalized. Since then, I realized that a country’s government is quite important for us, and that politics is quite important too.
I can say that this is the best time [to enter politics] as Burma’s society is opening up quickly [due to political reforms]. I thought that I should get involved for some time in the political field, and now is the right time.
Q: Were you involved in political activity before?
A: Yes, I was in the 1988 uprising. I was a medical student and the school was shut at that time. We were senior students. I went back to my town and participated in student activities there. People in my town had serious feelings about the government as they had to struggle a lot under the past government. I was there too. It was a general strike, I will never forget it.
Q: What would you change in the current economic policy if you were a MP?
A: Our country is full of natural resources, so the government shouldn’t sell out raw gems to foreign countries while they need money. We should produce value-added goods. It’s important to produce value-added goods, because then we can earn more money and we can have much more related business. Many people can be employed, more income generated. Many people can have opportunities by changing that gems policy.
Q: If you enter politics, which party would you join?
A: It’s too early to say because I have a lot of employees in my business. If I say something, I don’t want to hurt their feelings. But, I have already an idea to get involved with one political party.