BANGKOK (Reuters) – Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi urged foreign firms on Friday to invest cautiously in fast-changing Myanmar and give priority to creating jobs as much as making profits to help defuse the “time bomb” that is the country’s high unemployment rate.
Speaking during her first trip outside her country in 24 years, the leader of the fight against dictatorship in Myanmar warned against “reckless optimism” about its rapid reforms, which could be easily undone if not supported by the military.
Suu Kyi, 66, said the country, also known as Burma, faced a crisis due to the number of people without work and urged foreign companies to provide jobs and training. Their investments should not fuel corruption or line the pockets only of the business elite.
“The proportion of young people unemployed in Burma is extremely high. That is a time bomb,” she said in a speech to the World Economic Forum on East Asia in Bangkok.
“Please don’t think about how much benefit will come to those who are investing. I understand investors invest because they hope to profit from ventures – I agree with that – but our country must benefit as much as those who invest.
“I want this commitment to mean quite simply jobs – as many jobs as possible.”
Millions of people in Myanmar have been forced abroad, many to Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia, because of a lack of jobs.
Western sanctions have prevented foreign companies from investing in the country of 60 million people, but most restrictions have been suspended in recent months in response to reforms by the quasi-civilian government that took office just over a year ago.
The Oxford-educated daughter of Myanmar’s slain independence leader, Aung San, Suu Kyi has received an ecstatic welcome in Thailand during a visit that would have been unimaginable 18 months ago, when she was under house arrest under a military junta.
She spent a total of 15 years in detention before her release in late 2010 and her venture abroad is one of the clearest signs yet of her confidence in the changes taking place under President Thein Sein, a former general in the junta.
For years she refused to leave, fearing the generals she was challenging would not let her back.
Suu Kyi said she felt Thein Sein was committed to improving the country but the extent to which his reforms were irreversible depended on the military, by far Myanmar’s most powerful institution.
“I do believe in the sincerity of the president,” she said. “But I also recognize he’s not the only person in government and as I keep repeating, there’s the military to be reckoned with.”
Even if the government was pushing through democratic, social and economic reforms, it did not seem interested in overhauling a judiciary that lacked independence, she said.
“Would-be investors in Burma please be warned: even the best investment law will be of no use whatsoever if there are no courts clean or independent enough to be able to administer those laws justly,” she said.
“So far, we’re not aware of any reforms on the judicial front … Not many in the government seem to agree with this.
Suu Kyi played down talk of Myanmar being caught up in a geopolitical tug-of-war between the United States and China, its main ally during decades of isolation, and said she welcomed responsible investment from any country.
“I’m concerned when people say Burma is a battleground for the United States and China. It should not be so,” she said.
“It’s imperative we have good relations with our neighbors and at the same time, we want to open up the country to others interested in our welfare and helping our country to progress.”
On a lighter note, Suu Kyi said she was dazzled by Bangkok, a glitzy contrast to Yangon and other big towns in Myanmar, where chronic power cuts sparked protests last week.
“I was completely fascinated by the lights,” she said. “What went through my mind, is: ‘we need an energy policy’.”
(Editing by Alan Raybould and Robert Birsel)
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