The Czech Embassy in Yangon represents the Czech Republic in Myanmar and promotes the political, economic, cultural and academic relations between both countries. Jaroslav Dolecek, Ambassador, discusses the bilateral relations, Myanmar’s economic growth and the potential for investment in the country.
European Times: In 2014 the Czech Republic decided to re-open its Embassy in Yangon after 21 years of suspended operations. What sparked this decision?
Jaroslav Dolecek: Based on the Czech Republic’s long-term support for Myanmar’s democratic development, and hand in hand with ongoing reforms, after the visit by the former Minister of foreign affairs Karel Schwanzenberg in 2012 it was decided to open a fully-fledged embassy in Myanmar. In 2013, our Minister of industry and trade Martin Kuba also visited Myanmar with his business delegation, which was the first step in the way of future economic cooperation between the Czech Republic and Myanmar. In my opinion it was a wise decision, not only for me personally as the first Czech resident ambassador to Myanmar, but especially because our presence here gives us the opportunity to undertake many activities from the perspective of the enhancement of the mutual cooperation between both countries and their people.
European Times: Traditionally, in which areas are the bilateral relations most successful?
Jaroslav Dolecek: Let me start off with our bilateral trade and economic cooperation. The ties between the Czech Republic and Myanmar have already been progressively deepening over the past 60 years. In the 1950s, Czechoslovakia was at that time Burma’s 4th biggest economic partner. In particular, our bilateral trade and economic cooperation has a long tradition, especially since the 1970s and 1980s, when Czechoslovakia built seven major investment units in Myanmar, including a brewery and a tannery in Mandalay, a tyre and rubber factory in Thaton, a sugar refinery in Zeyawadi, and an injection pump and tractor factory (ZETOR) in Malun).
We are well aware of the considerable economic growth of the Myanmar economy and the interest in further modernization and development. Our businesses are ready to provide the best of their traditions and experience for this purpose.
European Times: Your Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that “The Czech Republic stands ready to continue to support in concrete ways the democratization and reform processes in Myanmar”. What are the main steps you have taken as an Ambassador on this front?
Jaroslav Dolecek: We have taken several steps to amplify the development aspects. I am pleased to share with you our vision which is mainly focused on cooperation based on the lessons we have learned from our time of transition, on cooperation built on our common values and shared universal principles and on cooperation aimed at sustainable development. The Czech Republic is quite active in the area of development cooperation. The Czech Development Agency is currently the main implementing body of Czech development cooperation. In addition to the various projects administered by this Czech Development Agency, the Embassy of the Czech Republic in Yangon is supporting Myanmar entities by financing small-scale projects. This year we are cooperating with Hantha Educators and the Community Agency for Rural Development (CAD). Additionally, we are building two primary schools including a kindergarten in Kaing Chaung village, Kyaiklat Township, Ayeyarwady Region and in Nyaungkyitpin village, Pakokku Township, Magway Region. These project areas do not have good school facilities, and especially lack of school buildings. Furthermore, we have focused our attention on farmers, who die every year from snake bites while farming. We selected eight villages (which include about 2000 beneficiaries) from the Magway/Sagain regions for which will provide freezers in which vaccines will be stored. In this project, we have already saved the lives of six farmers who would have otherwise died from snake bites. More villages are requesting that we set up this revolving storage system.
In terms of Myanmar’s economic transformation, there are concrete activities which are being undertaken. In collaboration with the Czech Ministry of Finance and the Czech Central Bank there has already been a study visit by high level officials from Myanmar’s Ministry of Planning and Finance and the Myanmar Central Bank. These officials spent one intensive week learning about the Czech economic transformation. This study visit was indeed a success and we do hope to undertake a similar visit in the upcoming year.
Regarding humanitarian aid, in 2015 the Czech Minister of Foreign Affairs approved US$100,000 for the immediate humanitarian response of the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) after the severe flooding in Myanmar. The humanitarian assistance focused mainly on the supply of food and drinking water for displaced people. It is important to point out that the Czech Republic broadly supports Myanmar in development and in humanitarian areas. Over the last five years, the Czech Republic has provided Myanmar with over US$2 million in humanitarian assistance in connection with the natural disasters and the internal conflict. Besides this immediate humanitarian assistance, this year the Czech Republic provided long-term humanitarian assistance to the internally displaced people in the Rakhine State as well as the Chin State. Boosting people to people contact is an important part of our relationship.
Furthermore, there is the space for enhanced cooperation in the field of tourism and the promotion of awareness about Myanmar in the Czech Republic and vice versa. The Czech Embassy recently organized a presentation titled The Czech Republic: Your Dream Destination.
European Times: How would you describe the Czech Republic’s assistance in the area of human rights enhancement?
Jaroslav Dolecek: The Czech Republic has four main human rights projects in Myanmar. They concentrate on the support of the activation of young people, strengthening the capacity of community organizations, building the rule of law, providing support to the equal political and public participation of the civic society in Myanmar and strengthening the activities of Myanmar’s civil society. These projects are being implemented by Czech NGOs and their local partners. The total amount of subsidies provided for projects in Myanmar for 2016 is over US$270,000.
The project for the support of the activation of young people and strengthening the capacity of community organizations in South East Myanmar is being implemented by the Civic Association ADRA. The main aim of the project is to popularize social issues like ecology, human rights, gender etc. among the youth in the Karen state through the organization of debate circles and public campaigns. Part of the project is also the strengthening of the capacity of local initiatives by providing training and community activities, student exchanges, supporting teachers from local and monastery schools and other socialization activities.
The project for building the Rule of Law in Myanmar is being implemented by the Burma Center Prague. The project aims to increase the capacity of independent lawyers from the Myanmar Lawyers Network, which provides legal services to Myanmar citizens free of charge. The project aims to compensate for the gaps in the Myanmar education system through a series of eight legal training sessions for these lawyers, concentrating on legislature and defence in the courts. From the best of the lecturers, six lecturers are chosen and specially trained. The same number of training sessions is focused on the sharing of transformation experiences from the Central and Eastern Europe region. Micro grants and management training should help the further stabilization of the network and the increasing of legal awareness among the general public, including the awareness in terms of human rights. Besides the big cities like Yangon and Mandalay, the project will also covers local cells in Ayeyarwady/Irrawady, Shan State, Mon State and Kayah State.
The project for support of equal political and public participation of the civil society in Myanmar is being implemented by Člověk v tísni (People in Need). The project aims to enhance the involvement of civic society in the decision making of local governments, mainly in the legislative process. Representatives of Myanmar civic society will be trained in project management, advocacy techniques and strategy, including working with the media and also in the fields of the functioning of local government, and applicable legislation. The project consists of 20 mini grants for advocacy-strategic projects, exchange visits for members of citizens’ initiatives, workshops for representatives of local governments and sub-grants for citizens’ initiatives and projects for cooperation with the media. The projects cover Kayin State, Mon State and Shan State.
The projects by FAMU (Film and TV School of Academy of Performing Arts in Prague) aim to strengthen an active civic society in the country through increasing the competence of Myanmar film makers and through support for the making of films focusing on serious social issues. Part of the project is the realization of a three-month course for a selected 12 local students in Yangon and also direct support provided for the further development and stabilization of human rights. Wathan Film Festival that was founded with the help of FAMU years ago and a workshop on video editing will be provided in the ethnic regions.
European Times: What are some of the Embassy’s projects for small local transformation?
Jaroslav Dolecek: Besides the above mentioned projects, the Embassy identified fields in which small local transformation projects may be realized. The total amount of subsidies is almost US$30,000 divided among three projects.
The first project is the support for the international HR film festival HRHDIFF. The Human Dignity Film Institute (HDFI) is the only film institute in Myanmar created and managed by Myanmar citizens. HDFI successfully organized the first-ever Human Rights International Film Festival (the Human Rights Human Dignity International Film Festival – HRHDIFF) in Myanmar in June 2013. In addition to the main film festival in Yangon, HDFI has been organizing travelling film festivals in the cities, villages and universities across the country. HDFI has so far successfully organized more than 70 travelling film festivals across the country over a three-year period (2013-2015). HRHDIFF has become the biggest film festival in Myanmar and the biggest human rights film festival in the region in terms of the numbers of the people attending and in terms of the number of films screened. The former Czech President Vaclav Havel’s Library Award is one of the prestigious awards of the festival. The festival is associated with the One World Festival and the Czech Republic as well. This year, we will be organizing activities to commemorate the 80th anniversary of Vaclav Havel’s birthday – again with the cooperation of the Vaclav Havel’s Library and with the presence of its director Michael Zantovsky.
The second project aims to support the development of civil society in the Ayeyarwady/Irrawady Region. The project is being implemented with the Daw Khin Kyi Foundation that has been operating “mobile libraries” since 2013. At present, they are active in five cities and have extensive knowledge and experience. There are now 44,000 members and 630,000 circulations in all five cities. There is a plan to launch a mobile library service in Myaung Mya, which will reach up to 30 villages in its neighbourhood. The mobile library will have the latest books and it will support the nearby public and school libraries around Myaung Mya, aspiring to reach 10,000 people in one year. A basic ICT training centre with internet access will give the local population the latest ICT knowledge and other skills, such as job searching and facilitating the accessing of government online services. The plan is to get at least 500 people trained in one year.
The third project is focused on providing support to former political prisoners in Myanmar. The aim of this fund is to provide assistance to former activists who suffered torture in prison and during interrogation. The financial situation of political prisoners upon their release is dire to begin with. Adding medical costs, debilitating injuries and a complete lack of any care system from the government all add to their difficulties when attempting to rebuild their lives after prison. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) provides help for ongoing medical assistance and emergency operations. Providing for individuals who have suffered long-term injuries as a result of torture would ensure that they have more opportunities to rebuild their lives in the future and mitigate the damage prison has done. The lack of employment and educational opportunities following a political prisoner’s release from incarceration means that the socioeconomic situation for them and their families is extremely difficult. The AAPP seeks to provide financial assistance for basic necessities such as school materials, uniforms, and school fees for their children. Former prisoners themselves are able to re-enter academic study with financial support; they are provided with academic educational scholarships. The AAPP have also begun the process of making financial reparations to the families of former political prisoners who died in Burma’s prisons.
European Times: Who are the main beneficiaries of the recently announced New Government Scholarships for Myanmar?
Jaroslav Dolecek: This year the government of the Czech Republic has offered six scholarships for students from Myanmar, one more compared to 2015. The scholarships are part of the annual Foreign Development Assistance provided by the Czech Government. We now offer Myanmar students three scholarships for programs in the Czech language (including a one year preparatory course) for Bachelor or Master degrees and three scholarships for programs in English for Master or PhD degrees. The fields of study that are recommended are those that we consider helpful for the development of the country or with attention on an area which seems to lack specialists here, mainly in economics (trade), ICT (Information and Communication Technologies), agriculture and medicine.
European Times: At the beginning of this month, Myanmar and the Czech Republic entered into historic economic relations when the two countries signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on economic cooperation. What are the main highlights of the MoU?
Jaroslav Dolecek: The Czech Republic wants to further advance and strengthen its excellent relations with Myanmar. The signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the Confederation of Industry of the Czech Republic and the Myanmar business association – International Business Promotion Center (IBPC) – is one of these many initiatives. IBPC, as the largest independent business association in Myanmar, has been a long-standing partner of the Czech Republic and the Czech Embassy in Yangon.
There are already concrete results from this MoU. Firstly, a number of Czech companies visited Myanmar afterwards and met with IPBC members for in-depth discussions. Secondly, the Confederation of Industry of the Czech Republic is presently preparing a trade mission to Myanmar which will be led by the Czech Minister of Industry and Trade, Jan Mladek from 30 October to 2 November 2016.
European Times: In which sectors are Czech companies mostly interested in investing?
Jaroslav Dolecek: Czech companies are able to provide high-quality export and investment solutions and have significant ongoing experience in export and also the investing in neighbouring countries. They are extremely interested in Myanmar investment plans, particularly in the sectors of energy, mining, and the modernization of infrastructure such as roads, railways, airports and related airline transport equipment (light aircraft for local routes, airport radar systems and ground support equipment). Agriculture (farm machinery, technology and irrigation equipment), food processing and healthcare (medical tools and equipment) have also spiked the interest among our businessmen for investing in Myanmar.
Czech companies welcome the process of the ongoing economic reforms in Myanmar and appreciate the increasing economic opportunities. The Czech Republic, a Member of the EU, supported the reinstalled preferential GSP+ status giving more benefits to Myanmar. On the other hand, our businessmen are hoping that the reform process will also bring improved conditions for doing business in Myanmar and greater market access. In this respect, the Czech Republic fully supports the conclusion of the investment agreement between the EU and Myanmar. It will provide our businesses with the additional legal scope to enhance the existing investment opportunities.
European Times: What is your personal message for our readers?
Jaroslav Dolecek: If you are interested in travelling to a country with unspoiled nature, an authentic culture and genuine people with a bright future do not hesitate to visit Myanmar now.