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Myanmar eyes economy for next round of reforms

YANGON -- Myanmar's leader vowed Tuesday to put the economy at the center of his next wave of reforms, aiming to boost development in the impoverished country following a series of dramatic political changes.

In a televised speech to the nation, President Thein Sein said his government was targeting economic growth of 7.7 percent a year on average over the next five years by attracting investment from overseas.

“The government worked for political reforms and national reconciliation during its first year,” the former general said.

“The second phase of the reform process starting from this year will focus on the development of the country and the people.”

Since taking power in March 2011, the government has surprised even its critics with moves such as releasing hundreds of political prisoners and welcoming the opposition back into mainstream politics.

Companies are hungrily eyeing the oil and gas rich country after Western nations rewarded the government by easing some international sanctions.

Thein Sein's administration has reached out to foreign investors as it seeks to invigorate an economy ravaged by decades of military rule and mismanagement.

The president said a new “privatization commission” would be set up in an attempt to increase the role of the private sector in industries such as telecommunication, energy, forestry, education and health.

Much of Myanmar's industry is currently controlled by companies owned by the government or their cronies.

Energy is one area where foreign firms such as Total and Chevron have a presence in partnership with the state. In recent years Myanmar has also increasingly opened up areas to foreign oil and gas companies for exploration.

Parliament is also set to pass a new foreign investment law “soon” to attract money from overseas, Thein Sein said, without giving details of the planned legislation.

“Laws, rules and regulations are important and need to be flexible for investors as they will come and invest only when they are protected by laws,” he said.

“Trade and investment are the main driving forces for the country's economic development,” he added.

In the new government's most radical economic reform yet, the country in April began a managed flotation of its currency, in a move apparently aimed at facilitating trade and investment.

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