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Sanchi Stupa A HIDDEN GEM

Posted by pakin On June - 22 - 2015 ADD COMMENTS


LORD BUDDHA never honoured Sanchi Stupa with a visit but the World Heritage site is still regarded |as one of the outstanding Buddhism stupas in India.

The authorities in Madhya Pradesh designated the complex of stupas as a tourism site but it is not well known among Buddhists, notably ones from Thailand.

Some Buddhists from Southeast Asia countries such as Cambodia and Thailand have visited the site although very few of them made a second visit, according to a local tourist guide.

Besides monks and nuns from Sri Lanka who occasionally stay nearby and are isolated from the local community, there are no Buddhist religious activities in the area and there is no significant Buddhist population in Madya Pradesh state. Therefore, no Buddhist life or culture exists anywhere in the state, even at Sanchi.

Buddhists in Madya Pradesh are mostly neo-Buddhists, a sect established by BR Ambedkar in the 1950s, according to Anthony de Sa, chief secretary of the Madhya Pradesh government. “But they don’t believe and practice [in the same way] as people in the northeast of India who have practised the religion for more than 2,000 years or who are like what you see in Southeast Asia,” he said.

Sanchi Stupa has no religious function these days. It is a standalone Buddhist monument.

“Yes, people can come and worship here but neither flowers nor candles are allowed,” an official said.

People come here to see the architecture, as it is a masterpiece of Buddhist art and archaeological heritage, and not for religious purposes.

Originally built by the Mauryan Dynasty’s Emperor Asoka more than 300 years after the death of Lord Buddha, the stupa served a religious purpose until the 12th century.

Sanchi was not the home of Asoka, either, but the site was chosen since it was located on a hill or, as many have said, because it was the birthplace and home of his queen, Devi, who gave him a son, Mahindra, and a daughter, Sanghamitra. Asoka later commissioned his children as missionaries to Sri Lanka where they managed to convert the monarchy and others to Buddhism, and thus make Sri Lanka one of the Buddhism centres of the world today.

Unlike other Buddhism sites in India such Bodh Gaya and Savatthi, the Sanchi Stupa has a less direct connection to Lord Buddha because he never visited the area before or after becoming Lord Buddha.

It is believed that Asoka put Buddha’s relic in the Great Stupa, while the relic of two disciples of Buddha, Mandgalyayana and Sariputra, was found in the innermost chamber of stupa number three. The relic was sent to London during British colonial rule before it was returned to be kept in a modern temple built by the Mahabodhi Society of Sri Lanka, which is adjacent to stupa number three.

The temple is open to the public only once a year, on the last Sunday of November. “We are well aware that it is a relic of the two since Bali script records their names in stupa number three,” an official said.

If one misses the chance to see the relic, there are many other things to see in the Sanchi Stupa complex. The Great Stupa, also known as stupa number one, is regarded as the oldest stone structure in India – 36.5 metres in diameter and 16.4m high. At the four gateways, stories and symbols of Buddha and Buddhism are portrayed in sandstone.

Among many other things, the Asoka pillar lies close to the southern gateway of the Great Stupa. Emperor Asoka had a similar pillar elsewhere but this one is the finest. Unfortunately, it is said to have been broken down by a local landlord and the lion capital of the pillar is now kept in a museum. Four lions are the dominant feature on the Indian national emblem.

Adjacent to the western gate is a Buddhist Vihara, which was a place for monks to live and study. From the temple ruins, a path was paved to stupa number two, which stands at the edge of the hill. Its most striking feature is the stone balustrade that rings it.

For non-Buddhists and those not interested in the religious features of the stupas, the architecture reflects the close relationship between the Indian and Greek civilisations and is well worth viewing. Pillars and columns, as seen in many buildings in the stupa complex, were influenced by the Greeks. Even statues of Lord Buddha look like Greek’s gods, rather than the Indian native that he was.

Unlike many other attractive sites, Sanchi Stupa is rather quiet and calm as it is somewhat isolated from communities. No vendors can be found selling souvenirs outside the complex but it is still worth a look.

Over 1m plastic cards issued in 3 years

Posted by pakin On June - 22 - 2015 ADD COMMENTS

About 5 per cent of Myanmar’s population has a bank account, but the number of people holding debit or credit cards is now over 1 million, or about 1.8 per cent of the population.

According to the Myanmar Payment Union (MPU), an umbrella organisation for 21 domestic banks, 1 million debit cards have been issued so far. There is no figure for how many credit cards have been issued.

To the issuers, the number is more than satisfactory given that debit and credit cards were just introduced to the cash-based society in 2012. To consumers, the convenience is beyond imagination in a country where cash was until recently the only means of payment. It was a revolution considering that prior to 2012, Myanmar had fewer than 100 ATMs (automated teller machines), compared to over 1,000 now, while no shops accepted cards. And the outlook is bright. In 2013, Myanmar had 0.57 ATMs per 100,000 people, compared to 104 in neighbouring Thailand, according to the World Bank.

Banyar Min Min Htun, a lecturer at Sagaing Cooperative University, prefers using plastic cards to cash. He uses an MPU card issued by the Cooperative Bank.

“It is safer and quicker than using cash or going to the bank to withdraw money. Wherever I go across the country, I just bring the card and don’t bother to carry a lot of cash,” he says.

He uses the card for shopping and money withdrawals. More supermarkets and shops are accepting plastic and ATMs usually allow a maximum withdrawal of Ks300,000 (US$250).

“If I need to withdraw more than Ks300,000, I need to go to two ATMs as MPU cards are accepted by ATMs at all banks. The most obvious advantage is that I do not need to go to the bank and stand in a queue. And I also do not need to take banking hours into consideration. I can withdraw money at my convenience,” he says.

Currently, most plastic cards widely used in Myanmar are debit cards issued by the MPU.

The Central Bank of Myanmar (CBM) formed the coalition in 2011 as the Myanmar Payment System Development Committee. It was renamed the MPU in 2012. The MPU first distributed debit cards with the support of 17 founding members, including state-owned, semi-government-owned and private banks. The MPU is now finalising the process to transform itself into a public company in the next few months.

Bright future for MPU

Zaw Lin Htut, chief executive officer of the MPU, says that more than 1 million MPU cards have been issued and they can be used in every machine at all the member banks. The central bank recently allowed the MPU member banks to issue credit cards.

“MPU cards have spread widely across the country thanks to the support of the central bank,” he said. “With permission to issue credit cards, we expect the number of MPU card users to reach 1.5 million by this year’s end. Over the next three years, that number should rise to 4-5 million cards.”

MPU cards are currently accepted at most of the large shops in Yangon, including three City Mart (the country’s largest supermarket chain) outlets in Myaynigone, Junction Mawtin and Junction 8. The MPU is currently in negotiation with City Mart to have MPU cards accepted in all 20 City Mart branches: 19 in Yangon and one in Mandalay.

“We see a very bright future for plastic cards as the economy opens. If credit cards are issued in the months to come, customers can use their future income in advance. Obviously, this will help increase the number of card users,” he explains.

Zaw Lin Htut sees risk management as key to issuing credit cards.

“Like in other countries, there are risks with issuing credit cards. But our member banks are not new to the business. Most of the banks are long established and experienced. When issuing credit cards, banks may issue two kinds – secure and insecure credit cards – depending on their knowledge and relationship with customers. If a bank does not know much about a customer, a deposit may be required as collateral,” he said.

Credit card risks to issuer banks should be under control now that all MasterCard and Visa cards issued by domestic banks are more or less like debit cards. Cardholders therefore need to fill their cards with cash before using them.

Visa’s goal

In November 2012, MasterCard Worldwide was the first international payments network to issue a licence to a Myanmar bank, paving the way for branded cards to be issued and accepted in the country for the first time.

Visa International, the world’s largest payment network by value, followed shortly afterwards.

Hiro Taylor, country manager of Visa Myanmar, says the network has witnessed double-digit growth but did not disclose the number of cards issued.

Currently eight client banks – AGD, AYA, CB, KBZ, Myanma Apex, Myanmar Oriental, Myanmar Citizen and United Amara – are issuing Visa cards.

The cards can be used to make online purchases or to shop overseas in different currencies. How the banks screen customers varies and depends on the banks’ own policies and processes.

Taylor says that Visa aims to displace cash with electronic payments, which will provide great efficiency and transparency to the economy. The firm therefore works tirelessly with financial institutions, government agencies and related stakeholders to improve card acceptance nationwide.

“As a global payments technology company, we see one of the most valuable contributions we can make as helping to bring more people into the formal financial system. We do so by creating pathways to financial inclusion for the financially underserved through our products, services, technology and payments expertise; financial literacy tools and resources; and our strategic partnerships,” he said.

“We believe access to financial services is essential for progress. Financial inclusion moves people from being untapped and isolated members of our economic system to thriving and contributing participants. Improving access to financial services and electronic payments is a critical building block to help more people improve their lives and lift themselves out of poverty.”

The economic impact of electronic payments on an economy can be profound. Electronic payments added US$983 billion in global economic growth from 2008 to 2012, according to Visa.

“Electronic payment is taking shape in Myanmar and it is crucial that the financial industry as a whole takes the right step. We continue to support the financial sector in capacity building,” said Taylor.

Visa helped establish the Myanmar Risk Management Council in 2013 and ran workshops to educate key stakeholders. Recently Visa held a workshop on mobile financial services which was attended by more than 80 government personnel from 13 ministries. Visa has also sponsored two members of the CBM to study electronic payments at the National University of Singapore.

Visa cards are now accepted by 1,800 retailers, mostly concentrated in tourist destinations such as Yangon, Inle Lake, Mandalay and Bagan. Recently, a deal was struck to allow the use of the cards at City Mart outlets.

They can also be used to withdraw money from 1,150 ATMs nationwide.

“This is particularly good news for tourists buying gifts in Myanmar to take home. Businesses can increase their sales safely and securely, knowing their money will be deposited to their bank accounts the following day.”

Merchant’s viewpoint

May Zin Soe Htet, City Mart’s marketing director, says the chain decided to accept Visa and MPU cards for customers’ convenience.

“For the time being, acceptance of plastic cards has not shown obvious effects on our sales. But we value our customers’ convenience. Now our customers do not need to bring cash when shopping. As the country develops, the use of plastic cards will definitely increase day by day,” she said.

May Zin Soe Htet admits that the chain sometimes faces IT hiccups and wants better online facilities to accept plastic cards.

“Currently, the Internet here is not that good. The system works properly as long as the Internet speed is high. Otherwise, there may be some delays and inconvenience,” she said.

She says City Mart outlets have not yet seen many plastic cards users. On average, each of the three Visa-accepting stores usually process transactions for about 30 Visa cards while the three MPU-accepting branches receive about 15 MPU cards a day.

May Zaw Lin Htut says that Myanmar needs to take time to transform the cash-dominated society into a card-accepting one.

“Thailand and Malaysia applied the practice more than 20 years ago. But they still use cash in some places. Likewise in Myanmar, for the plastic cards, it may take about 10-15 years to cover the whole population,” he said.

“Obviously, Internet speeds have increased since last year. Internet speed and mobile penetration are increasing year by year… More people should get used to using banks. At the same time, banks should also provide more products and services for the convenience of their customers.”

User feedback

Banyar Min Min Htun prefers using an MPU card to a Visa card, as the balance of a Visa card account must be at least US$30. This blocks him from withdrawing more money while an MPU card allows the cardholder to drain all the cash stored.

Su Su, an English teacher at a private language school that employs more than 400 staff nationwide, is using an MPU card for withdrawals. Her school pays her salary through the account.

Su Su says that the biggest shortcoming of the card is the insufficient cash stored in ATMs, especially at the end of the month.

“Generally, it is good except from 3pm-4pm when banks usually calculate the balance. At that time, machines often do not work. And on the first and last three days of every month, the machines regularly run out of cash. They should supply more notes.”

The technology seems unable to catch up with consumer expectations. That is what Chaw Su Hlaing has experienced.

“Earlier this year, I came to a KBZ ATM to withdraw money. The ATM just stopped working after I put my card in. It was not because of an electricity blackout. It was late and nobody was around except for a security guard. I had no other choice but to come back to the bank the next morning to meet the manager. Only then could I withdraw money and get my card back,” she said.

Export growth forecast cut to 1%

Posted by pakin On April - 22 - 2015 ADD COMMENTS

Amid stubborn sluggishness in global trading, the Commerce Ministry has bit the bullet and now projects export expansion at only about 1 per cent this year, not 4 per cent.

“Thai exports this year are expected to grow more than 1 per cent, but may not reach the previous goal of 4 per cent.

“The slowdown in shipments has increased in line with other countries, while the Thai government in cooperation with private enterprises will try to draw up a new strategy to push exports as much as possible,” Commerce Minister Chatchai Sarikulya said yesterday.

After the ministry’s meeting with government agencies and private sector organisations, including the Board of Trade of Thailand and the Thai Chambers of Commerce, Federation of Thai Industries, Thai National Shippers Council and other trade associations, Chatchai said that despite the downtrend in global commerce, the ministry will work closely with companies to boost sales of each product category to promising overseas markets.

According to a survey by Global Trade Atlas among 40 countries, only four, including China, Chile and Switzerland, have enjoyed increased trade during the past years.

Other countries, including Thailand, Asean countries, European Union countries and the United States, have faced a dip in export growth along with the slowing global economy.

The ministry has divided export categories into 10 clusters so that it can brainstorm with the players in each segment to increase orders from various markets.

Ten clusters

The 10 clusters are agriculture and foods, electric appliances and parts, automobiles and parts, garments, jewellery and ornaments, construction materials, healthcare products, lifestyle products, logistics and various products to the Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam markets.

Shipments should return to the growth path in the second half of the year, he added.

Vallop Vitanakorn, vice president of the Thai National Shippers Council, said shipments are expected to show an upsurge of 3 per cent in the remaining two quarters after flattening out this quarter.

The council has called on the government to establish distribution centres in neighbouring countries to support Thai trade in Asean. It has also urged for a cut in freight fees as they impose a high cost burden on traders.

Supant Mongkolsuthree, chairman of the Federation of Thai Industries, said the ministry should continue providing financial support to small and medium-sized enterprises under the SME Proactive project.

It should promote local products with the “Product of Thailand” logo to increase recognition of the quality of Thai goods, he said.

It should solve the problem of the baht since Thailand’s unit has strengthened by 1 per cent against other currencies, which have depreciated by 2-10 per cent. The baht’s advance against other currencies has eroded the country’s export edge, he said.

Kalin Sarasin, vice chairman of the Board of Trade, encouraged the government to call for a meeting to address and solve export problems, which have been raised by many trade associations.

It also supports the establishment of distribution centres in many target markets such as India, the Middle East and Asean.

MARTIAL LAW, which had raised concerns among local and international investors as increasing business risk for them, was in fact one of the factors that boosted confidence in the special economic zones in border areas, Deputy Transport Minister Arkhom Termpittayapaisith said last week.

Thailand is working to materialise a plan to become Asean’s economic hub. Several measures to encourage and facilitate investment in the SEZs are being discussed and on their way to being implemented, he said.

“The government aims to create a synchronised system of SEZs by providing them with sufficient infrastructure,” said Arkhom, who is also secretary-general of the National Economic and Social Development Board.

The government plans to boost investor confidence in the SEZs by instituting policies to assure political stability, granting privileges to investors through the Finance Ministry and Board of Investment (BoI) and forging connectivity with neighbouring countries under the concept of “Thailand Plus One”.

Martial law, which covers the whole country, is a measure referred to as “draconian”, but it assures internal stability, enabling an environment that is friendly to economic activities.

“We have to look at martial law as a measure to build investor confidence, especially during this time,” he said.

The national process of reconciliation would certainly take time, but when the new charter goes into force, the situation will return to normal.

The economic policies of this government remain anchored on the same set of rules that assure investors of a suitable climate for investment.

“Recently, the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) ratified the Cross Border Transport Agreement and adopted five bills to facilitate the free movement of goods,” he said.

As for the issues related to insurance for industries investing in border areas where martial law is still being implemented, the prime minister promises to find suitable solutions to respond to investors’ needs.

Only some groups of investors are worried about the consequences of martial law enforcement.

“Many business groups have been in Thailand for a long time and still remain here despite some ups and downs in Thai politics. This means it [martial law] does not have an impact,” he said.

Among all the incentives granted by the BoI, investors would be allowed to receive a waiver of corporate income tax and of import duties on machinery as well as permission to employ foreign workers in labour-intensive industries.

As an alternative to the BoI’s tax breaks, investors could also opt for incentives granted by the Finance Ministry, which would also allow a reduction in corporate tax from 20 per cent to 10 per cent for 10 years.

“Thailand Plus One” would accompany SEZ projects, so Thailand could forge more links with neighbouring countries.

“Any Asean investor can invest in the SEZs to receive privileges from Thailand plus bordering countries such as Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia,” he said.

Thailand Plus One is a strategic business model initiated by Japan’s corporations in 2012 to encourage investors to maintain their main operations in Thailand while diversifying supporting production in the supply chain to neighbouring countries for comparative advantage.

Areas such as Mae Sot and Aranyaprathet are pioneers in creating linkages among Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia.

Plans to build roads and other infrastructure would soon be implemented.

A tripartite working relationship between Japan, Thailand and Myanmar on the Dawei port project has been envisioned, with Thailand taking part in the first phase of road development.

Aranyaprathet’s proximity to Cambodia makes this location suitable for the development of logistics between Thailand and Cambodia, he added.

This is the final report in a series by The Nation on special economic zones to deepen economic integration in the Asean community with developed border areas.