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Civil society must be placed at the forefront of Burmese development politics, Human Rights Watch urged the World Bank in an open letter yesterday, ahead of a key top-level meeting to thrash out the Bank’s future plans for the country.
The New York-based rights group pinpointed Burma’s conflict-torn rural regions as desperately in need of strong development programmes carried out with transparency and accountability. This, it says, will facilitate genuine efforts toward democracy in Burma.
“The World Bank should take special care to avoid further bolstering the economic elite who cultivated close ties to military authorities and gained privileged access to state resources,” HRW said.
The World Bank cut off its financial aid to Burma in 1987 after the regime’s repeated failure to meet its loan repayments or to implement economic and political reforms. Burma currently ranks 149 out of 187 on the UN’s Human Development Index.
“The World Bank has an opportunity to ensure that the Burmese people are at the center of the development agenda,” said Arvind Ganesan, Business and Human Rights director at HRW. “For more than 20 years, Burma has been closed to the world. Now the Bank and the Burmese government can make sure engagement is open and inclusive.”
President Thein Sein’s nominally-civilian government has embarked on a series of democratic reforms since taking office in March last year, including releasing political prisoners, establishing a human rights committee and setting an 1 April date for democratic by-elections.
Western governments – including the EU and US – have welcomed these moves and indicated that they will ease further sanctions in April. But critics maintain that many of Burma’s key challenges, notably the resolution of ethnic conflicts and ensuring equality for minority groups, will not be so easily addressed.
Development plans have been a key sticking point for many of the ethnic minority groups negotiating ceasefire agreements with the Burmese government. Vice-President of the Karen National Union, David Tharkabaw, recently described Naypyidaw’s peace-deal as a “treacherous” effort to secure control of the resource-rich border areas to the detriment of the local people.
“Development will corrupt our people and environment by bringing in international companies to make our people labourers,” he said in an interview with DVB last week. “Development must be managed by state governments rather than the central government.”
Human rights groups have previously warned that Burma is likely to see an increase in rights abuses, such as land confiscation, forced evictions and coercion, if sanctions against natural resource investments are dropped. Campaigners have called for better local-level grievance mechanisms and accountability procedures to be implemented in rural areas. At present, the few regulations surrounding exploitation of Burma resources are archaic and rarely enforced.
HRW noted in a letter sent to World Bank President Robert Zoellick this week that the head of one of the world’s leading financial institutions had himself acknowledged the importance of civil society in countries like Burma.
“Civic participation matters to development,” and “[a]n empowered public is the foundation for a stronger society, more effective government, and a more successful state,” Zoellick said in an April 2011 speech about the Arab Spring.
“Burma provides an opportunity to act on World Bank President Zoellick’s insights on the Arab Spring,” Ganesan said. “The Bank can have a significant impact on human rights in Burma by promoting public participation in the country’s development.”