Trouble brews as Burma turns to world markets

The Burmese delegation to the UN in Geneva complained last year that some countries refused to show due respect to them by speaking of Burma, not Myanmar. Now most diplomats and news reporters refer to ‘Myanmar’, rewarding the regime with their respect for so-called positive change. Is this respect justified, or are we suffering from selective amnesia?

In January last year Aung San Suu Kyi addressed the annual Davos World Economic Forum “on behalf of the 55 million people of Burma who have largely been left behind”. She appealed to participants to use their skills in promoting Burma’s genuine democratisation, human development and economic growth. A week later her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), detailed the kinds of policies needed to promote positive change in Burma, and rebutted claims of sanctions being detrimental to the people of Burma. Rather “criticism of sanctions served to divert attention from the main problems plaguing the country” – blatant cronyism, corruption, and refusal of the military regime to diminish their grip on power in all spheres.

It continued that the legislative assemblies formed out of the 2010 elections are “totally dominated at all the national and regional levels by the combined body of the Union Solidarity Development Party [a spawn of the former junta] and the non-elected military representatives nominated by the commander in chief. Moves to designate these assemblies as the only political play in Burma reduce democratisation in Burma to a parody”.

A year later, optimistic reports of fundamental change flow from Burma, of a president who sincerely wants to improve citizens’ livelihoods, alleviate poverty, grant amnesties to prisoners, including some political prisoners (phantoms apparently, as there never were any according to the ‘government’), allows the NLD to contest upcoming elections, successfully passed a constitution, held initial elections, forms a National Human Rights Commission, opens doors to international diplomats and their corporate sponsors, relaxes laws to aid international investment and development, and gains IMF approval.

Foreign delegations arrive at the new Naypyidaw international airport, designed by Singapore engineers, constructed by regime crony, Asia World, with finance and equipment from China, and officially opened last December by the Myanmar Vice-President, a Chinese State Councillor and Chinese delegation. Nay Pyi Taw, variously described as a bunker within a bunker – a more central place to control ethnic minorities and a redout from invasion or uprising – boasts government ministries, wide paved highways, luxury hotels, a hospital, zoo, supermarkets, shopping malls, and continuous supplies of electricity. Foreign visitors are welcomed by leaders on their golden thrones in the ever lighted ‘place of the kings’, while the rest of the country struggles for round-the-clock electricity.

International corporations, nervous over the European debt crisis, are eager to find new investment places. As the chairman of the Singapore-based Rogers Holdings told Bloomberg Television last year about his investment strategy in a discussion on Europe’s sovereign debt crisis, “If you can find ways to invest in Myanmar [Burma] you will be very, very rich over the next 20, 30, 40 years”. Many corporations are finding ways.

China, Hong Kong and Thailand currently account for more than 70 per cent of total investment there, but as the executive vice president of Thailand’s stock exchange said, “Every Western company complaining about sanctions is looking around. The more the merrier…. There are vast opportunities in Myanmar”.

The Malaysian Insider reported last month that a delegation of high-level American business leaders is due to visit in February, a “sign of strengthening US ties with the long-isolated state despite sanctions”. This visit “coincides with the most dramatic reforms in the resource rich, former British colony, since the military took power in what was then known as Burma in a 1962 coup”. A group of European investors visited last month, observing “positive developments taking place which favoured foreign investors”, according to the president of the German-Thai Chamber of Commerce. European businesses are interested in all kinds of investments in natural resources and infrastructure, he explained while opening the new European-ASEAN Business Centre in Bangkok.

But is this investment environment up to the standards supposedly set by the west as it ‘returns’ to Burma, with its many public approaches to the government cloaked in the rhetoric of human rights? Of the massive Tavoy industrial project in the country’s south, Thanet Sorat, head of the Federation of Thai Industries, said: “Thai companies see many opportunities there due to cheap labour costs and many natural resources”. When Burmese Vice President Tin Aung Myint Oo travelled there last month, he urged locals to cooperate with the regional government “to endeavour for civilised society”. Little mention was made of the likely health impacts of the 200 sq-kilometre complex, which will include plastics factories and petrochemical plants, nor the 30,000-odd people who face eviction as construction expands. Moreover, there are two agricultural production prison labour camps in this region. Will they supplement the displaced cheap labour for the commercial ventures of palm, rubber, and pepper?

Continued abuses in Tenasserim division, where Tavoy is located, are less widely known. In fishing villages along coastal areas, the Human Rights Foundation of Monland claims the navy extorts monthly household fees, commandeers fishermen’s boats and drivers to transport staff and troops from the navy unit, demands rations, seafood, gas, and forces people to act as security guards. A fisherman told the group last month that, “During the visit of high-ranking officials, the commandeering could last for over a week….Now commandeering occurs frequently.” The same navy unit confiscated over one thousand acres of rubber and perennial fruit plantations in 2011. No farmer was compensated, and more than three thousand acres of rubber plantations have since been surveyed for confiscation.

A litany of other problems persist in the country that future investors must take note of. Where are serious considerations of compensation for confiscating land, crops, and labour? Where is discussion of land ownership and rights? Where are products of agricultural prison labour camps being sold? And why is the International Commission of the Red Cross still being denied access to these camps?

Suu Kyi’s decision to contest a parliamentary seat in April’s by-elections confers a degree of legitimacy on the president and parliament. Moreover, her endorsement of the minute democratisation process in Burma has attracted eager corporate interest but little improvement in human rights: there is no domestic framework for the protection of human rights in Burma through the rule of law, and all laws passed since 1988 have been done via executive decrees, not legislative process. There is no independent judiciary; there is no rule of law; the constitution is not a people’s document but is designed to ensure continued domination of the regime.

Even the much touted National Human Rights Commission is mired in controversy. Win Tin, a political veteran and Suu Kyi’s close colleague in the NLD, says the body is not thought well of in Burma. During Than Shwe’s rule, similar commissions were set up, all run by the Minister of Home Affairs at the same time that human rights violations were being committed by the Ministry of Home Affairs. The people of Burma do not take this new commission seriously, and the inclusion of former ambassadors and government officers only adds to their suspicion.

But for corporate investors, that seems to matter little. As long as they remain eager for profit, and as Burma continues to climb in the priority list of foreign businesses, the hard fought struggle for freedom and justice will continue. Truth speakers need to be supported now, and the golden cloaked lies of the ‘new government’ corrected.

Nancy Hudson-Rodd PhD, human geographer, former director of the Centre for Development Studies, honorary research fellow, Edith Cowan University, has conducted research in Burma for the past decade on the confiscation of farmers’ land by the military regime. She can be reached at [email protected]

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