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Curb Your Burma Enthusiasm

Originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal

June 5, 2012

Economic development without political protections will damage the fragile human rights situation.

By Khin Ohmar

The giddy promise of investment and re-engagement with Burma is blinding the West, as well as its Asian neighbors, to the realities of the once-pariah nation.

For many Burmese, the concept of development has long been associated with corruption, human rights abuses, a lack of local ownership and environmental degradation. Before the world hurries to participate in the imminent gold rush in this resource-rich country, impartial observers need to be sure that impediments to sound, ethical development have been eradicated. But I fear that it is too late.

The recent protests across the country, which ended this week, against daily, lengthy electricity blackouts illustrate a typical problem. My country is energy-rich and certainly shouldn’t be experiencing such shortages, yet the government sells much of its resources to China and Thailand and uses that money to maintain its disproportionately large military. The response by the Burmese government to these protests is a familiar story; reports of detentions and beatings of peaceful protesters have emerged.

But international financial institutions and governments are throwing caution to the wind. In a statement released in late April, the World Bank announced its forthcoming plans for re-engagement with Burma, despite only minimal consultation with civil-society and community-based organizations that work inside the country or on its borders. If they engaged with these groups, they would realize that development and investment should wait, as it has the potential to exacerbate the still-dreadful human rights situation.

Many in the current government are former members of the armed forces, which are credibly accused of numerous human rights violations. Their uniforms might have changed, but these are the people responsible for Burma’s past atrocities.

Even now, they have a firm grip on power and, along with their cronies, can benefit from new foreign capital. Most influential business leaders whom foreign businesses will have to deal with have links to the government. Yet the international community is suddenly bestowing them with legitimacy.

The government’s near-total control of development then rightly worries ethnic minorities, in whose lands the majority of Burma’s natural resources lie. Political solutions are never on the agenda, and even the much-applauded ceasefire agreements between the central government and armed ethnic groups are often political cover to undertake development projects.

It is telling that President Thein Sein’s government and its business cronies have begun advancing development projects, in the absence of proper settlements. Businessmen close to the regime have attended many peace talks with ethnic minorities, as have ministers for energy, electricity and heavy industry. In Mon State, just two weeks after a ceasefire had been brokered, a government minister conducted a meeting with the Tala Mon Company to discuss a $1 billion seaport on the southern Kalegauk Island.

When peace is fragile, government-led development in ethnic areas can leave political grievances by the wayside. A recent report by the Kachin Development Networking Group warns of the dangers; “Burma’s Thein Sein government collects taxes on mining operations and military and government authorities locally and in Naypyidaw gain billions of kyat in bribes from mining and logging businesses.” Naypyidaw is Burma’s regime-built capital city for government workers, where—unsurprisingly—there are no electricity shortages.

The fragility of such ceasefires is exemplified in Kachin State, where fighting erupted last year. In protecting the Myitsone Dam, 90% of whose much-needed electricity will go to China, the Burma Army committed a huge array of human rights abuses. Documented cases include forced labor, forced displacement, torture, killings and rape. Is this the kind of protection that American businesses want for their investments?

Considering the history of projects such as the Myitsone Dam or the Dawei Deep Sea Port, it is clear that the public does not have any say in what kind of development will ensue. There are no such things as environmental impact or social impact assessments. There is no participation from any group that represents people’s interests in the decision-making process. Rule of law is extremely weak, with a subordinate and ineffective judiciary, arbitrary arrests, widespread corruption and a culture of impunity.

Burma is quite simply not ready. Investment, particularly in the country’s unstable ethnic areas, serves to exacerbate human rights abuses and causes major environmental and social damage. As long as the military has the biggest say in the development of Burma, the status quo won’t really change. Foreign investors should wait until the nation is reconciled before proceeding with the unabated enthusiasm currently on display.

Ms. Ohmar is the coordinator of Burma Partnership and chairperson of the Network for Democracy and Development

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