Over the past two years, some people in Burma have experienced some remarkable changes. The government of Burma has released political prisoners made moves toward greater political freedom, and loosened strict media controls. But people in Burma have also witnessed continuing crimes by the military, ongoing conflict in Kachin state, and violent ethnic clashes in Rakhine [Arakan] state.
Other countries, including some that for years had supported democracy activists and human rights defenders in Burma, began shifting their policies toward engagement with the Burmese authorities in an effort to tip the internal balance toward those in government who wanted more reforms. This precise moment in Burma’s path from military dictatorship to a future healthy democracy presents a key opportunity for leaders in the US and elsewhere to make sure that any changes benefit all people of Burma. Governments that wish to engage with the Burmese government should make sure that their actions support substantive reforms so that any changes are more than just a veneer that obscures the ongoing oppression of ethnic minority groups.
Many countries have reacted to the recent changes in Burma by lifting longstanding sanctions, ushering in a new era of investment in the country. In the US, for example, the Obama Administration is in the process of removing its sanctions regime, thereby shelving most of its tools to press Burma’s government for further reforms. The administration has lifted the investment ban, is in the process of ending the import ban, and has announced the end of a restriction on international financial institutions’ lending to Burma. These actions mark a significant shift from decades of sanctions to a new era of engagement.
Many people and institutions stand to gain from the lifting of sanctions. The cronies of the Burmese government would be the primary beneficiaries, since they are well-positioned to reap the benefits of any influx of new business. In the past, companies partnered with allies of the regime, and became complicit in human rights violations, including rampant forced labour and forced displacement. Given insufficient corporate regulation by the US and other governments, those allied with the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) will be able to line their pockets with the incoming foreign investment.
Contrast that windfall with the potential harm to ethnic communities, which have long suffered abuse and discrimination under Burma’s military. Many hotspots of foreign investment likely will be in the oil, gas, and mining industries, and some ethnic minority areas are rich in such natural resources. While foreign investment can indeed lead to better jobs for those living near investment projects, Burma’s ethnic minority communities have told a different story. A recent report from Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) documenting human rights violations in Karen state found a correlation between foreign investment projects and human rights abuse.
In fact, families living near a development project (in this case, the Dawei deep sea port) were eight times more likely to report a human rights violation than families living elsewhere. This report built upon previous research in Burma that documented systematic attacks on health care and a denial of access to treatment as a way to control the population.
For too many communities, foreign investment means abuse. Given the blanket impunity with which the Burmese military has abused members of ethnic minority groups, representatives of ethnic communities are understandably wary of any new investment without proper safeguards to ensure that economic development projects will not negatively affect the people around them.
Reforms in Burma must include more than political openness and improved economic relations with other countries. In order to truly turn the page on a long history of brutal attacks on ethnic minority communities, the government of Burma will need to grapple with its troubled past and hold any perpetrators accountable for their crimes. Burmese authorities will also need to make a concerted effort to improve access to health care, education, and dispute resolution mechanisms in rural Burma. These necessary institutional changes will allow the recent openness in Burma to reach all parts of the country.
Other countries also have work to do. The US should ensure that its regulations on companies investing in Burma are strict and enforceable. Any US company found to be complicit in human rights violations should face accountability measures at home. The US should also immediately revise its Specially Designated Nationals list so that companies have an updated and comprehensive list of people with whom they cannot do business.
Such safeguards can help Burma’s ethnic minority communities emerge from decades of violence and oppression to enjoy the benefits of the country’s steps to rejoin the international community.
-Andrea Gittleman is Senior Legislative Counsel for Physicians for Human Rights in Washington, DC.
-The opinions and views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect DVB’s editorial policy.