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Setting the Bar Too Low in Burma

By Christine Ly, National Media Task Force

A statement from Physicians for Human Rights effectively summarizes the potential problem of a new flood of investment into Burma: "Companies that are poised to be the first in the country are keen to invest in Burma’s extractive resource sector, which lacks transparency and suffers from pervasive corruption. Profits generated by the sector are known to have funded military operations in ethnic areas and contributed to the exacerbation of these conflicts. Additionally, the cronies who have controlled this sector for the last several decades routinely engage in forced labor practices, land confiscation and evictions of indigenous communities, and a host of other human rights violations.” Now that investment restrictions are gone on virtually all sectors except explicitly military or military-owned companies, it could be a free-for-all for investors who will go in without considering the reverberating effects on civilians and domestic businesses.

Now that U.S. economic sanctions on Burma have been lifted by the Obama administration though, there is no other alternative but to impose some kind of requirement for US-based firms to report on their activity. These self-reporting requirements were created by the U.S. Department of State in July 2012. However, these requirements lack specificity about enforcement and consequences for non-compliance. Many sections are also vaguely worded and allow for too much leeway. For example, there is a $500,000USD cap in which companies do not have to report. This should be made lower to order to catch investors who can work the system. In order to better prevent human rights abuses like those described above, many NGOs (including STAND’s parent organization, United to End Genocide) and investor groups addressed the State Department during a “public commenting period" (exactly what it sounds like). The following additions are meant to strengthen the currently lax requirements: reporting on worker rights, environment, human rights, anti-corruption measures, company procedure for handling complaints about human rights impacts, community and stakeholder engagement, special protections for indigenous peoples whose free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) is needed for projects that may negatively affect them, policies and procedures relating to property and land acquisition, and disclosure of all payments investors make to the Burmese government (source: EarthRights International).

Those who support a free-market approach to investment in Burma are usually not aware that the average person in Burma has no access to a bank account. On the other hand, senior military officers and/or rent-seeking elite do and will generally be the ones benefiting from these transactions. In addition, the existing banking infrastructure is mostly owned by people with ties to the former military junta, making the economy more vulnerable to speculation and rumors. The public is extremely hesitant to engage with banks too due to many years without unbiased information from independent media. Building public trust amongst average people, banks, and the foreign investors that will deal with them both will take a long time. Some recommended actions: 1) ask for stricter reporting requirements to promote accountability; 2) the World Bank and NGOs such as Revenue Watch should help Burmese ministries develop better financial skills, and in turn, these organizations should be willing to help.

For more information, you can read the International Crisis Group’s report entitled “Myanmar: The Politics Of Economic Reform." There is also another analysis by the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB). 

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