Foreign Investors Must Be Aware of Burma’s Political Situation: Suu Kyi

By Simon Lewis 14 November 2013

RANGOON — Burma’s democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi on Thursday warned potential European investors that they must not ignore the Southeast Asian nation’s political situation, as a major EU-Burma summit kicked off in the former capital.

The European Union’s foreign policy and security chief, Catherine Ashton, and President’s Office Minister Soe Thane opened the first EU-Myanmar Task Force at the Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (UMFCCI) in Rangoon.

In her opening speech, Ashton lauded Burma’s progress since a nominally civilian government took power in 2011. Political and economic reforms have precipitated the European Union dropping economic sanctions against Burma and instating preferential trade terms for Burmese exports to the 28-nation bloc.

Ashton said the task force aims to bring together European and Burmese businesspeople, politicians and civil society representatives. “More than anything, it’s about showing the people of this country that we believe they deserve a better future. A future that will give them all that they aspire to—a democratic nation where they are free, where their rights are respected, where their aspirations are fulfilled,” Ashton said.

The event continues on Friday in Naypyidaw, where President Thein Sein, parliamentary Speaker Shwe Mann and the government’s lead peace negotiator Minister Aung Min are expected to attend.

Suu Kyi and Ashton co-chaired a civil society forum Thursday, which was not open to the media, before sitting in on a business forum chaired by Antonio Tajani, European Commission vice president for industry and entrepreneurship, and President’s Office Minister Tin NaingThein.

Following speeches from the chairs and other participants, Suu Kyi took the microphone and chided some speakers for ignoring the responsibilities of businesses and the need for more political reform ahead of national elections in 2015.

“2015 is important because we need to get the Constitution amended before then. And anybody who encourages business or investment or any other activity in Burma, while at the same time totally ignoring the need to amend the Constitution, is not being pragmatic,” Suu Kyi said.

The leader of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) singled out Soe Thane for ignoring constitutional reform during his opening speech. “His speech this morning did not once mention the Constitution,” Suu Kyi said. “Let us not avoid the crucial issues of this day.”

Under Burma’s 2008 Constitution, which was drawn up by the former military regime, Suu Kyi is not eligible to be president because she married, and had children with, a foreigner. The Constitution, which guarantees the military a quarter of parliamentary seats, is opposed by many, including ethnic groups who demand that it be changed to reflect a federalist system.

Soe Thane later retorted that he simply omitted any reference to Constitutional reform to save time in his speech, in which he trumpeted the progress made by the current government. “We have worked hard to make the foundation of a new Myanmar that is a peaceful, democratic, all-inclusive vibrant country, with sustainable economic growth,” Soe Thane said in his speech, before also warning against unrealistic expectations for the reform process, and the dangers of reforming too fast.

In her impromptu comments, SuuKyi said that while she did not want to discourage foreign investors, they had to do more than simple corporate social responsibility, or CSR.

“I want good, hard-headed businessmen who are intent on making a good profit for themselves, but in a responsible way so that we also may benefit from your presence,” the Nobel Peace Prize winner said. “That means that when you talk about responsibility, it’s not just CSR, it’s not just social responsibility. It’s political responsibility, legal responsibility. It’s responsibility in a very broad sense of the word.

“So if you want to make responsible investments in Burma, you must be aware of the political situation in Burma, the peace situation, the social situation, the human rights situation.”

One speaker at the business forum that did mention the duties of companies operating in Burma was Vicky Bowman, director of the Myanmar Center for Responsible Business, who warned investors that ignoring the impacts of their business risked both loss of their operating licenses and great reputational damage.

“Scrutiny on businesses operating here is far greater than almost any other market in the world,” said Bowman, a former British ambassador to Burma.

She emphasized the importance of companies following internationally recognized processes for resettlement, in order to avoid land disputes.

“There is very little trust here between people and the government: People don’t trust the authorities, people don’t trust businesses,” she said. “It’s incumbent on businesses now to change and engage directly with communities. When you don’t, you end up with the sort of problems that you’ve seen, for example, in the copper mine recently,” Bowman added, referring to a Chinese project in Letpadaung, Sagaing Division, which has been met with protest and a subsequent political intervention to stall the venture.