The Irrawaddy Business Roundup (April 5, 2014)

By William Boot 5 April 2014

Lasting Peace Deal in Ethnic Conflicts is ‘Key to Improved Investment’

Continuing talks between the Naypyidaw government and Burma’s various armed ethnic groups “indicate growing confidence in the peace process” but investment in resource-rich areas will be limited without a lasting agreement, said a business risks analysis.

“Both the army and ethnic militias have supported their operations through illicit trade such as illegal jade, logging and opium cultivation along the borders of China, Thailand and Laos,” said analysts Maplecroft of the UK.

“Vested interests in these trades, on both sides of the conflict, are likely to harm the business environment, even if the conflict is resolved. In order to be durable, any future peace agreement will need to aptly address the elimination of illicit trade and the sharing of natural resources—with dedicated cooperation on both sides,” said Maplecroft in its latest assessment on Burma.

It said the national census now under way could raise ethnic tensions, and warned that Burma’s economic system still “needs significant reform” if it is to cope with the influx of foreign investment and integrate into the world economy.

“In particular, banking, telecommunications, and transportation infrastructure are in need of substantial upgrade.”

Sand Exports to Expand Singapore ‘Damaging Burma’s Coastline’

Sand dredged from a river estuary in southeast Burma for sale to Singapore is causing environmental damage, a report said.

The sand, dredged from the Dawei area in Tenasserim Division is used to expand land-short Singapore, which has grown in size by more than 20 percent due to in-filling construction work, reports said.

But the dredging, which has been going on since 2011, is now causing landslides and river erosion in the Dawei River basin, said Eleven Media, quoting local member of Parliament Soe Htwe.

Eleven Media also quoted the regional minister for transport and communications, Kyaw Hsan, saying that Myawaddy Trading Limited also has a contract to supply sand to Singapore from the Myeik and Kawthaung areas, also in Tenasserim.

Myawaddy Trading is linked with the military-owned Myanmar Economic Holding Ltd.

Several Southeast Asian countries, including Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam, have banned the export of sand to Singapore in recent years because of environmental damage caused by dredging in ecologically sensitive coastal areas.

In a report several years ago criticizing Singapore’s dredging work in Cambodia, the NGO Global Witness named the city state as one of the world’s biggest sand importers and said demand for sand had “wreaked havoc on the region’s coastlines.”

Burma Offers More ‘Authentic’ Experience for Tourists

Burma is offering a “more genuine authentic culture” for foreign tourists than Thailand, a travel industry conference was told.

Westerners planning holidays in Southeast Asia are now looking at countries other than Thailand, which has long been a favorite destination, the Association of Thai Travel Agents heard.

“Currently, French tourists favor travel to [Burma], Laos and Sri Lanka as well as Vietnam because they believe they will see a more genuine authentic culture and travel products that reflect the people’s way of life than we are presenting in Thailand,” Tourist Authority of Thailand’s Paris director Areerat Chunprapanusorn told the conference in Bangkok, the trade magazine TTR Weekly reported.

“[Areerat’s] comments reflect a growing concern that official promotions are geared to promoting imported brand shopping, mega shopping malls, extravagant spending on food and night club entertainment at the expense of presenting real Thai values,” said TTR Weekly.

UK Government Accused of Shelving Human Rights to Promote Businesses

The British government is putting business in Burma by UK firms ahead of maintaining pressure on the Naypyidaw government to improve human rights, an NGO alleged.

“Trade and investment are now the priority for the British government,” said the Burma Campaign UK which has begun a poster campaign in Britain to illustrate what it says is a political U-turn by London.

It said the government of Prime Minister David Cameron has “tended to downplay serious human rights abuses, or even ignore them altogether”.

“This appears in part to be in order to try to avoid criticism of the current soft engagement Burma policy, which is focused on building a closer relationship with the government of Burma in order to win more business contracts from the Burmese government,” said campaign executive director Anna Roberts.

The NGOs first poster criticizing London shows Cameron shaking hands with the Burmese president alongside the headline: “When visiting the UK, President Thein Sein said he would release all political prisoners by the end of 2013. He didn’t.”

Burmese Workers in Mae Sot ‘Paid Only Half of Thai Minimum Wage’

Hundreds of Burmese workers at a garment factory in Mae Sot on the Thai border with Burma have been on strike to try to win the minimum legal wage, said human rights NGOs.

The migrant workers, at a Thai-owned factory producing upmarket “Jack Wolfskin” German brand clothes, are in some cases receiving only half the minimum Thai daily wage of 300 baht (US$9).

Workers identity documents are held by the company, Yuan Jun Garment Limited, 14-hour working days are enforced and compulsory deductions made from wages, said noted activist Andy Hall in an email to The Irrawaddy on behalf of Burmese and Thai NGOs.

Separately, the rights group Finnwatch has accused a factory in Songkhla in southern Thailand co-owned by an Austria firm of numerous labor violations against migrant workers, including wages below the legal minimum and excessive hours with no rest break.

Finnwatch, based in Helsinki, said the Siam Sempermed factory produces industrial gloves for Semperit, a leading hospital glove manufacturer and distributor.

“Workers are packing gloves for up to 13 hours per day with only 30 minutes break and are facing numerous deductions from their salaries. This is unacceptable,” said Finnwatch executive director Sonja Vartiala.