West Pushed on Conditional Trade to End Burma Rights Abuses

By William Boot 26 July 2013

International human rights groups are putting pressure on Western governments to re-apply conditions for trade and investment with Burma in an effort to make President Thein Sein’s government deal properly with continuing abuses in the country.

“Let’s ensure that they talk human lives before they talk dollar signs,” urged an online petition by the global advocacy group Avaaz ahead of Thein Sein’s visit to France and England last week.

Meanwhile, in its latest report on Burma made available to The Irrawaddy, the business risks analysis company Maplecroft warns potential investors that the “near-total absence of judicial independence and a weak rule of law foster a culture of impunity in [Burma]” that poses a serious threat to business.

Avaaz says it succeeded in pressuring France’s President Francois Hollande to publicly call on Thein Sein to take action against ethnic cleansing and religious violence in Burma during his visit to Paris on July 17.

Meaning “voice” in several languages, Avaaz mustered an Internet petition of more than 1 million signatories that it sent to both Hollande and Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron. The petition urged the leaders to demand that ethnic violence in Burma be stopped “as a condition of improved trading relations.”

There have been similar calls by Human Rights Watch, Fortify Rights International and Burma Campaign UK, which has accused Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague of “wearing rose-tinted glasses” in his view of Burma.

“You won’t hear Prime Minister David Cameron talking about taking action on ethnic cleansing going on in Burma. You won’t hear Foreign Secretary William Hague condemning the widespread use of rape by the Burmese Army. … They talk up the positives, but play down or don’t talk about many of the negatives,” Burma Campaign UK said.

“To pressure the government to return to a policy where they put human rights first, we are launching a campaign to deliver as many rose-tinted glasses as possible to Hague.”

Maplecroft, in its latest report on Burma, said Thein Sein’s promises during his recent visit to France and Britain on quelling ethnic violence “need to be viewed with caution, given the objective of attracting investment.”

Recent actions by the Burmese government “suggest an entrenchment of discriminatory practices,” Maplecroft warned, citing widespread human rights abuses, including continued land grabs, and endemic corruption as being serious risks to the international reputation of large companies considering investment in Burma.

“[Aung San] Suu Kyi’s collaboration with the government against communities whose land has been taken, and her failure to speak out actively against the repression in [Arakan State], also raises doubts over the sincerity of the recent announcements.

“Investors face substantial reputational risks and should monitor the situation closely for actual change and events, rather than political promises and claims,” Maplecroft advises in its report.

Maplecroft outlines three possible near-future scenarios in Burma, ranging from continuing reforms and investment to a reversal of Thein Sein’s achievements due to a withdrawal of military support. It says this latter possibility is unlikely.

“The continued easing of sanctions is very likely to allow preferential access for imported goods from [Burma]. However, the government’s failure to take action to prevent the spread of sectarian violence will likely lead to a continued deterioration of the security environment in the short term,” said Maplecroft.

“Companies willing to accept a higher threshold of risk will continue to show interest in the country, hoping to gain an early presence in an opening market. This is most likely to occur within the retail and extractive sectors.

“On the other hand, poor infrastructure and the risk of sectarian violence will remain problematic for potential investment in value-added production projects.”

Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights International, which has researched conditions for displaced Muslims in Arakan State, accused foreign governments of myopia in their praise of Thein Sein and the lifting of sanctions.

“Some members of the international community—and of [Burma’s] own government—believe that market-based solutions will ultimately prevail in [Arakan] State,” Smith told Asia Times.

“The hope is that Buddhist and Muslim communities will eventually peacefully integrate out of economic necessity. However, as there are currently no indications that authorities will permit displaced Rohingya to return home or grant them basic human rights, this position is deeply out of touch with reality.”

Evidence that international NGO pressure may be having some effect on Western governments came to light this week with several reports that Thein Sein’s recent disbandment of the Nasaka—a special border security force in Arakan State—was motivated by plans by the US government to impose some form of sanctions on it.

Washington has been petitioned by several NGOs, including the US Campaign for Burma, to act against the Nasaka, which was accused of violence against minority Rohingya Muslims, as well as corruption.

Graft remains another significant concern for prospective investors, according to Maplecroft.

“Without an independent and effective anti-corruption agency, a sudden influx of capital could further undermine already weak anti-corruption efforts,” the consultancy said in its report.

“Although anti-corruption enforcement was not a key pre-requisite for the removal of international sanctions, the [Burmese] government will come under pressure to improve overall institutional capacity, in light of prospects of increased trade with Western businesses.”