World Economic Forum in Burma Shouldn’t Be ‘Fooled by Fine Words’

By William Boot 5 June 2013

Senior international business, political and financial aid figures plus hundreds of peripatetic freeloaders have converged on Naypyidaw this week to offer a mountain of advice on how Burma might progress from Year Zero to booming tiger economy.

There will be much discussion about promoting the inclusive society and dragging the country’s tens of millions of subsistence farm workers into the 21st century with factory jobs, mobile phones and aspirations to own cars.

But how close to reality will all these worthies attending the three-day World Economic Forum (WEF) be, confined in the isolated and grandiose surreal capital built in the jungle with the sweat of Burma’s poor by a bunch of neurotic army generals?

“Davos Man arrives in Myanmar. Now Myanmar is truly a stopover for the Masters of the Universe, a country becoming part of the global economy, rather than an exotic cul-de-sac,” Sean Turnell, a long-time expert on the state of Burma’s economy, told The Irrawaddy.

“I suspect this will largely be one of those NATO [No Action, Talking Only] affairs, but not to be dismissed necessarily. The imprimatur of the WEF is not an unimportant one for multinational enterprises, who can now enter Myanmar in the expectation it is just another normal developing country of some risk, but opportunity too,” said Turnell, a professor at Australia’s Macquarie University and editor of Burma Economic Watch.

“That said, it is to be hoped that Davos Man and Woman look beyond the obvious, as well as the city limits of Naypyidaw, and recognize both the realities of life for most people in Myanmar, and their own responsibility in behaving in genuinely ethical ways.”

The conference from Wednesday through Friday will include debate on economic development across East Asia and particularly Southeast Asia, but its focus will be Burma.

“After a series of bold economic and political reforms in [Burma] the meeting will be the first leading international gathering of senior decision-makers from industry, government, academia and civil society to be held in the country,” the WEP said in its promotional blurb. “Through this unique multi-stakeholder platform, the meeting will be an unrivalled opportunity to understand and to shape Myanmar’s on-going reforms and reconciliation process.”

However, the forum is taking place as two reports highlight some of the unsavoury and questionable realities going on within Burma while multinational companies make or consider investments in the country.

“Pushed to the Brink,” published on Wednesday by the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand, documents how thousands of ethnic Kachins displaced by fighting between Kachin militia and the Burmese Army have led to increased trafficking of women into China.

It details the cases of young women and girls “tricked, drugged, raped, and sold to Chinese men or families as brides or bonded laborers,” some ending up thousands of miles from home in eastern China.

“Push tens of thousands of people to China’s doorstep, deprive them of food and status, and you’ve created a perfect storm for human trafficking,” said the Kachin women’s group spokeswoman Julia Marip.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Agriculture’s latest statistics disclose a massive increase in land transfers to business and state agencies.

Between January 31, 2011 and March 31, 2012, so-called land concessions increased 76 percent to cover 3.42 million acres.

Under the new Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Lands Management Law, concession land is supposed to be unoccupied or unused. But it can include land in use by local communities and not registered with the government.

“The World Economic Forum should focus on the voices of the people of Myanmar, which should be the primary driver of development models adopted by the government, foreign investors, and other stakeholders,” EarthRights International campaigns director Paul Donowitz told The Irrawaddy.

He said the Farmland Act and the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Lands Law were examples of laws passed “with little or no public consultations, that do not recognize traditional upland farming practices, and that are leading directly to land grabbing by powerful interests.

“This development strategy, which is more of the same from previous times, will continue to alienate the people of Myanmar and not lead to sustainable economic and development outcomes,” Donowitz said.

EarthRights is a US-based NGO seeking to promote fairness in environmental and commercial development of natural resources.

“We have seen the [Burma] government prioritize large-scale natural resource strategies, including the opening of almost all of the countries offshore petroleum blocks, and new mining and large-scale hydropower projects with little or no public consultation that are leading to conflict, land grabbing, and severe livelihood impacts,” Donowitz said.

The PR words on the WEF’s Naypyidaw conference website appear not to impress one former Young Global Leader at the WEF’s 2010 conference in Tanzania who spoke this week to The Irrawaddy.

“Delegates from the World Economic Forum must not allow fine words and fine wine to fool them into thinking that they are visiting a country making a transition to democracy,” said Zoya Phan, a manager at the London-based human rights NGO Burma Campaign UK.

“As they arrive in Naypyidaw, delegates should remember that a few hundred miles northwest ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity have been committed against the Rohingya, and a few hundred miles northeast, ethnic Kachin women have been raped and killed by Burmese Army soldiers,” Phan said.

“My advice to delegates is to go to visit the displaced people in Mai Ja Yang [a rebel-controlled area] in Kachin State who fled attacks by the Burmese Army. Go and see the squalid conditions in the Rohingya camps where [President] Thein Sein won’t allow free humanitarian access. Visit the farmers in Karen State whose land has been confiscated by the government. Then decide how real this process is and if you think Burma is a safe place to invest.

“Lt-Gen Myint Soe [from the Burmese Army] recently said in an interview with The Irrawaddy, ‘Don’t believe everything you hear.’ That’s good advice for WEF delegates when listening to the government and military.”

It might indeed be something to bear in mind for the six high-ranking conference coordinators: AirAsia founder and chief executive Tony Fernandes; PepsiCo USA chairwoman Indra Nooyi; Mitsubishi Corporation chairman Yorihiko Kojima; General Electric vice chairman John Rice; Tata Consultancy Services of India vice chairman Subramaniam Ramadorai; and Helen Clark, the United Nations Development Program administrator in New York.