Guest Column

Capitalist Race Means Less Human Rights Talk

By Sai Soe Win Latt 26 April 2012

Since the 2010 general elections, Burma’s political reform has speeded up rapidly. President Thein Sein has artfully won the trust of the international community by releasing political prisoners, encouraging opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to run in the April by-elections and negotiating peace deals with ethnic armed groups.

Of course, there are visible changes such as a more open media, return of political exiles, civilian MPs raising questions and criticisms in Parliament, new foreign investment laws, currency reforms, the return of international financial institutions, and so on.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit in December signaled a global policy shift on Burma, officially known as Myanmar. The US, Britain, Australia, Norway and the EU have all relaxed economic sanctions. These countries, as well as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Asian Development Bank, have all promised financial assistance.

Canada also announced on April 24 that it is lifting sanctions on Burma. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird sought to “congratulate” the Burmese president and his colleagues on the nation’s recent program of reform.

As a close observer of Burmese politics, it is disturbing to see that the exclusive international focus on human rights abuses in Burma over the past 20 years has so suddenly disappeared from the diplomatic language of these countries. The announcement of the Canadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for example, largely praised the changes in Burma, but only minimally mentioned continued conflicts and human rights abuses.

Saying that supporting current reform is to encourage further positive change is rather deceptive. What is actually happening under such a façade is a competitive rush into Burma for economic exploitation. The Burmese government knows this very well, and the nation’s natural resources are what Naypyidaw wants to sell to the world. Being aware of Burma’s spoils, Western countries are now jostling with each other, as well as leading Asian economies such as China, to secure access to Burma.

In the name of Burma becoming an “Asian Tiger,” or aiding such an aspiration, the West’s terms of relations with Burma have become all about money—financial aid, foreign investment, economic growth, and so on.

Since 2011, diplomats, experts and business people from Europe, North America, Australia and Japan have been busy traveling back and forth to Burma. They visit Rangoon and other major cities to forge alliances and networks while trying to secure land, houses and offices.

Their governments, in the name of democracy and development, are supporting investors by extending their relations with Burmese government agencies, business communities and experts.

The fact that 13 businessmen accompanied UK Prime Minister David Cameron for his visit to Burma in mid-April reveals the clear financial motivation behind the current engagement agenda. According to the Burmese ambassador to Canada, some Canadian energy firms are already planning to invest in the energy sector.

Hugh Stephens, from the Asia Pacific Foundation, has also recommended mining resources as a key area for Canada. Likewise, European and North American companies are already warming themselves up for investment in the energy and banking sectors, waiting for their governments to give the green light.

For the Burmese, including mainstream opposition groups, lifting sanctions and attracting foreign investment is seen as the way out of economic hardship. Various expert conferences, public events, official meetings and business forums are all geared towards fiscal liberalization. Surprisingly, the return of the World Bank/IMF, currency reform and sudden economic liberalization are all uncritically welcomed.

Even more troubling, some activists have chastised President Thein Sein for not ensuring a “favorable” business climate for foreign investors including long-term property ownership and concession rights. This shows the weak state of civil society groups that are not yet fostering a critical social movement to scrutinize the potential exploitation and abuses of multinational corporations.

Being disallowed in the past, Western companies will be competing with Chinese, Indian, South Korean, Thai and Singaporean investors in key sectors—agriculture, mining, energy, banking and telecommunication. This means turning Burma into a battleground for foreign investors in trades that are already infamous for fraud and negative human rights implications.

But no one wants to talk about human right issues such as the conflict in Kachin State in which an estimated 100,000 civilians have been displaced since 2010. Likewise, issues such as the demolition of mosques and looting of civilian properties in Hpakant Township, Kachin State, and Kamma Township, Magwe Division, early this month, as well as an ethnic Rohingya beggar beaten to death by a police officer in western Burma, are completed ignored.

Such life-threatening human rights violations occur continuously in remote locations and border areas, but are overshadowed by the shifting focus towards rosy political events in urban centers.

In order to establish relationships with the Burmese government, Western countries are now diverting financial support previously given to human rights victims on the Thai-Burmese border to inside the country. This has already resulted in the closing down of refugee schools, poorer healthcare services for the displaced plus reduced funding for ethnic news agencies and human rights groups.

In short, the trend of Western politics on Burma is moving away from humanitarian issues and towards supporting capitalist penetration where multinational corporations from powerful countries are central players. If this is a new chapter in the history of Burma, then the nation’s future as an economic battleground of capitalist competition will entail hidden, yet high, human costs.

Soe Win Latt is a geography PhD candidate at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada.