NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar — Foreign aid in Myanmar has become a complicated issue as a result of the major political changes during the last two years.
During the 1990s and 2000s, the United States imposed economic sanctions on Myanmar — known historically and colloquially as Burma — during the country’s long period of military dictatorship. Only in 2012 did the U.S. Congress repeal these sanctions and resume investment.
Since then, private firms and non-governmental organizations have entered the country with the goal of aiding the nation through a period of development, long delayed by military rule. The intent and effectiveness of these organizations has varied.
Human Rights Group Questions the IFC
The International Finance Corporation (IFC), a private affiliate of the World Bank, is a major player in Myanmar’s foreign aid arena. With substantial economic influence and ties to the major world stage, the IFC’s investment in Myanmar could make or break the nation’s progress in coming years. The organization has recently proposed five new investment projects for the southeast Asian nation, though human rights watchdogs are wary.
The U.S. Campaign for Burma has leveled charges of irresponsibility at the IFC. The campaign indicates that, out of the five projects announced, three involve the building of high-class hotels, office buildings and other business infrastructure. In a nation where 70 percent of the population dwells in rural areas and where almost one-third of people live below the poverty line, this investment in urban, upscale building is concerning.
Although the IFC claims that new infrastructure is needed to attract foreign investors to Myanmar, the truth is that investments have been flooding into the country since 2012 without these buildings.
Considering that the IFC has previously pledged to invest in microfinance, the U.S. Campaign for Burma worries that the corporation’s actions will only make Myanmar’s rich, richer. Serge Pun, owner of Yoma Bank and an associate of IFC by way of its Yoma Equity project, is already a major player in Myanmar’s business world. Although the Yoma Equity project is designed to finance smaller businesses, the campaign claims the project is lacking in proper safeguards which would assure fair business dealings, environmental protection and social responsibility.
Foreign Aid Workers Driven from Rakhine Refugee Camps
While the nation’s business interests are debated by investors, bankers and activists, foreign aid workers on the ground in Myanmar are struggling for different reasons.
In early spring, Myanmar locals in the state of Rakhine attacked foreign aid workers, claiming that they were giving preferential treatment to Bengalis and Rohingyas. These attacks have driven aid workers away from refugee camps and from their city offices.
Aid workers remain hesitant to return, and the infrastructure for Rakhine’s various aid networks has been slow to repair. In the meantime, refugees — many of whom rely on foreign aid workers for health care and other basic needs — are left lacking essential resources.
Over 300,000 people in Rakhine are in need of assistance, and without the help of foreign aid agencies, their fates remain uncertain. These agencies are desperate to return to work, but until community involvement is guaranteed, there remains a strong likelihood for increased violence.
Private Investment in Myanmar’s Rule of Law
Amid this climate of uncertainty, some forms of foreign aid programs are showing promise.
A meeting between Burmese government officials and investors from the U.S., UK, Japan and Australia has taken place recently. Those involved are interested in bolstering the rule of law in Myanmar, a principle that has been sorely lacking for the last two decades. Under rule of law, all citizens are judged according to the same laws, regardless of status or wealth.
Aung San Suu Kyi, head of the Lower House’s Rule of Law and Tranquility Committee, is interested in opening rule of law centers in Mandalay and Lashio. Handled correctly, these centers should contribute to improving social equality for Myanmar’s people.
Regardless of investors’ intentions and the country’s needs, the future of foreign aid remains uncertain in Myanmar.