NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar– Since 2011, the once recluse Myanmar, also known as Burma, has been undergoing many political and economic reforms. The Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was unconditionally released in 2010 after a procedurally dubious and widely criticized general election in which the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party won.
The country also instigated other moves signaling future democratization such as the amnesty bill, which saw thousands of prisoners released, the passing of a bill allowing peaceful demonstration (with a prerequisite of “protest permits,” for which prospective protestors must apply), re-registering Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League of Democracy party as a political party as well as the lifting of the bans of media coverage of certain topics. These reforms were received with open arms by both the United States and the European Union, who lifted or eased certain sanctions imposed on Myanmar.
However, are these changes genuine? After all, despite these changes, Myanmar remains a very politically oppressive country. Another question that should be asked is whether “the international community” is loosening its decades-long sanction simply because it has now come to realize the economic potential and the geopolitical importance of Myanmar. Or is this gesture a genuine act of giving Myanmar incentives for further reforms?
At any rate, after having been a quasi-pariah state since 1988, in 2012, U.S. President Barack Obama made a landmark visit to this once isolated Southeast Asian country. That same year, people also witnessed oil companies and other multinational enterprises pouring into the country. Even though Asian oil companies have been operating in Myanmar for a very long time, Western companies are a novelty. Although the ever-increasing presence of foreign companies will gradually necessitate the Burmese government to improve on its transparency, the country is currently ranked 157 out of 177 countries in transparency, a big improvement. However, it still remains very venal since the year 2012, where it was sitting at 172. The presence of foreign companies, however, does not necessarily entail any further expansion of democracy.
As there are plenty of examples of countries that do not need democracy to become part of the globalized market and the Golden Arches theory went up in the flames of Belgrade of the 1990s, what does the future hold for Myanmar?
Natural gas, of which the country possesses approximately 11 trillion cubic feet to 23 trillion cubic feet, is Myanmar’s largest revenue earner, and the country is also rich in other very valuable commodities such as teak wood, rub and jade. The junta-backed government is already wooing many oil companies with household names into investing in the country.
Furthermore, with a population of 62 million, a liberal market Myanmar is Asia’s Ali Baba’s Cave. With innumerable Asian followed by Western companies rushing in with their money, the country—at least collectively speaking—is experiencing an unprecedented economic blossoming. The billions of dollars in foreign direct investment that are pouring into Myanmar come principally from Asian companies. American companies wishing to invest in Myanmar, for example, must follow the preliminary guideline to responsible investment prior to being permitted to invest there.
Foreign investors looking to profit from the country’s commodities have already caused several cases of human rights violations. In 2013, following the reopening of a copper mine in northern Myanmar, under the aegis of a Chinese company, the villagers staged a peaceful protest. However, they were met with live rounds from the local police force, which left at least seven people injured.
In early 2014, some farmers in Tenasserim in southern Burma also came out in protest against the government’s land grab. They claimed that although 500 acres of farmland and 400 acres of pasture were seized by the military in the 1990s for an alleged project to build a military base, only 30 were used for the purported end. The rest has been rented to a businessman as a rubber plantation.
In a separate incidence, hundreds of villagers who were inadequately compensated for their confiscated land rose up in protest against a Sino-Burmese gas pipeline, running from the coastal Rakhine State to China’s Yunnan province. 10 activists were jailed for failing to acquire a permit before staging a protest. However, the villagers have been trying to apply for a permit several times but each application was summarily denied.
In addition, the people of Myanmar still do not have full political freedom—already a rarity in the region at large—and ongoing conflicts with and the disenfranchisement of certain ethnic minorities are implicating evidence that Myanmar is still far from a reformed country.
Despite that the country has allowed for more political expression and has promised to undertake other positive reforms, abuses of both the freedom of conscience and the right to property persist and so do political arrests. Thus, the reforms in recent years might simply be political guile to lure in more investment money; if the government were truly committed to reforming the country and to propel it towards democracy, why are such practices maintained?
Perhaps the praises and the recompenses by the international community might have been handed out prematurely. With rights and entitlements still precarious as ever in Myanmar, more foreign investments of unscrupulous or inadvertent motives alike will only serve to provide the oppressive regime with more financial resources. Moreover, more investors will, as it has been demonstrated repeatedly, adversely affect farmers who possess neither the capital nor the influence to protect themselves from arbitrary expropriation of and expulsion from their land, deprived of the essential means to eke out a living.
Lastly, the economic boom of Myanmar—which at its current growth rate is expected to catapult the country into a middle-income rank by the year 2030—will further undermine the already weakened (if not dethroned) quasi-apocryphal status of democracy as a sine quo non to a prosperous market economy. However, should further sanctions be imposed upon the country?
The answer to this dilemma is most likely negative, since further sanctions would only hinder the formation of a strong middle class, possibly the prerequisite to a healthy democracy, and thus would be counterproductive. Thus, the solution might lie in Myanmar’s neighboring countries, Western investments in the country being near negligible when compared to Asian companies’ stakes in Myanmar. The governments of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states and those of Myanmar’s immediate goliath neighbors, India and China, could encourage their entrepreneurs to operate more responsibly, perhaps with more qualm, in their ventures in Myanmar.
Sources: Freedom House, Transparency, Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Asia, Ernst & Young, BBC, New York Times, Bloomberg, BBC, International Business Times, Australia Network News, Global Times, Dawei Project, Voice of America