At the World Economic Forum in Davos on January 28, just as the world’s attention was becoming riveted to the pro-democracy protests taking place in Egypt, a pro-democracy leader from another repressive regime, Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi, sent an audio message to the Forum’s influential and powerful participants. In the course of her message, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate called upon the global community to begin investing in her country with developments in technology, infrastructure and microlending services. While Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi cautioned that, “we also need to pay close attention to the costs and collateral damage of our development, whether environmental or social,” she asserted that responsible investment was necessary to bring 55 million Burmese people into the 21st century.
Unfortunately, Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi’s message comes at a time when global attention has been fixated on the turmoil in the Middle East, leaving little airtime for vital discussions of reform in other oppressive regimes. Indeed, the only government who seems to have paid serious attention to her Davos remarks has been the Burmese military junta itself. After Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi’s message on increased development in Burma ignited a debate as to whether this was a call for the West to lift economic sanctions which inhibit Western investment, her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), issued a statement two weeks ago re-iterating its support of “targeted sanctions.” In response, the mouthpiece of the military, the government newspaper The New Light of Myanmar, warned that Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD could meet “tragic ends” for publicly supporting sanctions. Instead of discussing new alternatives for Western companies to invest in the Burmese people, the conversation has been diverted right back to where the junta wants it – old arguments over sanctions.
Meanwhile, as the West dithers and the NLD clings to old ideas, Myanmar’s closest neighbors, such as Thailand and China, have stepped into the gap – and have often blatantly disregarded Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi’s plea for respecting the environment and workers’ rights.
For instance, the new Dawei Development Project, spearheaded by Italian-Thai, one of Bangkok’s largest conglomerates and run by one of its most respected families, aims to create an industrial zone in southern Myanmar that would employ millions of Burmese. Yet, the Dawei project has the potential not only to decimate an otherwise pristine environment along Myanmar’s lengthy Andaman Sea coastline but also to endanger the lives of millions of Burmese workers and area residents. Thailand’s Oxford-educated prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, was actually quoted in the International Herald Tribune as saying, “Some industries are not suitable to be located in Thailand … That is why [Ital-Thai] set up there [in Dawei]” – effectively implying that Burmese workers’ lives and living conditions are worth far less than their Thai counterparts. The IHT article goes on to detail how Myanmar, unlike Thailand, lacks the kinds of laws that require environmental impact reports and hearings with local residents before moving forward – making it easy for unscrupulous foreign companies to do business with the unscrupulous government.
Thai companies are not the only ones to invest in Myanmar without fear of pesky regulations. In recent years, Chinese companies have swarmed their southern neighbor, looking to harvest its abundant natural resources for use in resource-hungry China. Last October – just before the November elections and the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest – I spent two weeks traveling around Burma. Almost every local I talked to, from lowly souvenir seller to middle-class innkeeper and wealthy, Western-educated business people, told me about the encroaching presence of Chinese business. Many believed that their country was being stripped of its resources by Chinese businesses, while the generals profited. For instance, despite having numerous hydroelectric plants, gas reserves and other means of producing electricity, the government sells most of it to neighbors like the Chinese and Thais, while Burmese citizens endure near-constant blackouts. A local businessman in Mandalay I spoke to outlined Chinese business involvement in the country: Chinese corporations buy Burmese raw resources like timber at bargain prices, while still lining generals’ pockets; those raw resources are made into goods in Chinese factories; those goods are then sold back to the Burmese at much higher prices, with the generals and the government profiting a second time around.
What can be done? Despite the iron grip the military junta has on its people, there are reasons to hope. Even though the NLD reiterated its support for sanctions, younger Burmese activists, as well as increasing numbers of Western observers, are beginning to agitate more for the lifting of sanctions. As Mark Mackinnon points out in a recent article in Canada’s Globe and Mail, the West does business with China, despite its authoritarian regime and corrupt practices that are similar to Myanmar’s, much to the benefit of millions of Chinese people, who have been pulled out of poverty due to economic engagement with the West. Myanmar is also an increasingly more open society than, say, North Korea. While most Burmese do not have mobile phones because the SIM card alone costs $1000, almost all of the people I met had Facebook profiles and email accounts. Through these Internet portals, many people engage with foreign tourists they have met and keep up with international news. Though the generals have been very good at oppressing the people in most other ways, they seem to have underestimated the power of the global web revolution. As generals like 78-year old Than Shwe begin to pass away and the Burmese people engage more with the outside world, there is a chance for a transition to the stable and open democracy that its people have been hoping to see for decades.
Amelia Salyers graduated cum laude from Princeton University with a degree in English literature. Having lived and traveled extensively in Europe and Asia, she has recently returned to the United States after two years spent working at a communications agency based in Bangkok, Thailand.