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Is Burma Open For Business?

In an effort to begin to shed light on Burma and the immense, impressive changes now happenings there, I recently attended a briefing and discussion sponsored by the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the Burmese American Democratic Alliance (BADA) — one of the oldest and most active organizations in the U.S. focused on human rights and democracy in Burma.

This event featured keynote discussions by Nyunt Than, chair of the board of Burmese American Democratic Alliance,  Edith Mirante, an expert analyst on the ecology and environment in Burma and author of “The Landless vs. Landless,” and Professor Larry Diamond, a leading expert on democracy and author of “A Prospect for Democracy in Burma.”

What follows are a few highpoints, and also considerations for future study as Burma continues to open both economically and politically.

While I myself am no expert on Burma, I do follow the country with keen interest and consider myself a serious student of the country and an advocate for positive change there.  I’ve also traveled to the region — I volunteered in Thailand in 2011; and later this May, I embark for India, again for volunteer work-study, for 7 weeks.


On the world stage, the recent political and economic opening of Burma is a true bright spot, a glimmer of hope for positive change for the world.


I count myself among the many who have been dazzled by the rise of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s Nobel Peace laurate and champion for democratic reform.


Equally dazzling is the pace of change in Burma right now.  In just over two years since some government restrictions have been lifted, Burma has witnessed a sudden rise of press freedoms, the penetration of digital technology and access social media, and new economic opportunities in the form of access to minerals, timber, and hydropower.


But what are the real prospects for Burma, both as a nascent democracy and as an emerging economy?  Perhas as a reminder of the military dictatorship that still grips the country (and has ever since 1962), Burma still carries its official name of Myranmar.


Burma – Rich in Natural Resources, but also Environmental Exploitation


To put the future of Burma’s economy into perspective, the McKinsey Global Institute predicts that by the end of the next decade, Burma’s economic growth will vault her among middle income countries, will quadruple her GDP to over $200 billion, and draw $100 billion in direct foreign investment.


It is as though Burma is opening its door for the world, giving the world access to its riches of natural resources and growing markets.  From a business and economic perspective, Burma appears to be open for business for the first time since its independence from British colonial rule in 1948.


But not all is rosy for Burma.  Even as the country prepares for this first elections in 2015, Burma suffers from years of neglect at the hands of military rulers, as well as international sanctions that have crippled the economy for decades.


Corruption is still rampant throughout Burma, and there are increasing tensions among Burma’s ethnic minorities (especially in Burma’s western-most Rakine state where violence has occurred between buddhist and muslims).


The education system in Burma is seriously obsolete after years of neglect.  Infrastructure in the country is disfunctional — huge hydroelectric projects carry power to China while children read by candlelight in Rangoon.


At the same time, your waiter is likely to take your order using a digital tablet at a Rangoon restaurant today, something unheard of only 2 or 3 years ago.


Burma has no formal environmental law today; all of the land technically belongs to the government.  That is why projects like Miytsone Dam, a huge hydroelectric facility planned along the Irawaddy River and financed by China’s state-owned China Power Investment Corporation, are drawing concern from environmentalists worldwide.


Avoiding another Cambodia


But despite the lofty economic projections, Burma is at a critical crossroads.  With elections coming in 2015 — Burma’s first real opportunity for democracy since the military took power in 1962 — the civil, political, environmental, and economic situition in Burma is precarious, much like Cambodia in the 1990s, when the international community was lured into the fasle perception of normalcy, deceived by initial apperances of democratic reforms after decades of iron rule.


Need for Continued Pressure by the International Community


We must not be lulled into a false sense of business as usual in Burma.  There is really only the faint beginnings of true democracy.  The international — with leadership from the United States and others — should continue to apply pressure on Burma to insist on greater transparency, promotion of civil society, protection of the environment, and human rights.

The United States Congress is now considering bills in support of Burma — Senate Bill 1885 and House Bill 3889 — which could accomplish much to ensure Burma continues to encourage transparency and human rights.

Let us also insist that Burma open up to allow international monitoring during its much-anticipated elections next year.