Burma: risky business or a new Asian tiger?

Linda Björk  By Linda Björk, Senior Engagement Manager at GES

A few weeks ago, while we were heading to the airport to commence our engagement trip to Burma (Myanmar), president Obama was heading home. We were reading articles about his visit to the country and really felt that we were going to a focal point in world politics. Mr. Obama was however criticised afterwards for being too optimistic when saying he was confident that Burma would overcome its current troubles, albeit also recognising that “change is hard and it doesn’t always move in a straight line”. The progress of the country’s transition to democracy has been questioned and many are even saying that it is backsliding, with journalists and protesters being prosecuted, Rohingya Muslim minorities persecuted and abuses reported in ethnic minority areas where different groups have been fighting for ethnic and political rights for decades.

Whether or not president Obama’s confidence in Burma’s improvements is justified remains to be seen. During our week-long visit to the country GES, together with clients, met with companies in a wide range of sectors: oil and gas, telecom, food products and conglomerates, as well as NGOs and other stakeholders. In the discussions about the different challenges that face companies operating in Burma, including issues such as land rights, labour rights, freedom of expression and corruption, it became very clear that this is a country in transition. Laws relating to all sectors are being reviewed, and the current process of formulating a new investment law and a land use policy is a good example. Land ownership and use have emerged as key issues during Burma’s political and economic transition, amid protests against land acquisitions for infrastructure, development or large-scale agricultural projects. With the lack of land rights protection and the majority of the country’s population working in agriculture, the tension is apparent.

We met with one man who has been resettled due to the Thilawa Special Economic Zone (SEZ) which is being built outside Yangon and will be commercially operational in 2015. He previously lived opposite his family but was moved to a resettlement village because of his house being in the area of the SEZ. We were received in his new house and sat down on the floor with men from a group that has filed a complaint regarding the lack of consultation and compensation related to the resettlement. They told us about not having any means to sustain their living, as they used to live off their land but were not provided any farmland in the resettlement and could not keep their animals. The men further explained that the land prices are so high that it would be impossible to buy new land for the money they were given. Some had spent all the money they received as compensation on building a house in the resettlement village and were now in debt and had no other training for employment than farming. They showed us photos of their gardens being flooded with waste water since the drainage facilities are inadequate, and said that their drinking water was contaminated due to the well having been located too close to the latrines.

The situation of the people affected by the Thilawa project is just one of many showing that the legal system is still weak in the country. It will take time before the laws are in place and then it remains to be seen whether these will be in line with international standards and how they are implemented. Meanwhile, companies which want to be a part of the journey, and hopefully help Burma to prosper and become a tiger, need to have good risk preparedness with strong policies in place to make sure that they conduct business responsibly and also contribute to making a better living standard for the people.

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