Current News

    West Pushed on Conditional Trade to End Burma Rights Abuses

    Demonstrators shout
    slogans in support of the Rohingya Muslims in Burma during a protest outside
    the United Nations’ offices in Sanaa, Yemen, last year. (Photo: Reuters)
    William Boot
    July 26, 2013
    International human
    rights groups are putting pressure on Western governments to re-apply
    conditions for trade and investment with Burma in an effort to make President
    Thein Sein’s government deal properly with continuing abuses in the country.
    “Let’s ensure that
    they talk human lives before they talk dollar signs,” urged an online petition
    by the global advocacy group Avaaz ahead of Thein Sein’s visit to France and
    England last week.
    Meanwhile, in its
    latest report on Burma made available to The Irrawaddy, the business risks
    analysis company Maplecroft warns potential investors that the “near-total
    absence of judicial independence and a weak rule of law foster a culture of
    impunity in [Burma]” that poses a serious threat to business.
    Avaaz says it
    succeeded in pressuring France’s President Francois Hollande to publicly call
    on Thein Sein to take action against ethnic cleansing and religious violence in
    Burma during his visit to Paris on July 17.
    Meaning “voice” in
    several languages, Avaaz mustered an Internet petition of more than 1 million
    signatories that it sent to both Hollande and Britain’s Prime Minister David
    Cameron. The petition urged the leaders to demand that ethnic violence in Burma
    be stopped “as a condition of improved trading relations.”
    There have been
    similar calls by Human Rights Watch, Fortify Rights International and Burma
    Campaign UK, which has accused Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague of
    “wearing rose-tinted glasses” in his view of Burma.
    “You won’t hear
    Prime Minister David Cameron talking about taking action on ethnic cleansing
    going on in Burma. You won’t hear Foreign Secretary William Hague condemning
    the widespread use of rape by the Burmese Army. … They talk up the positives,
    but play down or don’t talk about many of the negatives,” Burma Campaign UK
    said.
    “To pressure the
    government to return to a policy where they put human rights first, we are
    launching a campaign to deliver as many rose-tinted glasses as possible to
    Hague.”
    Maplecroft, in its
    latest report on Burma, said Thein Sein’s promises during his recent visit to
    France and Britain on quelling ethnic violence “need to be viewed with caution,
    given the objective of attracting investment.”
    Recent actions by
    the Burmese government “suggest an entrenchment of discriminatory practices,”
    Maplecroft warned, citing widespread human rights abuses, including continued
    land grabs, and endemic corruption as being serious risks to the international
    reputation of large companies considering investment in Burma.
    “[Aung San] Suu
    Kyi’s collaboration with the government against communities whose land has been
    taken, and her failure to speak out actively against the repression in [Arakan
    State], also raises doubts over the sincerity of the recent announcements.
    “Investors face
    substantial reputational risks and should monitor the situation closely for
    actual change and events, rather than political promises and claims,”
    Maplecroft advises in its report.
    Maplecroft outlines
    three possible near-future scenarios in Burma, ranging from continuing reforms
    and investment to a reversal of Thein Sein’s achievements due to a withdrawal
    of military support. It says this latter possibility is unlikely.
    “The continued
    easing of sanctions is very likely to allow preferential access for imported
    goods from [Burma]. However, the government’s failure to take action to prevent
    the spread of sectarian violence will likely lead to a continued deterioration
    of the security environment in the short term,” said Maplecroft.
    “Companies willing
    to accept a higher threshold of risk will continue to show interest in the
    country, hoping to gain an early presence in an opening market. This is most
    likely to occur within the retail and extractive sectors.
    “On the other hand,
    poor infrastructure and the risk of sectarian violence will remain problematic
    for potential investment in value-added production projects.”
    Matthew Smith,
    executive director of Fortify Rights International, which has researched
    conditions for displaced Muslims in Arakan State, accused foreign governments
    of myopia in their praise of Thein Sein and the lifting of sanctions.
    “Some members of
    the international community—and of [Burma’s] own government—believe that
    market-based solutions will ultimately prevail in [Arakan] State,” Smith told
    Asia Times.
    “The hope is that
    Buddhist and Muslim communities will eventually peacefully integrate out of
    economic necessity. However, as there are currently no indications that
    authorities will permit displaced Rohingya to return home or grant them basic
    human rights, this position is deeply out of touch with reality.”
    Evidence that
    international NGO pressure may be having some effect on Western governments
    came to light this week with several reports that Thein Sein’s recent
    disbandment of the Nasaka—a special border security force in Arakan State—was
    motivated by plans by the US government to impose some form of sanctions on it.
    Washington has been
    petitioned by several NGOs, including the US Campaign for Burma, to act against
    the Nasaka, which was accused of violence against minority Rohingya Muslims, as
    well as corruption.
    Graft remains
    another significant concern for prospective investors, according to Maplecroft.
    “Without an
    independent and effective anti-corruption agency, a sudden influx of capital
    could further undermine already weak anti-corruption efforts,” the consultancy
    said in its report.
    “Although
    anti-corruption enforcement was not a key pre-requisite for the removal of
    international sanctions, the [Burmese] government will come under pressure to
    improve overall institutional capacity, in light of prospects of increased
    trade with Western businesses.”