Sunday, March 11, 2012

Burma Democracy Reform Pressure A Means Not An End

The FDA has been suspicious of western governments significant interest in Burma democracy reform. Rarely do western governments do something unless it is in their self-interest. What is behind all this rhetorical democracy buzz by western governments? Could it be a genuine interest in promoting democracy, or is there something else?

Unfortunately, the FDA believes that Burma democracy reform pressure from western governments is simply a means to get access to the country's resources (and to compete with Asian counterparts) and if possible control the country through a structure of democracy which lacks substance, like in Afghanistan.

According to Michael Sheridan in his article "Rush for Burma's Hidden Treasure", "Burma is rich in oil, gas, timber, gems, minerals and agriculture, and its 60m population, long locked out of Asia’s consumer prosperity, offers a potential market the size of Thailand or Vietnam."

The Network Myanmar says, "sanctions imposed by America and the European Union have shut out every heavyweight multinational, leaving the commercial field open to competitors from China, Singapore, Thailand, Taiwan and South Korea. Japanese trading houses and companies are “zooming in on Myanmar [Burma] as a land of opportunity”, the Nikkei news service reported in Tokyo last week, listing nine companies already engaged there. Meanwhile, British companies with a strong presence in Asia, including Standard Chartered, BP, Prudential and HSBC, are reduced to waiting on the sidelines, wary of a public and political backlash if they are seen to be rewarding the generals who still dominate Burma behind the scenes."

So it follows that western governments are anxious for Burma democracy reforms to open the floodgates for their heavyweight multinational companies. In addition, through the support of opposition leader, Suu Kyi, western governments will have a political inroad into the country and a symbolic justification for doing business with Burma. Any sign of democracy reform in Burma as evidenced by the April 1st by-elections will open the western economic floodgates. Western election observer reports will likely claim that free and fair elections occurred, just as they did in the Democratic Republic of Congo recently.

This article sums up fairly accurately what is going on with Burma:

Premature rush for Myanmar riches By Brian McCartan

"The rapid pace of reforms in Myanmar is raising speculation about when, not if, United States- and European Union-imposed economic sanctions will be lifted. While Myanmar's various untapped markets are generating immense interest from foreign investors, until more economic and financial reforms are implemented actual capital inflows will likely be mitigated.

While part of President Thein Sein's wider reform drive, economic reforms are also being fueled by a crisis in the domestic financial system, dissatisfaction with China's growing economic influence and recognition that Western sanctions have greatly inhibited the economy. Another spur is the need to comply with Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Economic Community regulations scheduled to take effect in 2015.

As the US and European Union (EU) make concessions in response to Thein Sein's reform signals, it seems increasingly likely that all economic and financial sanctions could be rolled back later this year. Those prospects will improve if Naypyidaw can show that by-elections scheduled for April 1, the first to be contested by pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party since 1990, are free and fair.

Myanmar has seen a number of senior Western diplomats visit the country in recent months, beginning with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit in December. Since then, Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague, Australia's Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd and France's Foreign Minister Alain Juppe have all made official trips to the traditionally military-run country. The positive rhetoric after their visits and wider praise for Naypyidaw's reform efforts have added momentum to the gathering drive in the West to repeal sanctions.

The EU is considering a US$197 million aid package focused on health, education, agriculture and institutional capacity-building. EU foreign ministers agreed at a meeting on January 23 to lift immediately a travel ban it had imposed on certain Myanmar leaders and is considering relaxing other restrictions after the April 1 by-elections.

French Foreign Minister Juppe announced at the end of his official trip that France - independent of the EU - would triple its development aid to Myanmar to about $3.85 million a year. Denmark has announced it will increase its bilateral aid to $17 million in 2012. Australia announced in early January that it would begin relaxing some financial and travel sanctions against government tourism representatives and members of the former ruling junta.

Although Washington has been coy on the sanctions issue, it took a major step towards normalizing diplomatic relations this month when it announced it would soon name an ambassador to Myanmar - only hours after Thein Sein released an estimated 300 political prisoners.

The US downgraded its mission in 1990 after pro-democracy protests were brutally crushed by the military and the ruling junta nullified election results that indicated a clear win for Suu Kyi and NLD-led opposition.

Repealing American sanctions would require an act of congress, something that seemed unlikely just a few months ago. Now there are signs that many of Myanmar's strongest critics in congress are beginning to shift their views towards greater accommodation with Thein Sein's nominally civilian, military-backed regime.

Senator Mitch McConnell recently told senate colleagues that he felt the reforms were real following a two-day trip to the country earlier in the month where he met with government officials and Suu Kyi. McConnell, a long-time opponent of the military regime and a backer of sanctions legislation, said more must be done. Senator John McCain said this month that free and fair by-elections would encourage the relaxation of sanctions.

Many long-time Myanmar observers maintain reservations about the sincerity of Naypyidaw'sMyanmar's military rulers are notorious for reversing seemingly conciliatory gestures to the opposition and then re-arresting political opponents once international attention shifted away from its abuses.

At the same time, economic analysts say investment opportunities abound in Myanmar, especially in the energy, agriculture, manufacturing and infrastructure sectors. The tourism industry, too, is expected to see major growth due to the country's historical pagodas, natural beauty and colonial architecture, among other attractions.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) recently referred to Myanmar as the "next economic frontier in Asia" with "high growth potential", following a two-week assessment trip. The IMF is currently working with the government to overhaul its financial system, including a distorted dual exchange rate that has long discouraged foreign investment.

Myanmar occupies a strategic crossroads between the growing economies of India and China and Southeast Asia. A port under construction at Kyaukpyu on Myanmar's west coast is aimed at opening up China's remote southwestern province of Yunnan to trade and investment. It is also part of a project to build a dual oil and gas pipeline from a terminal at the port to southwestern China.

An even larger multi-billion dollar port project at Dawei on the southern coast aims to connect Myanmar with Thailand, the rest of Southeast Asia and southern China. It will offer a potentially faster, cost-saving alternative to the Malacca Strait and Singapore for the transportation of goods and energy. Investment in these port projects will be encouraged through their associated infrastructure development and planned integrated special economic and industrial zones....

While Western business interests look towards Myanmar's vast untapped potential, many Asian companies are moving pre-emptively before Western sanctions are lifted and US and European companies join the competition for contracts and projects.

Thein Sein is now on a three-day trip to Singapore, where on Monday he signed an agreement under which the city-state is offering help in economic planning, urban development and technical and vocational training.

Already a number of US and European firms are known to have quietly sent representatives to explore opportunities should sanctions soon repealed.

Even without legal protections and basic infrastructure, and with a dubious cast of potential business partners, Myanmar is fast becoming Asia's next big thing."

Premature Rush for Myanmar Riches

2011 FDA Global Electoral Fairness Audit Report on the DRC 

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