Burma’s transition from international pariah to poster child for democratic change has happened remarkably quickly. Or has it?
The US, EU and other world powers have been quick to reward Burma's once-notorious regime for a series of dramatic, positive reforms. Diplomatic channels have been opened up for the first time in decades, many economic sanctions have been lifted and there's been a surge in international investment.
But the country’s weak rule of law, rampant corruption and terrible treatment of minority groups are often glazed over in the rush to invest in the "new" Burma. This week, the government barred a global Islamic body from opening an office to help members of Burma's Muslim population, who are suffering from horrifying communal violence in the west of the country.
Is Burma at the beginning of a new era of democracy, or have reforms simply given the new government a cover to boost business – and foreign investors a chance to profit?
On a path to reform
The Burmese regime, aiming to end its global isolation and seeking foreign investment to breathe life into its stagnant economy, has gone to great lengths to prove it is changing.
After five decades of military rule and repression, the past eight months have brought dramatic reforms, including the release of 700 political prisoners, the abolishment of a long-standing censorship rule that required all journalists to submit their work for review before publication, and President Thein Sein’s shake-up of his cabinet.
In September, as opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi began her first tour of the US since being released from house arrest, and Thein Sein prepared to attend his first UN general assembly in New York, the government pardoned 500 more prisoners.
The international response has been swift. In recent months most economic sanctions have been suspended or eased. The World Bank and the Asian Development Bank have opened offices in Burma, Japan waived $3.7bn in unpaid debt, and a number of countries have announced significant increases in aid.
Last month, Aung San Suu Kyi – reportedly under pressure from her government – gave the US the go-ahead to drop its major remaining sanction: a ban on all Burmese imports. It worked. Then, this week, the US sent a delegation of senior military officials to build closer ties with the Burmese military.
But who will get rich?
The less good news is this. Despite an end to total military rule, much of Burma's population continues to suffer: after decades of isolation, the economy remains one of the least developed in the world, with one-third of its people living below the poverty line. The nation rates second to last (behind North Korea) in healthcare spending per capita and in 2011 it was ranked the fourth most corrupt country in the world by Transparency International.
Burma has many natural resources, especially natural gas reserves and gems – making it an appealing trading partner for the west. But until now, the Burmese people have seen almost none of the economic benefits of the country's vast natural wealth.
China had been Burma's largest foreign investor to date, but the new government is eager to promote growth (and less reliance on China) by courting other foreign investment.
Major corporations are now scrambling to jump on the bandwagon. Just after the US eased sanctions on Burma in June, it brought in a slew of major US companies – Chevron, General Electric (GE), Goldman Sachs and Google, to name a few – to begin exploring investment opportunities. Days later, GE became the first US company to sign a deal, and Coca-Cola and Pepsi have been the latest companies to announce they’ll start doing business in the country.
However, the military still controls Burma’s largest companies. So will anyone other than the elite benefit from investment?
Battles still being fought
For the millions who are from ethnic minorities – hundreds of thousands of whom have been displaced by decades of conflict – the answer seems to be no. They still suffer widespread discrimination, and the regions they live in have been ravaged by conflict. For decades, these groups have been fighting for the political rights they were denied under military rule – and many of those battles continue today.
One of these groups is the Rohingya, a persecuted Muslim community that has been stripped of basic human rights and denied Burmese citizenship, despite having lived in the area for more than 150 years. Currently, 800,000 Rohingya Muslims are stateless in the west of the country, where clashes have killed at least 77 people and left 90,000 homeless since June. And this week the government made it quite clear that it didn't intend to change its policies when it prohibited the Organisation of Islamic Conference from opening an office to provide desperately needed help to the Rohingya community.
In the north, a 17-year ceasefire collapsed with the ethnic Kachin rebels in 2011. In recent months alone at least 75,000 people have been displaced by fighting; according to human rights groups the Burmese army has been attacking civilian areas and using torture, rape and murder to clamp down on the uprising. Although the government has pledged to resolve the conflict and President Thein Sein reported that "informal consultations" had started again with the Kachin, too little is being done – and vast numbers of people continue to suffer.
And in the east, conflict between the Burmese military and the Karen minority has endured for decades. Peace talks earlier this year prompted optimism, but large numbers remain displaced and violence continues today. Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) found that almost one-third of households it surveyed in the area had been subjected to horrific treatment like forced labour, forced displacement or physical attacks in the past year.
PHR also found that in areas near development projects, these outrages were much more common – sparking fear that without proper safeguards, an investment gold rush may actually cause minority communities to suffer even more in the future.
Take this chance
"Before history gets totally rewritten, it’s worth making a couple of points," a Washington Post editorial cautions. "One is that generals and ex-generals still run Burma, as generals have been running Burma for the past half-century. The stirrings of reform that have allowed Aung San Suu Kyi to travel and that prompted the United States to lift pretty much the last of its economic sanctions last week, are only that: stirrings. There is no rule of law, no independent judiciary."
This underlines a key reality. Truly positive and long-lasting change won't be achieved until Burma as a whole – including its ethnic minorities – sees the benefits of foreign investment in their daily lives.
The country is at a crossroads. Now it's up to rest of the world to act: to urge leaders and companies to act responsibly; and to insist that the easing of sanctions and more investment in Burma must be contingent upon its fair treatment of all its citizens. Until this happens, the big Burma gold rush could hurt more people than it helps.
Sources: BBC, Reuters, Avaaz, CNN, Politico, Mizzima, Transparency International, Economist, VOA, Forbes, Nation, Al Jazeera, Irrawaddy, Physicians for Human Rights, Global Post, Washington Post