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Burma's investment rush is leaving the poor

majority behind
Fewer than 30% of people in Burma have access to electricity,
and investment is vital. But the danger is this will come at the
expense of the poor
A typical house in Thilawa with enough space for a small farm and some animals. People in the
region are being relocated to make way for a new project. Photograph: Raphael Olschner
Bobbie ta !aria and Phil Bloomer
Tuesday "# !ay $%"&
' !ya (laing sits on a bamboo floor in his rural home an hour down the ri)er from *angon+
e,plaining how in a short time+ he e,pects to lose it in the name of de)elopment. (is fields of
paddy rice+ along with those of his )illage and neighbours+ ha)e been designated as a special
economic -one. They will be bulldo-ed to make way for the flagship de)elopment project of
the .apan /nternational 0o1operation Agency 2./0A3 in co1operation with the !yanmar
go)ernment and .apanese and !yanmar companies. 4lectronics and garments factories will
replace his homestead.
' !ya (laing does not oppose the project+ he just wants to be fairly treated so he can start
again with his community+ Thilawa+ in a new place+ so he can bring up his children with enough
food to last the year.
/nstead+ he says+ the project is mo)ing ahead while the local community is left worse off. (e
e,plains that there has been 5no con)ersation+ no replacement land+ no ade6uate
compensation5. (owe)er+ ' !ya (laing and his fellow )illagers are determined. They ha)e
seen what happened to their neighbours in the first phase only a year ago: first there were "&1
day e)iction notices+ delayed only when the )illagers raised their )oices and outside support
and media attention forced the .apanese to pressure the !yanmar go)ernment to delay the
order. But this de)elopment project went ahead+ and about 7% families were relocated to one1
roomed tiny houses jammed up against each other.
8hen we )isit these houses+ 9aw 8in tells us the relocation is far from what was promised: at
midday she hides with the children under the house from the heat+ and in the rainy season she
fears that they will be in a lake of stagnant water and sewage from their latrines. There is no
work and no land. The wells ha)e dirty water. The schools are far away. .apan1based :;O
!ekong 8atch has e,pressed its dismay o)er the conditions in the relocation site and ./0A<s
alleged inaction despite the letters repeatedly sent by the community members.
(ouses for the families
reocated from Thilawa. Photograph: Raphael Olschner
This one case+ a $+&%%(a land confiscation+ is a telling metaphor for the de)elopment model of
the !yanmar go)ernment. /t is courting foreign in)estment 2=%.>bn in $%"$1$%"#+ to =$."bn in
$%"#1"%&+ and a predicted =$.&bn in $%"&1$%"?3 to de)elop the country<s )ast natural resources+
and to spur manufacturing and agriculture. .obs and energy top the agenda+ and in a country
where fewer than #%@ of the people ha)e access to electricity and the a)erage monthly wage
was less than =?A in $%""+ there is no 6uestion that in)estment is needed.
A number of obser)ers ha)e described !yanmar<s economy o)er the past $B years as that of
military capitalism. 8ith the country now opening up to western companies< embrace+ the scale
of inward in)estment is surging. But ci)il society organisations are concerned at the one1
sidedness of the business deals being struck and the lack of legal protections for )ulnerable
communities. :ew laws being passed may only ser)e to encourage more in)estment while
facilitating land grabs C such as two land laws adopted in $%"$ 2that do not recognise
traditional land use practices and make it easier for the go)ernment to claim land as fallow and
sell or gi)e it away3 and the $%"# Doreign /n)estment Eaw. 0ourts ha)e been reported to
be notoriously corrupt.
Reported human rights abuses linked to national and international in)estors+ as well as the lack
of international standards in business and human rights+ ha)e led some ci)il society
organisations to plead with the go)ernment to slow inward in)estment until basic guarantees
are in place that in)estment will ser)e the prosperity and human rights of the majority. o far
there is little sign that this is being heeded. The only brake reported is the scale and speed of
some go)ernment bureaucracy.
The Business F (uman Rights Resource 0entre tracks the human rights impacts of businesses
in !yanmar and related initiati)es. O)er the years+ we ha)e sought "$% responses from local
and international companies in the face of allegations of human rights abuse in !yanmar.
Dewer than half 2&7@3 of the companies approached felt any need to respond to e,plain their
But there are positi)e signs. 8e ha)e obser)ed an increase in positi)e efforts to promote
business responsibility+ transparency and accountability both inside and outside the country.
The '+ while dropping its in)estment sanctions+ now re6uires companies with significant
in)estment to report on their human rights+ en)ironmental+ and other due diligence policies in
The Organisation for 4conomic 0o1operation and 9e)elopment has conducted a re)iew of
!yanmar<s in)estment policies+ the /nternational Eabour Organi-ation has worked closely with
the go)ernment to reform key labour laws+ and the /nstitute for (uman Rights and Business
and the 9anish /nstitute for (uman Rights founded the !yanmar 0entre for Responsible
Business in $%"$.
Eocal groups such as Paung Gu 2which means 5bridge5 in !yanmar3 ha)e been leading efforts
towards a )ision of e6uity and respect for rights for all+ especially the disad)antaged. They are
trying to bridge the gap between communities and business and policy decisions by building
the capacity of local groups and enhancing the ad)ocacy efforts of these local groups with
business and go)ernment.
0i)il society has taken full ad)antage of the recent political opening. Trade unions+ farmers<
unions+ women<s organisations and :;Os are organising around demands for human rights and
e6uitable de)elopment.
Remarkably+ after years of ad)ocacy by inside and outside groups+ the go)ernment is poised to
submit its application to the 4,tracti)e /ndustries Transparency /nitiati)e 24/T/3+ which should
lead to companies and go)ernment declaring the re)enues from the )ast natural resource of
!yanmar in oil+ gas+ gems and ores. Huite how this will happen in a country where the military
controls large swathes of the economy with opa6ue companies will be a pu--le for the 4/T/ to
sol)e. But the go)ernment has con)ened a multi1stakeholder group of ci)il society+ business
and go)ernment representati)es to lead the 4/T/ process.
The participation of ci)il society is a welcome shift in a country where perhaps the greatest
danger is that the )oice of the poor majority goes unheard by in)estors. Bringing transparency+
accountability+ and international human rights standards+ at least+ in business deals would
represent enormous progress for many communities like Thilawa that fear dispossession and
e)iction. These standards should pro)ide some guarantee against the most arbitrary abuse. /n
Thilawa+ as in the rest of the country+ now is the crucial time to do things right.
But will all of these efforts and numerous others help ' !ya (laing and 9aw 8inI /s it too
late for in)estors to meaningfully engage with the affected communities of the Thilawa projectI
4)en though the )illagers ha)e sent numerous letters trying to engage the in)estors to no a)ail+
and the !yanmar ;o)ernment refuses to pro)ide replacement land or ade6uate compensation+
there may be some hope. .ust last week+ a member of the .apanese Parliament who chairs the
committee o)erseeing .apanese o)erseas in)estment tra)eled to the communities and promised
to talk to ./0A about their claims.
Bobbie ta !aria is regional researcher for outh 4ast Asia and Phil Bloomer is e,ecuti)e
director of the Business and (uman Rights Resource 0entre
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