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What Burma needs from Canada now

(Photo: AP)

By Matthew Gumley
August 12, 2016

And why we shouldn’t rush to open the trade floodgates

The historic general elections in Burma (also known as Myanmar) in 2015 resulted in the ousting of a nominally civilian government, supported by a power-hungry military that has held onto power for nearly 50 years. In a landslide victory, the National League for Democracy party (NLD), led by the iconic Aung San Suu Kyi, claimed an overwhelming majority in both houses of Burma’s parliament.

As a result of these significant democratic strides, it’s likely that the formerly reclusive nation will benefit from increased foreign investment and trade opportunities — including mutually lucrative relationships with Canada. These exciting new opportunities, however, should not replace support for further democratic and political reform.

Historically, democratic reform in Burma has resulted in significantly increased Canadian trade and investment. For instance, after the country elected a nominally civilian government in 2010, Canada removed economic sanctions, initiated plans for a trade commission in Burma and, in 2014, declared the country a “priority market” under Canada’s Global Market Action Plan.

In fact, between 2012 and 2014, bilateral trade between Canada and Burma grew from $4.8 million to $35.7 million. Though currently much lower, a Senate of Canada report expects Canadian direct investment in Burma to rise as a result of the 2015 elections.

Despite the success of the recent elections, Burma continues to struggle with severe human rights violations, a protracted and tumultuous peace process and a powerful army with a habit of flouting human rights. These issues must be considered before Canada expands its trade and investment strategy in Burma.

Aung San Suu Kyi recently drew criticism for stating that her government would no longer use the term “Rohingya,” the name for a long-persecuted ethnic group in Burma’s Arakan State. The use of the term Rohingya has drawn considerable controversy, with many in Burma choosing to identify the over one million-strong minority group simply as “Bengali.” The use of “Bengali” as an identifier has the double effect of limiting the Rohingya’s status to that of mere illegal immigrants — eliminating any claim of citizenship — while simultaneously eroding their true identity.

The Rohingya are not recognized under Burma’s 1982 Citizenship Law and as a result have been rendered effectively stateless within their own borders. The ethnic group has been subjected to continual persecution, often supported and exacerbated by the discriminatory and inflammatory language of the Burma government. Ethnic conflict in 2012, the resulting and continued displacement of nearly 140,000 Rohingya and the restriction of movement for the minority group led Human Rights Watch to condemn the Burma government as complicit in ethnic cleansing. Aung San Suu Kyi’s refusal to acknowledge their name does not bode well for the future of the Rohingya.

Further, lingering civil wars — particularly in Burma’s Kachin and northern Shan states — continue to result in extensive human rights violations and population displacement. As a result of the country’s long-running and bloody conflicts, Burma is now the eighth largest contributor of refugees in the world. In addition, Burma’s military continues to exacerbate conflict through intensified conflict against ethnic armed groups, worsened further by countless reports of the military’s involvement in the use of torture, sexual assault as a weapon and attacks on civilians.

The military, tragically, escapes responsibility for its actions by flexing its power in the country’s political sphere. In Burma, the military is constitutionally guaranteed 25 per cent of seats in both houses of parliament. With another constitutional provision demanding an above-75 per cent threshold for constitutional amendment, Burma’s army has a de facto veto over any decision passed through parliament. Any effort by parliamentarians to place greater civilian control — and thus oversight — over Burma’s army is therefore likely to die before it becomes law.

Burma’s immediate priorities should be to address the multitude of human rights concerns and, where possible, create benchmarks for the protection of human rights that are in line with international standards. Throughout this process, the role of the international community — including Canada — should be to continually hold the Burma government accountable for meaningful progress. By quickly expanding trade and investment, external actors like Canada would run the risk of sending a message that they’re comfortable with the current state of human rights in Burma.

Increasing trade and investment into Burma might also contribute to exploitation and further human rights abuses as a result of a weak rule-of-law climate and undeveloped labour standards. A 2015 report from the International Trade Union Confederation cites undeveloped collective bargaining standards, restricted union activity, barriers to the right to strike, the use of forced and child labour and low, unsustainable basic wages as factors vulnerable to exploitation by foreign investment and development projects.

Further, weak environmental protection has resulted in severe long-term damage in Burma, with the potential for further contamination. The Burma Environment Working Group claims that the construction of dams, unregulated resource extraction, large-scale deforestation and the illegal wildlife trade are all contributing to environmental destruction and are therefore an unsustainable source of development.

Land ownership is also a contentious issue in Burma. Investment in natural resource extraction has benefitted from ambiguous and limited land rights for local communities. For instance, the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Land Law allows the government to repossess land — including community-owned natural resources vital to a sustainable livelihood — that it deems “vacant.” In practice, Burma’s loose land laws benefit the investor, often at the expense of hereditary or long-term local ownership of land.

As the control of natural resources can provide a valuable strategic advantage, investment in certain regions of Burma can lead to rapid militarization. This in turn can quickly lead to increased political tensions for conflict-affected communities, potentiality exacerbating Burma’s already fragile peace process.

These facts should not be news to investors or the Canadian government; our record in Burma is already tarnished. In 2015, Amnesty International released the details of its investigation into the Monywa copper mine complex, a previous investment by the Canadian Ivanhoe Mines (known now as Turquoise Hill Resources). According to Amnesty, Ivanhoe Mines was complicit in the forcible eviction of thousands of local residents in proximity to the mining complex, none of whom received compensation. In addition, they failed to adequately address the health and environmental risks that came about as a result of mining operations and were found to have lied about selling stocks of copper to members of Burma’s security forces.

Canada is by no means ignoring Burma’s human rights situation and the need for further political reform. In his April visit to the country, Minister of Foreign Affairs Stéphane Dion announced $44 million to “create a stable and inclusive democratic system.” Further, Burma has become a “country of focus” for Canada’s international development strategy, which includes humanitarian assistance to support those affected by severe flooding in 2015. While these efforts certainly support Burma’s continued democratic transition, the treatment of the Rohingya, ongoing civil war and the power of the military suggest much more is needed.

Burma’s recent elections — however laudable — should not overshadow the fact that significant political reform is still required. As such, these events should not be seen as a trigger for significantly increasing Canadian trade and investment. For now, Canada’s biggest export to Burma should be continued support for a complete democratic transition.

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