By Mark Farmaner, Director, Burma Campaign UK
The annual Myanmar trade and investment conference took place in London on Monday 18th March.
It is a strange event. British government officials, Burmese government officials, companies from Burma and British companies in Burma all get together and try to avoid talking about one of the main factors influencing investment in Burma, human rights.
The ‘Rakhine Situation’ was referred to by a couple of speakers, but not beyond those two words. Credit is due to the Foreign Office official who introduced the conference, who at least used the word Rohingya, and talked about the need for safe return.
The one speaker who did directly address the ‘Rakhine Situation’ in detail was U Thaung Tun, Union Minister for Investment and Foreign Economic Relations. “Let me take the bull by the horns” he said, referring to the elephant in the room. He then went on to lie to the audience of potential investors. He said the government was committed to implementing all the recommendations of the Rakhine Commission, even though they are not doing so. Referring to the events of August 2017 as attacks on police outposts resulting in ‘tensions’, he tried to frame what a year-long United Nations investigation concluded was genocide as being a problem of underdevelopment and lack of jobs.
The only official conference nod to human rights and ethical investment concerns was the presence on one panel of Vicky Bowman, head of the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business. The centre mostly works privately advising companies who have or are considering investing in Burma. This was a presentation well inside the comfort zone of companies. Vicky Bowman talked about risks such as avoiding pitfalls like land rights issues, rather than focussing on human rights. She was the only speaker who referred to the United Nations Fact Finding Mission report, but only in the context of pointing out that they said they did not support general trade sanctions. No mention was made of the fact that they described doing business with the military as indefensible.
Those attending the conference were given free copies of the Oxford Business Group’s new annual report on Burma, the production of which was paid for in part by a full page advert by Myanmar Brewery, part-owned by the military.
Another panel was chaired by someone from the CDC, a development finance institution owned by the UK government. The CDC used British aid money to invest in a company which now works for the Burmese military. So the Burmese military has benefited from British aid and investment. No mention of these kinds of problems was made by conference speakers.
Human rights are a major factor influencing investment in the country, but conferences like this which avoid and skirt around the issue for fear of putting investors off are doing a disservice to human rights, to investors, and to the people of Burma who desperately need jobs and economic development.
The way to promote investment is not to pretend that human rights problems don’t exist, or even, as the British government did for many years, proactively downplay human rights problems. By doing so you don’t solve the problem.
Unless potential new investors at the conference were particularly gullible, they would have left the conference with a feeling of not having got the full picture. That’s because they didn’t. Potential investors were being pitched investment in Burma, but the sales pitch left out vital information. That creates uncertainty, which deters investment.
To acknowledge and discuss the great number of human rights concerns in Burma, and to go into more detail about the risks, would leave potential investors more informed and therefore more confident in how to invest. They need information about the need to avoid projects linked to human rights violations and the sectors where this is high risk. They need to know about the dangers of going into business with the military, and what potential sanctions could be imposed in the future by the international community.
It is relevant to their investment that the government has more than 100 political prisoners in jail, represses free media and refuses to give the Rohingya their right to citizenship. Yes, they can get this information elsewhere outside the conference, but that applies to every other issue which was discussed at the conference. Ignoring these issues at the conference is a flawed approach.
Burmese government officials need to be reminded at every opportunity that their government’s human rights record is a hindrance to the trade and investment they seek. They might not like it, but they have to face it, and without this kind of pressure, the situation won’t improve.
While there are now some calls for broader trade sanctions, in general many calls for sanctions and international action are focusing on the military, and on specific projects and industries where there are concerns linked to conflict, environmental destruction and human rights violations.
It is perfectly possible for investors to enter Burma taking these factors into account, with little or no reputational risk. If they are not well informed in this way, the default is ‘why take the risk’? Burma Campaign UK has spoken with big multinational companies who have a broad negative impression and decided to avoid risk by not going into the country. The current approach to promoting investment has left them uninformed.
Being upfront about potential problems could also help prevent companies making mistakes.
It should not be assumed that companies go into Burma being well informed about the country or who they are doing business with. Since Burma Campaign UK revived the ‘Dirty List’ of international companies linked to the military or human rights violations, we have come across companies with a stunning lack of knowledge about the country in which they operate and who their business partners are. They are making mistakes which link them to a genocidal military, conflict and human rights violations. Some companies don’t care either way, but some companies have been genuinely surprised when we have contacted them about their operations and who their business partners and clients are.
The most impressive panel of the day was with U Bo Bo Nge, Deputy Governor of the Central Bank, U Sett Aung, Deputy Minister of Planning and Finance, and U Min Ye Paing Hein, National Economic Coordinating Committee Member. They had so much passion and commitment to driving forward economic reform to enable economic development. They have driven through significant change. I cannot imagine the kind of internal battles they must have fought against those within government who would have tried to resist these changes. They would have been up against inertia, incompetence, corruption and vested interests, but against the odds, they are making things happen.
Their work, however, is being undermined by their political masters in government, and by the military, both of which do not respect human rights.
For those outside ethnic states bearing brunt of military oppression, jobs are one of their top demands. Economic development is essential, but it isn’t talking about human rights problems which undermines economic development, it is failing to tackle human rights problems which undermines economic development.
Those involved in the organisation of the conference, the Department for International Trade, UK-ASEAN Business Council, Oxford Business Group, and others, need to stop ignoring the elephant in the room.