By Francis Wade
The world is viewing Burma and its myriad domestic crises with increased despondency, according to a ranking of 200 countries based on international perceptions of their “brand” as depicted by media.
Since the East West Nation Brand Perception Index was first published in 2008, Burma has steadfastly remained in the bottom fifth, and in the second quarter of this year dropped to 176, two places below that of North Korea.
The company behind the somewhat unorthodox index says it is compiled by “analysing millions of mentions of countries in hundreds of thousands of news articles, every [yearly] quarter” and defining whether they are positive or negative. It says it makes sure to factor in the “overall quality of the media and the prominence of the country”.
Burma fell to its lowest position of 184 in the first and third quarters of 2009, the latter period coming shortly after the junta extended opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest.
Picking up again in 2010, however, it took its highest place of 165 in the third quarter, when talk of the pending November elections and Suu Kyi’s release began to catch international media attention. But the fanfare surrounding both events was short-lived, and it fell over two consecutive quarters of 2011, despite efforts by the government to shore up its cracked facade and project an image of reform.
Somewhat surprisingly however, Malaysia topped the table for the second quarter of 2011, although its score of 91 against second-place Canada’s 76 would have been calculated prior to the ugly July crackdown on protestors in Kuala Lumpur.
At the bottom of the table for January to April this year was Libya, whose position was taken by Syria for the second quarter – both countries have seen massive popular protests this year brutally suppressed by leaders.
The concept of “nation branding” is an official government policy of many developed countries, including the US, France and the UK – where the government has set up a Public Diplomacy Board tasked with improving the country’s image abroad – as well as China and South Korea. Colombia is also known to be embarking on various initiatives aimed at improving its international profile.
Except for questionable efforts in state-run media however, Burma appears to have so far shunned the practice.
Experts say the main purpose of nation branding is to project an image of a strong environment for foreign investment, something Burma is struggling to do as conflict in the border regions significantly jeopardises infrastructural and energy projects financed by China, Thailand and other countries in the neighbourhood.
A statement released by the Washington DC-based EarthRights International warned that profits made by foreign companies working in Burma could in fact be outweighed by the material and reputational risks.
That notion rang true for Thai engineering giant Ital-Thai, which is behind the Tavoy deep-sea port project in southern Burma, last week when 50 of its workers were forced to flee a construction side close to the Burmese border after their camp was hit by artillery fire.
Chinese workers in Kachin state have also experienced several close shaves after being trapped in a hydropower site in June while fighting erupted around them.