By Francis Wade
Burma risks being exploited by foreign investors keen to plant an early stake in the country as it transitions away from military rule, the head of the regional ASEAN bloc has warned prior to a visit there next week.
Surin Pitsuwan, who is nearing the end of his tenure as secretary general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, will travel to Burma on 20 February. There he will assess the quality of change in the country, which is due to take the ASEAN chair in 2014.
But in an interview with the Myanmar Times, he said that unless properly managed, a looming rush for Burma’s riches by overseas companies risks bringing “more inequality and more disruption”.
“I’m worried about all these people who are already gathering in Bangkok and Singapore and who are bent on exploiting Myanmar’s [Burma’s] resources and opportunities,” he told the paper.
“We have to ensure that there is a human face to the management of the country’s resources and opportunities. The entrepreneurial spirit must not overshadow the need for schools, hospitals, utilities, clean water and so on.”
Burma has vast natural energy capabilities, including gas and hydropower, but scant legal mechanisms to monitor or avoid any harm to the local environment and communities.
Many focal points for energy investment are in the border regions, which have bountiful hydropower potential but which are home to ethnic minority populations that for long have been denied the profits from these projects. Moreover, thousands have been displaced to make way for large-scale dam developments and to clear routes for oil and gas pipelines.
Kraisak Choonhavan, vice president of the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus (AIPMC), said that competition for these resources would increase as Burma enacts various economic reforms aimed at making it a safer and less controversial investment environment.
He warned however that there is “great concern” for ethnic groups, and huge tasks ahead to prevent Burma from the threat of being “swallowed up by global capitalism”. He pointed to Nigeria as an example of how a wealth of energy can be disastrous for the local population.
“Poverty there is mind boggling. [In Nigeria] you have what we call a weak government, and I don’t want to see Burma become like that. It’s all about whether it [the government] is socially and environmentally conscious – that is how long-term investment will benefit the country.”
Burma’s chairing of ASEAN will come a year before the 2015 target for full economic integration of the bloc, but analysts have expressed concern that allowing in a country whose own economic and governance record has been so tainted by decades of military rule will be an over-ambitious challenge.
Others say however that the prospect of chairing the bloc could spur the reform process, given the humiliation for Burma if by 2014 it still holds hundreds of political prisoners and abuses by the military against civilians continue.