Western hunger for Myanmar’s ‘cleansed’ lands

Recent reforms in Myanmar don’t address the country’s brutal wars against ethnic minorities.

Clinton warned Myanmar to be wary of donors whose main interest is resource extraction [GALLO/GETTY]

When a team of health professionals reached the makeshift camps along the China-Myanmar border in September to meet with refugees displaced by fighting in Kachin State, they encountered a young boy whose tale symptomises how debased the wars in Myanmar’s border regions have become.

The 15-year-old told staff from Physicians for Human Rights how he had been forced to walk in front of a Burmese army patrol, ensuring that he and not they took the full blast from any landmine hidden along the path.

“They asked me where I was from and they asked me if I was in school. I told them yes I was in 7th standard. And then they said nothing but made me show them the way. If I did not show them the way I was afraid of getting shot. When I finally got home I didn’t want to eat because I was so afraid. I felt sick.”

 Clinton on historic visit to Myanmar

He is among more than 40,000 civilians who have been forced to flee their homes since fighting flared in June. Accounts from Kachin State suggest the intensity of fighting there and the level of brutality against civilians is on a scale not seen since a raft of ceasefire deals were signed between the Burmese government and ethnic armies in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

A subsequent Physicians for Human Rights report collects eye-witness testimonies of Burmese troops “firing indiscriminately into villages”, while the Kachin Women’s Association of Thailand has documented nearly 40 cases of rape by Burmese troops of ethnic women, including teenagers and the elderly, often by more than one soldier.
While shedding a crucial light on the human cost of these wars, what many of the local reports fail to acknowledge is their modern-day catalyst: Myanmar’s rulers, implicitly encouraged by foreign investors, are pushing to secure these resource-rich areas for exploitation and as vital trade corridors to neighbouring China, India and Thailand. In a departure from the first wave of rebellions in 1948 that demanded independence for ethnic minorities along the country’s eastern frontier, a business dynamic is increasingly at play here, one that has evolved in tandem with Myanmar’s rise as a prized geostrategic asset for Southeast Asian nations and beyond.

Hillary visits Myanmar
Understanding that dynamic has never been more critical than now, shortly after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Myanmar and amid a sense that the west’s less-than-watertight blockade on companies entering the country is coming to an end. The story of the teenage minesweeper is one of a plethora that illuminate just how Myanmar is readying itself for business, and offer a sobering counterweight to President Obama’s optimism that the “flickers of progress” in Myanmar are enough to pre-empt warmer relations.

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Evidence of the ties that bind civil war to business abounds in these peripheral states, where egregious acts have long been committed by low-ranking soldiers of the Burmese military. Trained to cast the ethnic armies and their civilian untermensch as traitorous, the majority of these troops are probably unaware of what now brings them to the frontline; that the war has moved on from a bid to “unify” the disparate ethnic groups under one Myanmar umbrella, as successive juntas branded their military campaigns, to one that will see the countryside instead carved up and sold to foreign corporations.

National Geographic adeptly connected the dots between conflict and business in a recent map that showed the correlation between zones of displacement and large-scale energy projects, with many of the major army offensives over the past decade occurring in areas that host valuable energy resources, particularly the hydropower coveted by China. Anyone with a passing interest could see at a glance what policymakers appear to be ignoring.

That pattern continued this year when Burmese troops attacked Kachin Independence Army positions near the Taping Dam site in the country’s northernmost state, before fighting spread to other hydropower projects. Beijing officials had quietly warned their Burmese counterparts before the assault to “maintain stability” around China’s economic interests in the country, regardless of the 40,000-plus people cleared out of the way to ensure this. Similar upheavals occurred in March in Shan state, when Burmese battalions drove out rebels from the town of Hsipaw, through which the lucrative trans-Myanmar oil and gas pipelines will pass en route to a refinery in China.
It is on this cleared and “cleansed” land that a volley of western investment may soon land. While US and EU officials have stood strong in the face of questioning over the future of sanctions on Myanmar, the feeling now is that hands are working to prize the country open, and already officials from several major multinationals are assessing the climate there: The regional director for Caterpillar met with government officials in Naypyidaw in August to discuss facilitating gas exploration, while Commerzbank AG was among a delegation of German companies sniffing out opportunities in Rangoon last week.

Shell is also rumoured to be eyeing a stake in an offshore gas block south of Myanmar owned by Thailand’s PTTE. Contrary to complaints from Naypyidaw that sanctions have crippled the economy, official data shows that a foreign investment boom is underway in Myanmar, with China largely accounting for a rise in FDI pledges from $300m in 2009/10 to $20bn last year.

Several analysts have speculated that by 2013, sanctions could be a receding memory. In a Reuters vox pop on Myanmar’s investment future, staff from the oil supermajors – Chevron, Total and Exxon Mobil – variously responded that recent signs were “positive”. Frances Zwenig, from the US-ASEAN Business Council, which represents the likes of Chevron and ExxonMobil, and which will be key to engineering public opinion on future western investment in Myanmar, told Bloomberg last week that times have changed from the days when companies were stigmatised for working there: “What we’re looking at now is a new world where that might not be the case”.

‘A better friend than China’

Ending the blockade would have the dual effect of satisfying the business lobbyists who have long hungered for Myanmar’s vast energy reserves, but also western politicians and strategists bent on outmuscling China as they claw their way back into the region.

Leading that charge is the US, which has busily pitched itself to the Burmese in recent months as a better friend than China. Clinton even used a speech in Seoul in November to warn developing countries to be “wary of donors who are more interested in extracting your resources than in building your capacity”. Few needed the explicit reference to China to understand the US imperative of drawing Asia-Pacific states away from the clutches of Beijing, and into their own.

[N]ew investment in military-ruled Myanmar’s oil and gas sector could actually cost a company more than to stay away.

– EarthRights International

Notwithstanding the serious moral ramifications for companies investing there (were that a concern of big business), these conflicts will smoulder well into the future and thus make the investment climate risky.

The Washington DC-based EarthRights International released a statement in November 2009, long before Kachin State erupted in violence, warning energy multinationals that “[n]ew investment in military-ruled Myanmar’s oil and gas sector could actually cost a company more than to stay away from the country”, given the “unreasonably high reputation and material risks” of operating in conflict zones in the country. Moreover, with the billions of dollars generated by these ventures that is siphoned out of public spending coffers and into offshore accounts owned by the military, and which no amount of economic “reform” will put a stop to, the likelihood of directly financing repression is high.

While pro-investment lobbyists would argue that 2009 is different than now, the slew of reforms enacted by the nominally civilian government since it took office in March have largely been focussed on generating limited space for the political opposition, and do not adequately address violence against ethnic minorities. If, indeed, the perennial effort to pacify the millions living in Myanmar’s hallowed borderlands is now driven by business interests, then the push underway to make Myanmar a market-oriented nation could well see the conflict ratcheted up, as this year has shown.

There is an irony, then, to the praise Clinton and others have heaped upon the reformists in Naypyidaw and their efforts to open the country up. These wars are intrinsic to the “new” Myanmar being encouraged by the international community, which berates the lack of individual freedoms and persecution of ethnic groups in the same breath that it calls for further progress in the political and economic spheres, regardless of the grisly shape this “reform” is taking.

The men and women who design policy towards Myanmar, and whose workloads are soon to soar, do so largely ignorant of the fact that the nascent transformation of this hermetic, pariah state into the new darling of international business carries a tremendous human cost.

Francis Wade is a journalist with the Democratic Voice of Burma, and has written this article from a personal capacity.

You can follow Francis Wade on Twitter @Francis_Wade

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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