In the shadow of conflicts in Egypt and Syria and in controversies over the latest US spying scandals, Burma is presenting an optimistic face to the world.
Burmese President Thein Sein sells himself as a benign leader of a flourishing democracy. Aung San Suu Kyi is feted globally and Thai newspapers are peppered with stories that a new, open Burma heralds a complete change in the fortunes of the Burmese people.
In June 2012, Foreign Minister Bob Carr announced that Australia would lift its remaining travel and financial sanctions against the Burmese military figures involved in past human rights abuses. In Washington on May 20 2013, President Obama encouraged the Burmese President to open his country to world trade. In June, the European Union readmitted Burma to its trade preference scheme. The UK’s International Development Secretary Justine Greening welcomed that news, saying, “We have been calling for the EU to recognise that Burma’s standards are improving”.
The Myanmar Investment Summit held in Hong Kong earlier this year announced it would provide an opportunity for “high value networking and deal making with some of Myanmar’s key business leaders and government officials”.
At first glance, the advertising for this summit reads like an unexceptional invitation to do business. On second reading it looks like an invitation to plunder the country’s natural resources — land, fish, forests, rubber, gas, oil and precious metals. The tourism industry is described as: “the fastest growing in Asia. The potential for overseas travel agencies to provide tourists a holiday in Myanmar is very lucrative indeed”.
Business leaders may lick their lips at the prospect of gathering Burma’s riches, but the new corporate arrivals may also be carpetbaggers — outsiders preoccupied with financial gain, irrespective of environmental protection, let alone individuals’ human rights.
To many Burmese people, the claims about a new Burma sound like a giant con. This is particularly true for the many persecuted ethnic minorities. In a recent report by Mae Sot-based journalist Phil Thornton, a former rice farmer, Nue Sweng Raw, reflects on the changes:
“We lost everything, we had to leave. The Burmese bombed our village. We took nothing except what we could carry. Now we’re told we can return but the military have taken our land. There’s nothing to return to.”
As Thornton writes, “There may be changes among the Burmese elites but for ordinary people there is no change. For years they’ve experienced abduction, torture, beatings and shootings. They are still suffering.”
Interviewed by Thornton in a camp just inside the Burmese side of the border, medical officer Zan Seng comments:
“These people need help but nothing much has changed. Look around you. The people suffer extreme diarrhoea, dysentery, malaria, serious respiratory problems, skin infections, eye infections, trauma and influenza. The government spends nothing on health. What you see is the real Burma for ethnic people.”
Kachana Thornton, the Director of the Burma Childrens’ Medical Fund, confirms that the acute health problems are not likely to change for a decade. There is an absence of medical services that ordinary citizens can afford. The Burmese government has just increased investment in health as a proportion of GDP from 3 per cent to 3.9 per cent, estimated to be $0.75 US per capita.
By contrast a Johns Hopkins University report, The Gathering Storm, estimates that 40 per cent of Myanmar’s national expenditure is spent on a standing army of 400,000.
Kachana admits that a loosening of controls on the Burmese side of the border has made it easier for people to travel to the border town of Mae Sot to obtain high standard medical help from the clinic run by Cynthia Maung, “But we can barely cope with the increased demand and neither can Dr Maung’s staff. It shows you how desperate people are,” she tells New Matilda.
In her Mae Tao clinic, Cynthia Maung explains the situation to New Matilda. “We are not only treating migrants and refugees, but people from cities and from the other side of Burma. In my 25 years here I have never seen the patient caseload decrease and it won’t until there’s years and years of stability and security.”
She pauses. “This clinic is not a success story but a story of failure, the failure of the Burma military regime to care for its people.”
Corporate leaders may not notice human rights issues such as poor medical services, child labour, human trafficking and indifference to workers’ rights, but they can’t be blind to the violence meted out to Burma’s Rohingya residents.
An April 2013 Human Rights Watch report described the role of the Burmese government and local authorities in the forcible displacement of more than 125,000 Rohingya. The press release for that report summed it up:, “Government authorities destroyed mosques, conducted violent mass arrests and blocked aid to displaced Muslims. A Rohingya survivor explained, ‘The Arakenese beat and killed us very easily. The security did not protect us from them.’”
Back in Bangkok, a migrant from Rangoon tells New Matilda, “They’ve conjured a make believe constitution to escape the eyes of the ICC (International Criminal Court). Within the same constitution they’ve made it ok to expel the Rohingya people.”
Development is the formula for the alleged new Burma, but to an elderly Karen refugee, Naw Ma Haw, “development” has a bitter sound. She says, “I have no money, no work, no fields. I miss my land. They took my cattle. I have nothing to sell and nothing to buy. They burned what little we had.”
Burma’s hundreds of thousands of refugees are warning us not to be deceived. The carpet baggers may make impressive profits but their activities will not improve the quality of life most of the country's citizens.