On Wednesday, President Obama’s administration announced that it would be lifting US sanctions on investment and financial activity in Burma, specifically Burma’s booming energy sector: a decision that has raised urgent concerns for many human rights groups and activists. The decision, which is in stark opposition to Aung San Suu Kyi’s objections, holds inevitable consequences for the people of Burma who are still struggling for democracy and freedom from oppression, despite promises of reform from the government.
Lifting the investment ban without any restrictions or safeguards opens the door for a flood of human rights abuses and stands to undercut any change or real reform in Burma. While companies will be held to reporting requirements (companies will have to inform the US government of any new deals within 60 days), these requirements will do little to nothing towards ensuring the safety and protection of Burmese civilians, villagers or farmers. The reporting requirements do not guarantee any sense of accountability by companies. There are no repercussions or consequences for companies whose investments are linked to land abuses or human rights violations, making these requirements more superficial protocol than an actual safeguard. Furthermore, the absence of any legitimate safeguards or restrictions increases the possibility of businesses fueling and adding to the innumerable human rights abuses still occurring in Burma on a daily basis.
The lack of safeguards is especially troubling in the case of companies eager to work with Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE). MOGE, a state-owned company that has funded the military junta for decades, lacks any transparency in their dealings and fails to meet international standards for the responsible management of public funds. The Burmese government has made it a requirement for all foreign investors to take part in a joint venture with state owned companies. In effect, absolutely all US investment in Burma will be in cooperation with and will support the military junta. Therefore, US investments in Burma and, specifically with MOGE, only stand to fuel corruption and offer lucrative benefits to those who have been responsible for human rights abuses and obstructing reform, while worsening the human rights situation.
The human rights abuses and violations in Burma are still ongoing, despite whatever promises the Burmese government may have made to the international community. The lifting of the investment ban will inevitably exacerbate the already terrible conditions the Burmese people are facing. As new projects are put into development, more and more unlawful land confiscation cases will arise, leaving villagers and farmers uncompensated and without land to call home. Currently, without US investment, land confiscation cases are rampant across the nation, with 63% of farming families in the Ta’ang region reporting loss of land to the military junta and their cronies. New foreign investment and more projects will undoubtedly raise the number of land confiscation cases perpetrated against farmers and villagers in Burma. Furthermore, pumping US money into state institutions and corporations that are responsible for some of the greatest atrocities against humanity will inevitably lead to horrible consequences for both the people of Burma and for a country that prides itself on protecting and upholding freedom for all people.
While Burma stands poised to make “positive change” for the future, the lifting of the US investment ban has the potential to undo any reform achieved thus far. Instead of caving into corporate pressure, the US government needs to first and foremost protect and demand human rights for the Burmese people. Until the Burmese government has proven that it’s taking real steps towards reform, there should be no US economic involvement in Burma.