Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, alongside Burma's foreign minister U Wunna Maung Lwin, proclaimed: "Today we say to America's businesses: invest in Burma." On April 1, 2012, Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese democratic heroine, was elected to a seat in the lower house of parliament. To many in the international community, this news signaled the belief that politics in Burma, also known as Myanmar, were finally moving towards democratic reform. In truth, the West is blindly celebrating the meager crumbs that Burma's elite has thrown to its democratic opposition, while their military heightens attacks against their own civilians. America is making a big mistake by calling for U.S. business investment without evidence of true reform from the Burmese government.
Secretary Clinton's exuberant claim is premature; Burma has a long way to go towards meaningful change. The Burmese government has made huge strides with the international community to undo its dictatorial reputation in order to ease western sanctions -- but their actual reforms have been minimal. The media heralded the landslide victory of Aung San Suu Kyi's democratic party, taking 43 of 45 available parliamentary seats in this year's election. However, this amounts to only 6 percent of the total representation -- 80 percent of seats remain occupied by the country's military-backed politicians.
While the West calls for joint business ventures in Burma, its military has increased its violent campaigns in border areas such as Kachin state. Recent reports reveal that approximately 45,000 Kachin civilians have been displaced to refugee and internally displaced people (IDP) camps, and that Burmese soldiers have killed unarmed children. Secretary Clinton said that "our goal and our commitment is to move as rapidly as we can to expand business and investment opportunities" in Burma. However, there is a difference between investing in a nation's path to development and operating a country as a commercial enterprise for the profit of a few. Burma's primary business assets involve natural resources and energy that depend on the exploitation of civilians living in ethnic states like Kachin, and are owned by the wealthiest of Burma's elite families.
The new U.S. rhetoric about Burma sounds eerily familiar to its actions in 'banana republic' countries like Guatemala and Honduras in the early 20th century. In the name of altruistic development, U.S. companies supported a kleptocracy of large-scale agriculture via the exploitation of farmers and indigenous workers -- profiting only the rich business and military elites of Latin America. Replace the talk of bananas with current foreign interest in Burma's rubies, jade, teak, and oil, and we inevitably find our government rushing to support little more than a Ruby Republic in Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, many political leaders have perceived the support of sanctions to be counter to investment for the people of Burma. This could not be further from the truth. Previous sanctions targeted the financial assets of the elite families of the former military government -- these are not everyday business leaders, but the cronies who profit immensely from the sale of natural resources to companies in China, Thailand, India, and Singapore. The future heirs of these families have appeared in photos brandishing semi-automatic weapons or boasting gaudy diamond and ruby studded jewelry. Meanwhile, the people that they exploit earn the equivalent of fifty cents per day, working in fields littered with forgotten landmines. The argument against investment has been supported by several American companies and investors -- including Boston Common Asset Management and Calvert Investments. In a letter to the Obama administration, they argue that not only will unchecked investment legitimize Burma's military campaigns against its own civilians, the country remains unsuitable for productive investments. Burma today is simply too volatile and lacks the rule of law and civil society to protect foreign assets and interests. There is absolutely no question that the international community must move towards investing in Burma -- but they must do so in a way that upholds the human rights of its people. If we choose to invest now, are we supporting the killing and extortion of millions of ethnic people in Burma's border areas? Who benefits and who loses when we build oil pipelines and invest in other industrial projects, which will result in the destruction of hundreds more villages? Are we truly investing in the people of Burma if we finance a government whose soldiers rape young girls as part of their military strategy? The recent actions of the U.S. government will allow these crimes against humanity to continue unabated. If we are to invest in Burma, we must invest in more than just the 1 percentof business interests and elite families. We must invest in local communities in rural regions, and their right to public health and education. To truly invest in Burma, American businesses must think critically about the consequences of their actions for the majority of Burmese civilians.
American businesses are capable of setting the standard for responsible investment in Burma for the rest of the world. Only then can companies use their influence to support fair and equitable political systems, to create jobs and stimulate growth, and to cultivate peace and stability in the region.
Otherwise, America and its companies will go down in history not as a supporter of freedom and democracy, but as the financiers of a new Ruby Republic in Burma.