A taste of what’s ahead?

The other day, I watched a fascinating documentary, No place like home, on Al Jazeera’s 101 East about Cambodia’s growing pains, as development speeds up, often at the expense of the people.

Odds are, this is simply a taste of what Burma will face as investment in the country accelerates. News of land confiscation by huge conglomerates (Yuzana, Zaykabar, just to name a few) are (and have been) a dime a dozen for a long time. In fact, Zaykabar’s CEO, Khin Shwe, is sitting as a member of parliament.

Burma’s huge conglomerates remind me of the chaebols in South Korea (like Samsung and LG), because they curried privileges in the formative years to consolidate power and influence. Except in South Korea’s case, chaebols focused on intense manufacturing, whereas Burma’s ‘crony companies’ are focused on extractive industries (gas and gems). But all the same, they’re extending their reach to become jacks of all trades. For instance, 7-Eleven is partnering with Zaykabar to open stores throughout Burma.

Burma can learn from the mistakes of its peers in Southeast Asia, but it will be an uphill battle given the circumstances and conditions on the ground.

Burma simply doesn’t have the capacity or transparency to resolve many of these development issues. The government is focused on PR and cosmetic changes instead of addressing the causes. The national government has little power at the local level, meaning whatever lofty ideas it iterates to press and at parliament never see light. Any laws that attempt to address land usage and land ownership will fail because courts aren’t adequately buffered from influence that weakens their legitimacy. And accountability is just a buzzword.

It’s a sad and vicious cycle that I predict will pan out in more painful ways than one, as Burma gears up for the 2015 election.

A plan of the proposed Hanthawaddy Intl. Airport

In similar news, government officials announced plans to resurrect a project to construct an international airport midway between Pegu (Bago) and Rangoon, in anticipation of growing tourist numbers:

The Hanthawaddy International Airport project, located on a 9000-acre (3642-hectare) site about 77 kilometres (48 miles) north of Yangon near Bago, was first slated for development in the early 1990s. Work began in March 1994 but ceased in October 2003.

All this makes me question the government’s priorities. With an education system in shambles, mass underemployment, continued ethnic conflicts, and deep poverty, the government seems to be preparing itself for a cosmetic change to welcome tourist pockets, well-lined with cash.

This piece, comparing Burma’s and China’s approach to foreign investment, does give me the impression that some policymakers are trying to take a slow growth approach, to allow the country’s civilian institutions to mature before foreign investment picks up pace:

…the current steps show an extreme level of caution. This can be seen in two ways. First, unlike the current situation in China, foreign invested enterprises are treated dramatically differently than domestic enterprises. For example, a foreign invested enterprise cannot lease a building for a period greater than one year. For longer periods, foreign invested enterprises must rent land and build the related buildings at their own expense. The resulting lease is limited to an overall term of 60 years, at which time the building and land revert back to the government. Second, all foreign investment projects must be approved by the central government. Local governments are not permitted to grant such approvals. Many business terms such as the price of leased land must be approved by the central government, preventing private business people from negotiating their own terms.

However, it seems like a leap to say that this is to benefit the country’s people:

The central theme is that the government desires to increase GDP and to allow the benefits of such increase to accrue to the people rather than to government officials. Though FDI will be a part of such GDP growth, the government is still concerned about preventing foreign investors from obtaining an unfair advantage over the local people. For this reason, the government still insists on restrictive terms for foreign investment and still insists on remaining actively involved in investment decisions to “protect” the people and the assets of the country.

Protecting which subset of people? The poor masses or a select elite of cronies to allow them to secure a place in the country’s new order since they cannot compete with international firms?


Yellow journalism: all hype and no substance

Kenji Nagai shot point blank

Japanese journalist Kenji Nagai lying dead on a street in Rangoon.

A reader has just e-mailed me the following post from LAist, a blog specializing on Los Angeles, my hometown. The post “U.S. Media Blames Santa Monica College Professor for Burma Web Blackout,” describes the unfair sensationalizing of an innocent professor at a local community college who dutifully uploaded a video of the Japanese journalist Kenji Nagai killed by Burmese troops. The newswires, like Reuters (with its headline “L.A. professor triggers Myanmar Web shutdown”), directly connect the professor’s decision to upload the video to CNN to the shutdown of internet inside Burma. It states:

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Yesterday was my mother’s birthday. When I called her to tell her “Happy Birthday,” she had totally forgotten about her birthday. She was frantic and had been following news in Burma online at work. My mother has many relatives and friends in Rangoon, especially in Lanmadaw, where she was raised. She couldn’t reach them through phone or e-mail, but we all hope that everyone is okay. My mother is not a passive woman. She was partly angry that the protesters didn’t use force to combat force, angry at the cat-and-mouse game the protesters were playing with the armed policemen and soldiers. She doesn’t believe that passive and nonviolent protest would ever change Burma, even though nonviolence is one of the key selling points of the pro-democracy movement in Burma.

There has been a flurry of news in recent days from Burma. Countless heartbreaking pictures. Rubber sandals drenched in blood, Buddhist monasteries in ruin, and dead corpses lying on the street. Amid the heavy rain Rangoon has been experiencing are horrific scenes. Burma/Myanmar Genocide has a post with a greusome picture of what appears to be a young boy’s brain.

The junta fully knows that it could be prosecuted for its heinous actions by the UN, but probably it also knows that the UN has been too toothless in changing the situation in Burma. There are reports of Burmese army battalions deserting their superiors and protesting along with the people. There are reports of rumors that Maung Aye (No. 2 in the State Peace and Development Council) will be meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi. There are reports that Maung Aye and Than Shwe disagree on whether to use force against protesters.

Internet was disconnected in Burma at 3 p.m. local time. Citizen journalists have been key in releasing new updates, photos and video to the rest of the world and within Burma.

I feel so guilty, not being able to update as frequently as I would like to. College life is hectic, moving from class to class, attending seminars and finding your way around. I’m glad that most of my roommates now know about Burma and the current situation, and that some are actually interested. For extraordinary photos of the protests in English-language blogs, visit these two: mongkol.wordpress.com and moeyyo.com/MM/.

The clampdown in Burma

I have just returned to my dorm, after going on a bus to a medical appointment. Inside the bus, there was a news clip of the clampdown on protesters in Burma. All I could hear on the broadcast were ordinary citizens yelling ‘Myitta po gya ba’–‘send your love’–to the protesters.

I am speechless. What has been romantically called the “Saffron Revolution” is a far cry from the news I am reading right now. What began as a series of nonviolent marches, civilians and monks alike, is fast becoming violent. Just yesterday, over 150,000 protesters marched in Rangoon, with many calling for United Nations intervention, for fear of a violent crackdown. The UN News Center states this:

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced today he is sending his Special Envoy dealing with Myanmar to the region in response to the deteriorating situation in the Asian nation, and once again urged authorities there to respond to the ongoing peaceful protests with utmost restraint.

What took so long to act? Rumors of a violent crackdown have been making headlines for days. Burma’s ruling military does not listen to the words of its fellow countrymen. And violence is now almost synonymous with the State Peace and Development Council. There have been historical precedents. It was my wishful thinking, that Burma now had to heed the advice of fellow countries like China, that led me to believe there would be no violent ending.

Several monks have already been killed. Godspeed to them. As a Buddhist, as a Burmese, as a human, there is nothing more discomforting in the world than knowing that mankind may have been able to prevent this….

Continuing Rangoon protests

Rangoon protests thus far
A compiled map of general locations (sorry about the poor quality of the map; I scanned a small map, which shows a general picture of the Rangoon townships rather than all of the streets) where protests in Rangoon have occurred since the increase of gas prices in Burma.

To my amazement, protests calling for an immediate decrease in the prices of gas in Burma have continued, for the second week. There have been incidents throughout Burma, in particular Rangoon, where a junta-funded paramilitary group that calls itself “Swan Arr Shin” (Masters of Force) and Union Solidarity and Development Association members have been dispatched to quell protests and in many instances, use brute force to do so.

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U.S. sanctions renewal, Burma’s first decade in ASEAN and UN intervention

Financial Times “Burma junta fuels poverty, claims UN” headline; 2007-07-12

Headline from the Financial Times (July 12, 2007) reporting about a leaked UN report on Burma.

How interesting. Several important developments regarding Burma today: (1) Burma celebrates its 10th anniversary in ASEAN, (2) The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill to renew sanctions against Burma, and (3) UN Envoy to Burma, Gambari has begun a trip across Europe to democratize Burma once again.

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UC Berkeley report on Burma’s crises

UC Berkeley report on Burma’s human rights crisis

I became aware of a UC Berkeley Human Rights Center report on Burma through Burmanet and found the report, titled “The Gathering Storm” (The Johns Hopkins report is here).

I wrote quite a lot, extracting details from the report, but for some reason, when I saved the draft on WordPress, everything I had written was deleted. So I will leave it up to those interested to read the report for themselves.

For those who want a summary of the report, a good one can be found here, via Burmanet.