Tag Archives: Burma

Happy Holidays (and on to 2014)

First of all, a happy holiday season to all TN readers who are so geographically located and culturally inclined. I’ve been taking some badly-needed time off on the winter dark Åland Islands and am happy to observe many of the rest of you are getting some downtime too, at least based on the cratering hit numbers during the last week. So, if you are reading this, many thanks but now close your laptop please, and go play Legos with your kids (thats my plan).

Second of all, because after all this is a blog that follows international affairs, here’s to 2014 because 2013 felt like a pretty lousy year. I don’t really go in for conspiracy theories or notions about auspicious and inauspicious years, but it felt like the world overdid it a bit during 2011, slept through 2012 and had a debilitating global headache in 2013.

Most obviously, of course, was the scramble to find a suitably lousy epithet to re-dub the events-formerly-known-as-the-Arab-Spring. As Tunisia stagnated, Egypt reverted to form, Libya seethed, Yemen and Bahrain dropped off the media horizon, Iraq re-ignited and Syria dragged everyone into a pit of fear and loathing. The only arguable bright spot was an apparent opening in Iran, although it remains to see whether the “worst ever” US Congress will tank the modest progress made this year by piling on further sanctions in 2014.

In light of general developments in the Middle East, the commentariat was quick to proceed from predictions of Syria’s breakup to a vision of redrawn lines throughout the entire region based on the abandonment of the ‘Sykes-Picot’ agreement that carved up the region after the First World War. Last year saw the eruption of both old and relatively new fissures. Events in 2014 will be decisive in determining whether these can be bridged or will further harden into boundaries and borders, endangering tens of thousands of civilians that may ultimately find themselves on the wrong sides.

Similarly worrying (if less threatening to global security) is the failure of Myanmar to fully emerge from the miasma of ethnic tensions that erupted into the full light of day in 2013 – again two years after a spectacular opening in 2011, with the dissolution of the military junta, the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and a sprinkling of Clinton fairy dust.

And most recently, 2013 is set to close to the tune of yet another meltdown – in less than a week of bloody ethnic conflict – of Africa’s newest state. As in all the above cases, South Sudan was consecrated in a burst of optimism – in retrospect, perhaps naive – that followed from the surprisingly peaceful and well-organized referendum on independence from Sudan proper, again in 2011.

So let’s hold the auld lang syne this year and move on expeditiously to a better 2014.

That 1990s feeling, or how conflict-related internal displacement never really went away

by Rhodri C. Williams

As we enter a series of twenty year milestones from the meltdown of the former Yugoslavia, it has been a bit too easy for many of us who came of age back then to reflect on internal conflicts – the crucible in which the internal displacement advocacy movement was forged – as a phase we were all moving beyond. Until recently.

Until recently, it was possible to think of conflict displacement as a ‘first wave’, still problematic in the sense that frozen conflicts from the 1990s had entrenched patterns of protracted internal displacement, but no longer of primary concern. With some of the initial nationalist spasms of the post-Cold War thaw exhausted and a practiced UN-led peace-building and mediation response at the ready, it has been easy enough to be lulled by the overall statistics on declining numbers of active internal conflicts.

Moreover, in the wake of the 2004 tsunami and dawning awareness of the effects of climate change, an effective advocacy campaign by then-Rapporteur on Internal Displacement Walter Kälin shifted attention firmly to rights-based responses to a ‘second wave’ of internal displacement, that caused by natural disasters. As reflected in the UN Human Rights Council’s recent undertaking to address internal displacement , the focus on disasters has come to define much of the advocacy in the field, to some degree eclipsing conflict concerns. Meanwhile, a third wave looms as pressure on land and natural resources gives a sharp new edge to the issue of development-induced displacement.

Reading all this, one would be tempted to take some relief in the fact that each new impending crisis appears to be accompanied by changed conditions or improved responses that help to ameliorate the last. If only it were so tidy. While the peaking of sectarian violence in Iraq after 2006 was a wake-up call to the persistence of internal conflict and displacement, it had begun to look like an isolated incident again until recently. However, with Syria now presenting a full-blown ‘human catastrophe’ and Burma accused of  crimes against humanity in Rakhine state, conflict displacement is once again center stage in all its awful glory.

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The Economist on land and natural resources in Southeast Asia

by Rhodri C. Williams

The Economist has run a number of interesting pieces on housing, land and property (HLP) issues as well as natural resource disputes, in southeast Asia (readers be warned: the paywall arrangement now allows non-subscribers to view five articles for free every week, but I think the below pick just squeak in).

Beginning with Burma/Myanmar, a pair of articles from last week’s issue highlight the dark economic underbelly of the country’s current political reform process. A comment on the standoff over the opposition’s refusal to swear an oath to “safeguard” the current, military junta-installed constitution notes the risk that the political debate about the constitution may be a sideshow. Given that the reforms made so far have been enough to ease economic sanctions on Burma, and that the generals that have symbolically conceded political power continue to retain their economic interests, the Economist concludes that “all the boasts of political reform look less like a blueprint for democracy, and more like the generals’ pension plan.”

These concerns serve to reinforce earlier inferences (discussed here and here in TN) that a wave of dubious privatization that preceded the current round of political liberalization may have been intended to allow the military leaders of the country to cash in on their land and natural resource grabs. The extent of this rapaciousness is documented in a separate Economist article, which describes how the nearly feudal style of military occupation of the rebellious ethnic states in Myanmar has opened the door to both wholesale natural resource theft and drug trafficking:

On the back of its formal military role, the army has also built up a suffocating economic grip on the region. Across Myanmar, the national army has for years pursued a policy of “living off the land”. Battalions are obliged to become their own farmers and businessmen in order to feed themselves and pay their wages.

In my earlier comments on Burma (linked above), I raised the risk that liberalization could follow the same path as in Cambodia, where a neo-patrimonial regime has dangled the barest of fig leaves over its essentially predatory governance mode. The continuity of this tradition has been confirmed in this week’s Economist, which reports on the apparent killing by the Cambodian military of Chhut Vuthy, an activist against illegal logging who founded the Natural Resources Protection Group.

Remaining with Cambodia, it seems that what one does within one’s own borders is one thing, but that cross-border rapaciousness will not be tolerated. The Economist also reports this week that Cambodia has led fierce protests against a unilateral decision by Laos (cheered on by Thai construction interests) to begin construction of a massive dam on the Mekong River, despite a recommendation by a regional commission that further study on the downstream effects be undertaken.

Finally, HLP rights expert Daniel Fitzpatrick is quoted in an interesting report on East Timor. There, it seems the post-independence government succeeded to the ‘state land’ previously taken from smallholders by successive Portuguese and Indonesian occupiers, and is now facing a familiar dilemma. On one hand, justice requires some form of recognition of the claims of those previously dispossessed in the countryside. On the other hand, the lure of badly needed revenues from international concessions beckons.

UN Secretary General urged to address Cambodia evictions

by Rhodri C. Williams

In a press release today, COHRE appealed to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to use his current trip to Cambodia to seek an improvement in respect for housing rights. The PR focused in particular on the ongoing evictions from the Boeung Kak district of the capital Phnom Penh, which has been the subject of previous TN postings by both myself and Natalie Bugalski.

Sadly, it is a bit hard to picture the Secretary General spontaneously acceding to COHRE’s suggestion that he

meet with representatives of the Boeung Kak community during his visit to Cambodia this week, to “demonstrate the commitment of the UN to its core founding purpose of ‘promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms’ for all people everywhere.”

Indeed, it will be interesting to see if the SG will be so indelicate as to mention any of the rather alarming lurches Cambodia has made away from the extensive human rights obligations it undertook as part of the early 1990s peace process.

For some insights, I turned to Turtle Bay, where I was most immediately struck by China’s recent diplomatic successes in the UN, both in terms of obscuring the fact that its own weapons industry appears to be doing a roaring business in Sudan despite the embargo, and in the narrower area of defending states in its near abroad – in this case Burma – from human rights and war crimes scrutiny.

As I’ve noted in the past, Burma and Cambodia have a few things in common, ranging from their increasingly close economic and diplomatic ties with China to their poor human rights records. Although there has been a longstanding tendency on the part of development actors in Cambodia to dither a bit on human rights issues like forced evictions, one can’t help but wonder whether China’s recent bouts of vigorous UN diplomacy might not have a further chilling effect on what is already a fairly cooled down topic.

Followup on Myanmar

The NY Times ran an analytical piece today on Myanmar’s highly choreographed political – and more recently economic – opening. The Times’ both supports and problematizes my earlier prediction that liberalization under such terms could lead to rapid development that would neither be broad-based nor pro-poor, along the lines of Cambodia’s recent history.

On the negative side, historian Thant Myint-U is quoted as saying the democracy movement has effectively been sidelined, leaving the struggle for political and economic power to be fought out among factions of the elite connected with the current regime:

“Outside the country, the situation is perceived as a simple one where the army is trying to perpetuate its own rule,” he said. “Inside, everyone knows that intense competition will be under way within the elite, involving not only the military, but also retired army officers, senior bureaucrats and a rising business class.”

On the other hand, the nature of this competition is such that attempts to co-opt ordinary people may actually do them some long-term good. According to the report, such efforts include attempts to increase rice exports by supporting local farmers.

Military officers are campaigning for the elections as if their careers depended on it, announcing dozens of projects, including the plan for 24-hour electricity in Yangon, that they hope will win the affection of a population that in many parts of the country despises them.

One crucial change has taken place in the rice industry, which has the potential to raise the income of farmers, the backbone of the country who make up two-thirds of the population. Myanmar was once the world’s largest rice exporter, a title now held by neighboring Thailand.

“Give me 10 years and we’ll be back,” said Tin Maung Thann, an adviser to a newly created rice industry association and the president of Myanmar Egress, a nonprofit development group. “Of course we can become a big rice exporter.”

A series of programs sponsored by foreign governments in the Irrawaddy Delta has helped rice-growing villages rebound from the damage of a cyclone that killed at least 130,000 people two years ago. Farmers are being trained to use fertilizers, better rice seed and more modern farming techniques.

The government has empowered the rice industry association with management of the country’s rice stocks, a crucial change from the past when generals who feared rice shortages shut down exports with the stroke of a pen, overriding any contracts that rice traders had signed with their customers.

This approach stands in stark contrast to Cambodia where economic growth policies related to land have tended to involve concessions and sales, often to elite or foreign interests and almost always to the detriment of local smallholders. Given Myanmar’s history, allowing rice farmers to manage their own affairs may ultimately come to be seen as a more significant grant of power to the people than the ballots to be cast in the forthcoming questionable elections.

Is the Myanmar junta preparing to “eat the country” a la Cambodia?

by Rhodri C. Williams

The NY Times this morning has picked up an interesting story on a mysterious but extensive sale of state assets underway in Myanmar (Burma). The items on the block run the gamut from the national airline, mines, farmland and factories to health and education facilities. The Times notes that many of the deals seem to have been wrapped up with the existing regime-friendly oligarchs and the military and that the proceeds are likely to aid the current regime’s upcoming election campaign; splashing out can presumably help the incumbents win the 26% of seats they will need, on top of the 25% they have constitutionally reserved for themselves, in order to rule the country.

Nevertheless, the relinquishment of direct state control over many of the means of production is seen as a potentially positive step toward a more liberal variant of ‘managed democracy’:

… the privatizations could also have the effect of injecting some competition into what is an almost Soviet-style economic system, and some analysts here say they may herald a shift in direction. Reformers in the government, they say, may be hoping to follow a path similar to that of China or Vietnam, where the economies have been liberalized but the ruling party has remained firmly in charge and has tolerated little dissent.

Sadly, invoking even the unapologetically authoritarian regimes in China and Vietnam may be setting the bar a bit high. Another viable model in southeast Asia may be Cambodia, where the destruction of both traditional and modern institutions under the Khmer Rouge regime has been followed by an astonishing thirty year run in power by the regime – and the man, Prime Minister Hun Sen – installed by the Vietnamese after their 1979 incursion.

As described in my 2008 report for COHRE, as well as by many other observers, Hun Sen has been incredibly astute at drawing on Cambodia’s historical tradition of patronage in order to shore up political loyalties based on debt and revenue streams while donning and doffing political ideologies as necessary to maximize international support.

Notably in analyzing Burma, Hun Sen was early out in privatizing land, not only because he saw which way the wind was blowing in the late 1980s, but also because it allowed him to lock in this valuable asset for his supporters and exclude restitution claims by the 300,000 exiles in neighboring Thailand, with whom he could reasonably suspect he would soon be forced to come to some type of political settlement.

Since the peace agreement in 1991, the regime has continued to treat the country’s land resources as a slush fund, resulting in the widespread grant of dubious concessions, land-grabbing, speculation and ultimately flight to wretched urban informal settlements for many of the country’s hard-pressed rural majority. Land has remained such an issue that it has not infrequently been invoked as Cambodia’s number one human rights problem – an impressive achievement considering that the competition includes the muzzling of press freedoms, arbitrary arrests and detention and a tradition of discouraging the political opposition that began spectacularly in 1997 with Hun Sen’s party killing or exiling most of the high-ranking members of its main coalition partner.

The rate at which the Hun Sen regime has continued to “eat the country” (in a local phrase describing patronage behavior that will be eerily familiar to Kenya observers) appears to have accelerated recently in light of at least two developments. First, an increasing amount of Cambodia’s development aid is now coming from China. Where the West has traditionally encumbered their extensive support to the Cambodian budget with troublesome (if relatively easily circumvented) human rights demands, China has been more laissez faire in attaching conditions to its investments. Indeed, the relatively superficial impact of three decades of Western human rights evangelism was recently laid painfully bare when China used its influence to secure the refoulement of twenty ethnic Uighurs who had sought asylum in Cambodia. The UNHCR, which had previously viewed Cambodia as “a refugee model for southeast Asia“, sent personnel to the airport in vain to try to physically stop the deportation.

A second factor has been the global financial crisis and the accompanying trend toward the acquisition of land in developing countries by companies and governments of developed ones. Given the continued lack of rule of law and rent-seeking behavior of Cambodian officialdom, the Guardian’s spectacular assertion in April 2008 that foreign interests had been permitted to buy nearly half of the country’s territory was all too credible. Although Cambodia has subsequently moved toward more uniform regulation of foreign investment in land and property, concerns remain that this could be another instance of legislatively closing the barn doors after the horses have already bolted. Indeed, the recent discovery of oil reserves in Cambodia has highlighted the extent to which natural resources, like land, have been squandered for short term profit. Global Witness alleged in 2009 that

… rights to exploit oil and mineral resources have been allocated behind closed doors by a small number of powerbrokers surrounding the prime minister and other senior officials. The beneficiaries of many of these deals are members of the ruling elite or their family members. Meanwhile, millions of dollars paid by oil and mining companies to secure access to these resources appear to be missing from the national accounts.

Last week, Global Witness condemned a new wrinkle in Cambodia’s marriage of modern investment promotion and traditional predatory government behavior, namely the formation of  forty-two “official partnerships” between private businesses and Cambodian military units. This program, apparently backed by Prime Minister Hun Sen, is described as effectively turning the military into a private security force available to the highest bidders:

“Yet again, Cambodia’s donors are being mocked by the government’s blatant violation of basic governance and transparency standards. The existence of a strong patronage system between the military and private business is not new. But what is different and shocking is that it has become official government policy,” said [GW Campaigns Director Gavin] Hayman. “Donors should send a firm and decisive message that Cambodia’s military exists to protect the people, not the financial assets of a privileged few.”

The World Bank has repeatedly noted that economic growth in Cambodia, while consistent and high over the last years, has tended to increase inequality. In a report last year, the Bank identified inequality as one of three “challenging areas for further analysis” along with urban management and environmental stress:

Various indicators show that inequality has indeed increased significantly over the past four years: such rapid increase in inequality is not only politically and socially undesirable, it also tends to be inimical to sustained rapid growth.  (executive summary, xvi)

The Bank also noted in a report two years earlier that inequality was exacerbated by “increased concentration of land ownership, together with insecure land tenure” (executive summary, i). In a 2006 poverty assessment of Cambodia, the Bank noted that Cambodia’s inequality not only set it apart from other emerging economic powers in the region, but threatened the country’s potential to continue its post-Cold War growth spurt:

The experience of countries (e.g. Vietnam) which have created broad-based growth which includes the poor to a greater degree suggests also that such patterns of shared growth are more stable (and often higher) than growth patterns (such as that seen in Cambodia) which are based on a few enclave sectors and in which the benefits of growth accrue disproportionately to those who are already rich. (page 30)

Returning to Myanmar, one is left with the conclusion that the Vietnamese development path may would be highly desirable but may not be in the cards. For a regime that is hungry to remain in power, eager to consolidate conflict gains before engaging in political reconciliation, and now apparently willing to treat property it supposedly held in trust for the country as a means of securing short-term cash and political loyalty, the Cambodian development path appears a lot more likely.

And in a final touch of sad irony, the timing and circumstances of this belated economic ‘opening’ are such that it is likely to destroy one of the few potential assets accrued during the decades of dirigiste stagnation, namely preservation of a capital city in Asia that had remained beyond the reach of the wave of charmless high rise megalomania that had overtaken many of its peers. As reported by the Times:

In recent days, the country’s Privatization Commission produced a list of 176 assets in Yangon, the main city, to be auctioned off sometime over the next few weeks. The 18-page list, which was shown to prospective buyers, includes a wide-ranging roster of buildings in Yangon worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

The list, which covers only part of the privatization plan, features many former government offices, notably the lakeside office of the attorney general, the national archives, the auditor general’s headquarters, the archaeology department and the Ministry of Industry.

The buildings were abandoned when the capital was moved to the more remote location of Naypyidaw in 2005, and their sale would seem to ensure that the move was irreversible.

The businessman said it was likely that dozens of colonial-era buildings would be torn down. “I feel like I’m bleeding,” he said.

We can only hope that the decision to supplement bogus democratization with crony privatization does not leave Myanmar worse off than when it had neither.