Tag Archives: Economist

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.

Somebody pinch me

Is this a conditional endorsement of the justiciability of social and economic rights by the Economist that I see before me?

With me or against us? The Economist mourns the passing of the rugged individual right

by Rhodri C. Williams

A common problem with minority rights is that their necessity is not always self-evident for the people in the majority, who, as we all know, get to call most of the shots in a democracy. This is most problematic in situations where minorities find themselves inconveniently present in countries that have staked a good deal of their credibility on not having minorities, such as newly consolidated and politically fragile post-colonial states or France. However, it may also raise issues when well-intentioned outsiders turn up and start loudly wondering what all the fuss is about.

Before I cast any aspersions on the Economist, I might as well clear my own conscience. Minority and indigenous rights are complex and contested terrain for minority and indigenous peoples, let alone suburban white Americans. Whatever insights living as an expat in the Swedish-speaking Åland archipelago of Finland may have given me, I am still only really in an intellectual position to assess the issue not an intuitive one. This can result in misunderstandings.

In the year since TN was born for instance, I have come to realize that (1) the tag ‘indigenous groups’ may not please a readership that may include some ‘groups’ that have spent the last thirty years struggling to be recognized as ‘peoples’, and that (2) the name of the blog will be received by some right-minded Australians as a hair less offensive than calling it ‘ApartHeid’ would be to South Africans. The point being that perhaps the first duty of the well-meaning outsider is to seek to attain more than a  superficial understanding of the situation they will inevitably influence through their statements.

Sadly, I’m not really so sure that the latest Economist take on group rights meets this test. The article in question, ‘Me myself and them‘ (May 14, 2011), generates a bit more heat than light in its discussion of this complicated topic and links its conclusions somewhat debatably to the fate of the Arab Spring. To paraphrase their argument:

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