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Burma's investment rush is leaving the poor majority behind

First appeared in The Guardian

U Mya Hlaing sits on a bamboo floor in his rural home an hour down the river from Yangon, explaining how in a short time, he expects to lose it in the name of development. His fields of paddy rice, along with those of his village and neighbours, have been designated as a special economic zone. They will be bulldozed to make way for the flagship development project of the Japan International Co-operation Agency (JICA) in co-operation with the Myanmar government and Japanese and Myanmar companies. Electronics and garments factories will replace his homestead.

U Mya Hlaing does not oppose the project, he just wants to be fairly treated so he can start again with his community, Thilawa, in a new place, so he can bring up his children with enough food to last the year.

Instead, he says, the project is moving ahead while the local community is left worse off. He explains that there has been "no conversation, no replacement land, no adequate compensation". However, U Mya Hlaing and his fellow villagers are determined. They have seen what happened to their neighbours in the first phase only a year ago: first there were 14-day eviction notices, delayed only when the villagers raised their voices and outside support and media attention forced the Japanese to pressure the Myanmar government to delay the order. But this development project went ahead, and about 70 families were relocated to one-roomed tiny houses jammed up against each other.

When we visit these houses, Daw Win tells us the relocation is far from what was promised: at midday she hides with the children under the house from the heat, and in the rainy season she fears that they will be in a lake of stagnant water and sewage from their latrines. There is no work and no land. The wells have dirty water. The schools are far away. Japan-based NGO Mekong Watch has expressed its dismay over the conditions in the relocation site and JICA's alleged inaction despite the letters repeatedly sent by the community members.

This one case, a 2,400Ha land confiscation, is a telling metaphor for the development model of the Myanmar government. It is courting foreign investment (£0.8bn in 2012-2013, to £2.1bn in 2013-104, and a predicted £2.4bn in 2014-2015) to develop the country's vast natural resources, and to spur manufacturing and agriculture. Jobs and energy top the agenda, and in a country where fewer than 30% of the people have access to electricity and the average monthly wage was less than £59 in 2011, there is no question that investment is needed.

A number of observers have described Myanmar's economy over the past 26 years as that of military capitalism. With the country now opening up to western companies' embrace, the scale of inward investment is surging. But civil society organisations are concerned at the one-sidedness of the business deals being struck and the lack of legal protections for vulnerable communities. New laws being passed may only serve to encourage more investment while facilitating land grabs – such as two land laws adopted in 2012 (that do not recognise traditional land use practices and make it easier for the government to claim land as fallow and sell or give it away) and the 2013 Foreign Investment Law. Courts have been reported to be notoriously corrupt.

Reported human rights abuses linked to national and international investors, as well as the lack of international standards in business and human rights, have led some civil society organisations to plead with the government to slow inward investment until basic guarantees are in place that investment will serve the prosperity and human rights of the majority. So far there is little sign that this is being heeded. The only brake reported is the scale and speed of some government bureaucracy.

The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre tracks the human rights impacts of businesses in Myanmar and related initiatives. Over the years, we have sought 120 responses from local and international companies in the face of allegations of human rights abuse in Myanmar. Fewer than half (47%) of the companies approached felt any need to respond to explain their actions.

But there are positive signs. We have observed an increase in positive efforts to promote business responsibility, transparency and accountability both inside and outside the country. The US, while dropping its investment sanctions, now requires companies with significant investment to report on their human rights, environmental, and other due diligence policies in Myanmar.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has conducted a review of Myanmar's investment policies, the International Labour Organization has worked closely with the government to reform key labour laws, and the Institute for Human Rights and Business and the Danish Institute for Human Rights founded the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business in 2012.

Local groups such as Paung Ku (which means "bridge" in Myanmar) have been leading efforts towards a vision of equity and respect for rights for all, especially the disadvantaged. They are trying to bridge the gap between communities and business and policy decisions by building the capacity of local groups and enhancing the advocacy efforts of these local groups with business and government.

Civil society has taken full advantage of the recent political opening. Trade unions, farmers' unions, women's organisations and NGOs are organising around demands for human rights and equitable development.

Remarkably, after years of advocacy by inside and outside groups, the government is poised to submit its application to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), which should lead to companies and government declaring the revenues from the vast natural resource of Myanmar in oil, gas, gems and ores. Quite how this will happen in a country where the military controls large swathes of the economy with opaque companies will be a puzzle for the EITI to solve. But the government has convened a multi-stakeholder group of civil society, business and government representatives to lead the EITI process.

The participation of civil society is a welcome shift in a country where perhaps the greatest danger is that the voice of the poor majority goes unheard by investors. Bringing transparency, accountability, and international human rights standards, at least, in business deals would represent enormous progress for many communities like Thilawa that fear dispossession and eviction. These standards should provide some guarantee against the most arbitrary abuse. In Thilawa, as in the rest of the country, now is the crucial time to do things right.

But will all of these efforts and numerous others help U Mya Hlaing and Daw Win? Is it too late for investors to meaningfully engage with the affected communities of the Thilawa project? Even though the villagers have sent numerous letters trying to engage the investors to no avail, and the Myanmar Government refuses to provide replacement land or adequate compensation, there may be some hope. Just last week, a member of the Japanese Parliament who chairs the committee overseeing Japanese overseas investment traveled to the communities and promised to talk to JICA about their claims.