Indian Catholic News

Burma 'development' leaving most of the country behind

Ethnic states still in turmoil and poverty remains chronic.


“Development is the new name for peace,' said Pope Paul VI in his groundbreaking encyclical on development, The Progress of Peoples (Populorum Progressio) in 1967.

Well, not in Burma where a war in Kachin State in the north has displaced 90,000 people and where the Rohingya Muslims of Arakan State, rendered stateless by a whim of the regime in 1982, have been caught up in a spiral of violence with Buddhist Arakanese, resulting in killings and displacement of 100,000 people.

Such horror stories don't concern the Western and Chinese business people who have been given the green light by their governments to 'develop' Burma, and sweep, salivating, into Yangon.

They are seemingly oblivious to war and the ongoing human rights abuses over remaining political prisoners, restrictions on those released, land confiscation, forced labor, right of assembly and the failure of so-called reforms to meet international standards. They are there to do business and make money.

I have just returned from teaching a unit on an introduction to international development studies as part of the ACU Diploma in Liberal Studies program offered to Burmese refugees and migrants from camps and villages on the Thai-Burma border. This unit is part of a new ACU Bachelor of International Development Studies degree.

Unlike many other such degrees, its focus isn't on anthropology or economics but on people-centered development — an integral development that covers all aspects of human life but especially the life of the poor. Within that, economic growth is regarded as a means to making the lives of the poor more human not as an end in itself or to encourage the 'Tesco ergo sum' mentality — I spend therefore I am.

Instead, the form of development taught is akin to the 1995 UN definition of community development: “a process designed to create conditions of economic and social progress for the whole community with its active participation and the fullest possible reliance on the community's initiative”, with an emphasis on human dignity.

One of the first exercises I did with the students was to have them draw a 'mind map' where the word 'development' was placed in the centre of a sheet and connections made from their knowledge and experience.

What they presented was a development that addressed the appalling health statistics and child mortality rates, gender inequality, lack of proper education and social welfare as well as the need for democratic and devolved governance that might lift the Burmese people from being 149th in the UN's global Human Development Index.

The students also feared that the kind of development to be ushered in by the foreign business people streaming into the 'new' Burma of reforms was not going to benefit their people.

Only two months after President's Obama visit to the former pariah state, a US-Myanmar Business Council endorsed by 70 executives from 38 companies, the first in 27 years, has been formed. Special economic zones are being planned where the daily wage, according to one minister, will be 200 baht ($6.45) a day as opposed to the Thais' 300 baht ($9.60) a day to ensure they undercut their neighbor in low wages. Those are official figures but, in reality, the wages paid will likely be much less.

The new foreign investment law passed in November 2012 by the Burmese Parliament will allow foreigners to own 100 percent of their operations and are guaranteed 'tax holidays' for at least five years. The director of the Myanmar Investment Commission, Aung Naing Oo, assuaged Western concerns about labor unrest by stating that Myanmar had banned labor unions in the past and that “Unions in our country would not be so active because we are in an early stage”.

The dollars paid by Thailand for natural gas from Burma have not resulted in health or education budgets being increased. The new gas pipeline from Arakan State to Yunnan in China which becomes operational later this year has led to the forced displacement of Kachin and Shan people, and civil society is not free or equipped enough to advocate for the vast profits from this to be channeled into development projects that will benefit Burma's poor.

It looks as if the fears of our students in discussing development in Burma — that it will be business as usual with exploitation of the poor but under the guise of 'democratic' capitalism — are well founded.

Source: Eureka Street

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