Burma’s Imperfect Role Model

BurmaBy Emily Feng. 

Burma appears to be the new Shangri-La: an untrammeled country of of pristine beauty, exotic foods, and majestic pagodas still untainted by the reach of over-urbanization and commercialization.  

But the idea of an untouched paradise in Burma is an illusion that is quickly evaporating. Numerous pieces of excellent reporting have documented everything from exploitative drug and gem smuggling along Burma’s border with China to deplorable conditions for jade miners to illegal poaching and logging activities that are destroying Burma’s natural resources and propagating crime. Elites with connections to the previous military junta exert undue influence behind the scenes and questionable sales of state assets in the name of economic development makes Burma vulnerable to foreign corporatization.

Due to geographic proximity, historical relationships, and economic interest, China has reemerged as a key player in Burma’s own opening and reform. Burma’s abundant and relatively untapped natural resources makes it a prime target for Chinese developers and businesses looking for new markets and new materials sources, yet the influx of Chinese business in Burma has been widely criticized for its opaque transactions, questionable ethics, and potentially destructive consequences.

A recent New York Times editorial described China’s commercial ventures (legal and illegal) as “wholesale looting of Myanmar’s valuable natural resources” through “outright theft” if not “crony capitalism.” There’s certainly something to be said about the way China usually engages with its economic partners in an ethical vacuum; for example, China’s ballooning infrastructural and commercial investments in Africa often go to corrupt leaders and rarely trickle down to local citizens.

Yet to call China’s involvement in Burma “plundering” –  implying a one-sided grab – ignores the complicity of Burmese parties themselves. It takes two to tango or, in this case, squander a country’s natural resources and assets. Cash-strapped local Burmese governments, businesses, and armed militias are often tempted by the short-term gains of selling off commercial rights or logging licenses. One can hardly blame them; after decades under a repressive military junta, the allure of modernization through material wealth must be especially hard to resist.

This is where Burma should look to China for a lesson in history as it embarks upon an inevitable path of economic growth and infrastructural expansion. In China, while hundreds of millions have been lifted out of poverty, urbanization and industrialization have engendered as many problems as it has solved.

Today, China faces internal unrest as local governments seize the land of small farmers for construction projects. For the sake of economic growth fueled by continuous infrastructure development, individuals lose their civil rights and land rights. The “China price” of economic growth at the expense of political freedom is costly, and is something Burma should consider carefully.

An expansive country blessed with immense natural and mineral resources, China’s eastern coast now experiences severe pollution problems while corporations routinely transgress environmental protections for the sake of profit. School days are canceled due to unbreathable levels of air pollution and China’s ground water is effectively undrinkable.

Finally, China’s economic growth has left the poorest and most vulnerable in the dust. Hundreds of  millions of citizens are still denied access to basic welfare benefits and social services, like education and housing, because of an anachronistic migration policies codified under something called the household registration system.

Already, similar situations are popping up around Burma. Mineral and gem extraction, logging, and planned construction projects could destroy irreplaceable natural resources and environmental safeguards. As Burma experiences a spike in foreign interest in commercial and infrastructure investment, how those profits are distributed among all members of society still remains unclear. While nominally a constitutional republic, the strong lingering influence of Burma’s military elites means that the dividends will most likely not reach the poor, politically weak, or ethnic minorities.

Finally, Burma has fallen behind on its political liberalization reforms that began in 2011. Whether it guarantees protection of individual rights remains to be seen. Meanwhile, large protests against the construction of the Chinese-financed Letpadaung copper mine, Myitsone Dam, and planned Sino-Myanmar oil and gas pipelines, as well as forced evictions of local citizens for these projects, look eerily similar to the “mass incidents” which now plague China. Economic development at the expense of quality of life, human rights, and environmental and cultural preservation only creates future problems. There certainly is an ongoing plunder of Burma, but the responsibility lies with all parties involved.

As Burma continues to liberalize and welcome foreign investment, it will inevitably lose some of its environmental purity and cultural integrity. That is the tension that accompanies all fast-paced development in previously hermetic countries, the tension between tradition and change, preservation and construction. With China so close, it’s hard to resist the example of Burma’s much larger, more prosperous neighbor. However, instead of pointing fingers, what Burma can do is avoid China’s mistakes and save itself future trouble.

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