Opening up to Myanmar: Proceed with caution to protect the people

A monk and his son feed seagulls at a jetty along the Yangon river ahead of the parliamentary elections on March 29, 2012 in Yangon, Myanmar.</p>

A monk and his son feed seagulls at a jetty along the Yangon river ahead of the parliamentary elections on March 29, 2012 in Yangon, Myanmar.

WASHINGTON, DC — Aung San Suu Kyi’s widely heralded visit to the United States provides ample opportunity to celebrate her freedom and inspires high hopes for Myanmar’s transition to a more peaceful and democratic future.

Yet her visit also reminds us that much more work remains to be done to achieve that goal for all the people of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. The international community must proceed with caution to ensure that progress toward greater openness and new commerce does not come at the cost of greater human rights abuses for Myanmar’s ethnic minorities.

During her visit, Suu Kyi, has given the green light to Congress to ease sanctions on her country and promote investment. Investment can certainly be a force for good, creating jobs and eradicating the poverty that is epidemic in Myanmar. But economic development can have a downside as well.

A survey of 665 households this summer in eastern Myanmar conducted by Physicians for Human Rights showed that nearly one-third of them had experienced human rights violations in the past year, including forced labor, forced displacement, and physical attacks.

Abuses were much more common in communities situated near economic development projects like roads, or ports—just the kind of infrastructure projects likely to proliferate with the lifting of sanctions. The survey was conducted in Karen State, a mountainous region home primarily to the ethnic Karen minority, where conflict with the Burmese military has carried on for decades.

The high correlation between economic development and human rights abuses, especially forced labor, is a worrying indicator that ethnic communities rich in natural resources may face increased levels of oppression as international companies are welcomed into Myanmar.

The international community should use all tools at its disposal to guide new investment in a way that will best promote democratic values and protect all Myanmar’s people from violations of human rights. Companies should conduct human rights impact assessments, consult with local communities that may be affected by their investment, and adhere to United Nations guiding principles on business and human rights.

National governments should ensure that the companies they regulate do not collaborate with perpetrators of human rights violations in Myanmar, and that any company complicit in abuse is held accountable. States should also adopt Suu Kyi’s advice to make investment as transparent as possible. In her words, increased transparency would enable policymakers and watchdogs to “find out if what [companies] are doing is actually helping our country or harming it.”

Experience over decades has shown us that repressive regimes with long histories of targeting minorities do not change their entrenched patterns overnight. People concerned with human rights and democracy in Myanmar must recognize this moment in history as a crucial opportunity to press for changes that will ensure that the benefits of Myanmar’s welcome reforms can reach its ethnic communities.

Dr. Robert Lawrence is board chair of Physicians for Human Rights and professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Dr. Adam Richards, is a member of PHR board and is affiliated with that American Heart Association-Pharmaceutical Outcomes Research at UCLA. The PHR report is available here.