Infrastructure investment in Myanmar: Open for business?

On 20 March 2018, investors, the business community, development financing institutions and other stakeholders will meet in Yangon, Myanmar, for the fourth Myanmar Infrastructure Investment Summit, organised by the government under the title: “Building an Inclusive, Integrated and Modern Myanmar.”

Apparently, no irony was intended in the choice of this title to refer to a country where there are strong suspicions that genocide may have recently taken place, bulldozers are now allegedly being employed in an effort to eradicate the evidence, and where ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya minority in Rakhine State – through killings, sexual violence and deliberate starvation – appears to be continuing. Rohingya refugees are still arriving in Bangladesh, which now houses the largest refugee camp in the world

The Summit, which is likely to be attended by officials from major development financing institutions, will showcase Myanmar’s infrastructure plans and seek funding. This is a worthy objective. Well-conceived infrastructure projects are vital for development, connecting producers to markets and people to sources of education, healthcare and jobs. Only 20% of Myanmar’s roads are paved, and only 35% of the population is connected to the electricity grid: the need is clear. But the shocking violations of human rights which have driven hundreds of thousands of people to flee the country should heighten the vigilance of any investor.

Infrastructure projects can be laden with unassessed social risks, in any country. They include gender-blindness in project design; increases in communicable diseases; child labour; human trafficking and sexual violence; forced displacement and livelihood destruction; land seizures; abusive labour practices, and siphoning off vital public resources for private profit.

Poor stakeholder engagement is another common problem, exemplified in the failure of the Myitsone Dam joint venture between China and Myanmar. Telecommunications tower construction and fibre cable projects have been associated with child labour, debt bondage and other labour rights violations. A major highway project in Kayin state – part of the East-West Economic Corridor backed by the Asian Development Bank – has been associated with forced displacement, poor consultation practices and environmental damage. Land occupied by up to 20,000 indigenous people was confiscated during the construction of an oil pipeline between Kyaukphyu, in Rakhine state, and Kunming, China. In Myanmar, or any militarised state or weak governance environment, project revenue streams may easily find their way into the pockets of the perpetrators of human rights abuses.

Myanmar’s clampdown on the freedom of the press is particularly troubling in this context. In December, two Reuters reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, were arrested for reporting on the massacres in Rakhine state; they could face up to 14 years in jail. This is one among many such incidents. Journalists are now fearful of travelling to ethnic areas and reporting on events in non-governmental controlled regions. Oppression of this kind is one small manifestation of the contagion of authoritarianism sweeping many parts of the world. It is also a fundamental obstacle to infrastructure development: how can infrastructure investors and financing institutions be sure that they have appraised all relevant risks fully, with due regard to their fiduciary, legal and ethical duties and sustainability objectives, if independent information and free expression are suppressed?

The recent wave of murderous violence unleashed against the Rohingya raises the risks for infrastructure investors. Strong vigilance is needed for redevelopment projects in areas from which Rohingya have been displaced; the government’s acquisition of “burned lands” under Myanmar’s Natural Disaster Management Law should be ringing loud alarm bells. If infrastructure plans for Rakhine state in any way frustrate the safe, sustainable return of refugees, those financing or investing in those projects may be complicit in ethnic cleansing. Elsewhere in the country, investors also need to be mindful of human rights risks.

I would strongly urge those seeking investment opportunities in Myanmar to undertake in-depth, regular human rights due diligence in accordance with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, guided by a clear human rights policy commitment. Multinational companies, in particular, should analyse and communicate their human rights impacts throughout their value chains, and use maximum leverage to encourage national authorities to “do no harm,” end unwarranted restrictions on freedom of expression, and ensure the safe repatriation of displaced Rohingya populations. And UN human rights monitors must be granted full access to Rakhine State and other areas where violations have been reported.

These measures are vital for informed investments in infrastructure, and for inclusive, sustainable development. They are also vital for accountability. Myanmar cannot be considered “open for business” otherwise. Moreover, though the experience in Myanmar is extreme, it is not unique – and should serve as a reminder to all international investors that human rights and discrimination are everybody’s business.

[The Op-Ed was first published in the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.]

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