As Myanmar went to the polls on 8 November 2015 – its first quasi-democratic and ‘free’ elections in over 60 years of mostly brutal military rule – one overriding question stalked the nation: Will the country’s nascent democratic opening be sustained and strengthened whatever the result? Or will this hitherto hermit kingdom, for so long isolated by the regressive policies of a corrupt and self-serving martial elite, revert to isolation and exile?
Myanmar, a south-east Asian nation of 54 million ethnically-diverse peoples, is a country of vast wealth.
Sandwiched by the Asian giants of India and China, with its oil and gas, jade, rubies and other gemstones, precious teak and additional hardwoods, extensive agriculture and fisheries, and not to mention its largely “untapped” workforce, Myanmar has resources in abundance.
Since the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) – the latest ruling avatar of the “Tatmadaw” military forces – came to power following rigged elections in 2010 there has been a scramble for these riches.
The Tatmadaw – co-founded by Aung San, father of Myanmar’s Nobel Prize-winning laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy opposition party (NLD) is expected to win these elections by a landslide – has essentially ruled Myanmar since the country gained independence from Britain in 1948.
Myanmar, formerly known as Burma until 1989, had been squeezed by international economic sanctions since the late 1990s, with only China as a major political backer and investor.
While the military and its cronies enjoyed – and continue to enjoy – huge wealth and privilege generated by illegal trade in jade, narcotics and logging, millions of impoverished Burmese have been forced into economic migration, mostly to neighbouring Thailand and Malaysia.
In 2012 the USDP, currently led by former army general President Thein Sein, began a cautious political and economic reform programme and passed a Foreign Investment Law (FIL) and Foreign Investment Rules (FIR).
The subsequent lifting of sanctions has led to a scramble for Myanmar’s riches by the powerful multinational corporations (MNCs) circling over the country.
To get a measure of the boom, consider this: from 1988 to 2012 only 477 foreign companies invested in Myanmar, with a total Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) of US$4.1 billion.
In the last fiscal year, this figure has doubled to over US$8 billion and 895 companies from 38 countries have invested in the country, according to a new report from the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), Foreign Direct Investment In Myanmar: What Impact On Human Rights?
Real estate prices in downtown Yangon now rival those of Manhattan. And the Asian Development Bank expects Myanmar to have one of the region’s fastest growth rates of seven to eight per cent per year in the coming decade.
Foreign companies who have recently set up supply chains in the country include Adidas (Germany), Gap (USA), H&M (Sweden), Marks and Spencer and Primark (both UK). Telecoms companies also investing in the country include Telenor (Norway) and Ooredoo (Qatar).
The oil and gas sectors remain the principal foreign investors. Energy inputs totalled US$3.2 billion in fiscal year 2014-2015. BG Group (UK), Chevron (USA), Eni (Italy) and Shell (Netherlands) have been awarded new blocks, while France’s Total continues to operate the offshore Yadana gas fields. The Yadana pipeline, which transports gas from the Andaman Sea to Thailand, has been one of the world’s most controversial natural gas development projects, serves as a stark warning of the potential perils of FDI.
Since the early 1990s Total, Chevron, and their Thai and Burmese partners have been mired in a scandal involving forced labour, land seizures, rape, torture and murder.
Indeed, Myanmar’s engagement with MNCs has, hitherto, not been a particularly happy one.
There have been other notorious cases of forced or slave labour; amongst them the brutal exploitation and murder of Burmese migrant fishers in the Thai fishing industry, which exports tuna and shrimp to the UK and USA.
The story was first broken by this reporter in 2009 in a special report titled Murder at Sea for the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF).
Forced labour, frequently used by the Tatmadaw to build roads and infrastructure and carry military material, is reported to be on the decline. However, the country has failed to meet its commitment to the ILO to eliminate forced labour by the end of 2015.
The international campaign to see the ratification and implementation of the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Forced Labour Protocol in 50 countries by 2018 has put Myanmar under the spotlight as the fight to eradicate modern-day slavery gathers momentum.
Forced labour remains a serious issue, particularly in Myanmar’s ethnic conflict zones – such as in western Rakhine State, home of the country’s persecuted Muslim Rohingya minority, who have been disenfranchised and were largely excluded from Sunday’s elections.
Forced labour associated with land confiscation is also on the rise, and will likely to continue as investment increases. Critics argue that the foreign investors in Myanmar are only interested in making a “fast buck”, as they have done in countries like Bangladesh and Cambodia, while exploiting a cheap and poorly educated workforce.
“Whenever there is a country that opens up then people will come and see what kind of advantage they can take,” says Maung Maung, President of the Confederation of Trade Unions of Myanmar (CTUM).
“But remember we have been in a black hole and we need FDI and also technical expertise.
“We have been behind Thailand and India at least for at least 10 years so we need financial investment. But at the same time we also need a decent wage agenda.”
“Investors need to abide by international law”
Once falsely branded as ‘terrorists’ and communist agitators, the CTUM and its leader Maung Maung returned to Myanmar in September 2012 after 24 years of exile.
In a historic decision, the CTUM – formerly the Federation of Trade Unions of Burma (FTUB) – was officially registered and recognised as the country’s paramount trade union on 23 July this year.
The CTUM has since begun the herculean task of building trade unionism and labour rights within Myanmar; it already has close to 49,000 members – 16,000 of which are women – and some 640 affiliates.
FDI and its impact on trade union and workers’ rights is a key issue for the future of the country, Maung Maung believes.
“The biggest challenges we are going to face will relate to the international multi-nationals, globalisation and ASEAN economic integration. We need to go to another level regarding collective bargaining,” says Maung Maung,a 63-year-old trained geologist. “We need international investors to abide by international labour conventions and we have to educate our people to raise their awareness.”
In the aftermath of the Second World War, Myanmar was arguably the most advanced country in the region in terms of agricultural production, infrastructure, communications and education.
Today Myanmar has fallen far behind the nine other ASEAN member states; it has the third-lowest GDP in the union at US$64 billion, compared to a GDP of US$374 billion in neighbouring Thailand and Malaysia’s US$327 billion.
Myanmar’s annual exports, meanwhile, total US$11 billion; while Singapore’s total US$578 billion, Thailand’s US$280 billion and Malaysia’s US$259 billion.
“We will have to work very, very hard,” says Maung Maung. “Burma used to be one of the ‘tiger economies’ from 1948 up to 1956 or ’57. We used to be a hub but now we are very much behind.”
Jamie Davis, Myanmar Program Director of the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center, tells Equal Times: “There’s a lot of interest in doing business in Myanmar. But the idea of good industrial relations is not something that’s been practiced in the history of Myanmar over the last 50 years.
“The real question is will investors come here with the idea that this is a place where labour is cheap and the rule of law is weak and they can do whatever they want, or will they share their profits in a fair way with the workers?”
“In terms of health and safety we’ve seen big problems in neighbouring countries, such as Bangladesh, Cambodia, where fires and structural collapses of factories have been quite common and I think that we must be watching for this here.”
Last November NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi warned about “over-optimism” on the Myanmar reform process.
And Jeff Vogt, Legal Director of the ITUC, cautions: “There are serious risks that Myanmar’s natural resources and labour will only benefit privileged domestic interests and foreign companies, while disadvantaged communities will suffer the negative impacts of poorly regulated business activities.
“(Foreign) companies will have to undertake human rights due diligence to ensure that the rights of workers they and their suppliers hire are fully protected.”
But whatever happens as a result of Myanmar’s elections, the CTUM is here to stay.
“I don’t think that there’s going to be a turning back of the clock. The unions have created a strong base for their organisation. They’re working to strengthen even further,” says Chris Land-Kazlauskas, Chief Technical Advisor at the ILO Liaison Office in Myanmar.
“And I don’t see that going away any time soon.”
This reportage was made possible thanks to a grant from Union to Union.