Monday, April 16, 2012

Cameron made right move in Myanmar

British Prime Minister David Cameron's visit to Myanmar on Friday has repeatedly been described as a ''landmark'' event because he is the first leader of a Western state to make the trip in many years, and not surprisingly he made good use of the momentous occasion to make a major announcement.
Along with pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Mr Cameron called for the suspension of economic sanctions which have been imposed by the European Union countries and the United States, Canada, Australia as well as a few other countries. The move is no surprise and comes sharply on the heels of the April 1 by-election which gave parliamentary seats to Mrs Suu Kyi and 42 other members of her National League for Democracy in a landslide win for the party.

 Mr Cameron correctly served notice to the military-backed government that such international concessions are contingent upon real democratic progress, both by making the announcement jointly with Mrs Suu Kyi, and by calling for a suspension rather than an outright lifting of the sanctions.

''I think there are prospects for change in Burma [Myanmar] and I think it is right for the rest of the world to respond to those changes.

''Of course we must respond with caution, with care. We must always be sceptical and questioning because we want to know those changes are irreversible,'' said Mr Cameron, who also held talks with President Thein Sein.

Mr Cameron's views will carry much weight with the 27-nation EU, which has already lifted some restrictions. EU foreign ministers will decide on their next steps when they meet on April 23, and it is likely that Mr Cameron's move was given unofficial backing by the international body before he left London.

It is also more than likely that Washington is on board with the suspension of sanctions.

All things considered, as long as Myanmar continues to make significant strides toward democratisation the suspension and ultimate lifting of sanctions is an inevitable and desirable consequence which should serve to speed along the reforms. At any rate, whether or not the West does business in Myanmar, many countries in this part of the world have long been doing so and will continue to, with Thailand at the forefront.

As has often been pointed out in this space and elsewhere, the desire to exploit Myanmar's natural resources is a powerful force for the opening up of the country. Whether the companies doing business in the future in Myanmar are British, Canadian, Chinese, American or Thai, it will be crucial for the Myanmar people to properly safeguard their own interests and their environment.

This will depend to a large extent on how representative the government truly is and on how much local participation is allowed in major development schemes before they are ever begun. The foreign governments and companies involved should be willing to encourage local participation, both because it is the right thing to do and also because it may help to head off problems down the road.

In Thailand we know all too well how major development projects that are pushed through with a lack of transparency can come back to haunt developers.

It seems very unlikely that there was much participation of locals in the planning of the Dawei deep sea port and adjacent industrial zone being developed by Ital-Thai and pushed by successive Thai governments, both ''yellow'' and ''red''. What we do know is that thousands of locals are being relocated for the project.

The deep sea port/industrial park will almost surely go ahead, and it may well be a great boon to the Myanmar economy and people, as the project's supporters predict. But as it is still in the early construction stages it is not too late to make changes necessary to protect the locals and, as much as possible, the pristine Andaman Sea environment.

As Thais we should ask ourselves how we would feel if a foreign developer were bringing a huge industrial operation to Krabi or Khao Lak. We should also consider that Dawei is not so very far from Thai waters, and pollution has no respect for national boundaries.