The first EU-Myanmar Task Force opened in Rangoon, Myanmar on Thursday, November 14. Since a new government came to power in 2011 ending five decades of authoritarian rule, Myanmar has taken steps toward serious economic and political reform. The Southeast Asian country’s development as well as the termination of economic sanctions by the European Union has sparked interest in European business investors.

The task force met with opening remarks at the Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry in Rangoon and continued on Friday in Naypyidaw, the country’s capital. On Thursday, at Myanmar’s President’s Office, Minister Soe Thane touted progress made by the current government and expressed a vision of a democratic country with sustainable economic growth.

Leader of the National Democracy League (NDL) Aung San Suu Kyi also made opening statements, cautioning European business investors to keep Myanmar’s developing political atmosphere in mind. Suu Kyi said that her intentions were not to dissuade investment in the economy, only that “critical issues” such as amendments to the Constitution must be addressed, especially as the country prepares for a national election in 2015. The current Constitution was established in 2008 under the former military regime.

However, Suu Kyi also commented on the importance of investment in Burmese businesses in order to continue strengthening the economy and for the country’s economic development. Addressing corporate social responsibility (CSR), Suu Kyi said, “…it’s not just CSR it’s not just social responsibility. It’s political responsibility, legal responsibility. It’s responsibility in a very broad sense of the word. So if you want to make responsible investments in Burma, you must be aware of the political situation in Burma, the peace situation, the social situation, the human rights situation.” In 2012 Suu Kyi visited the Swiss parliament to collect her Nobel Peace Prize, which she was awarded in 1991 while under house arrest.

According to a report released to the public for the first time by the Lower House’s planning and finance development committee, the unemployment rate in Myanmar is approximately 37% and close to fifteen million people live in dire poverty. The goal of the EU-Myanmar Task Force is to increase business investment interest in the country’s growing economy and renew citizens’ confidence in the government in the wake of nearly fifty years of dictatorship.

Daren Gottlieb
Sources: Irriwaddy, Eleven

Violence in central Myanmar has broken out in recent days between Buddhists and Muslims. Estimates of the death toll from a recent rampage through a Muslim area are anywhere from 20 to 40; some of the victims include children. Buddhist attackers have burned mosques and entire Muslim neighborhoods to the ground in bitter offensives against one of the few minority groups in an overwhelmingly Buddhist nation.

Regions of Myanmar have experienced protracted violence, with a majority of the victims being Muslim. Over 150 people have died in the past year as attacks spread inland from coastal areas. Often, police and military units fail or outright refuse to intervene. The national government has ceded some of its authoritarian power in recent years, which had previously helped to quash inter-ethnic violence swiftly. While human rights advocates have been cautiously optimistic about these reforms, the lack of protection for victims of vicious attacks demonstrates how far Myanmar has yet to go.

President Obama has made Myanmar a focus of his travels in Southeast Asia; in November 2012 he was the first American president to ever visit the country. He met with the opposition leader, longtime political dissident Aung San Suu Kyi, who cautioned him against being too optimistic when victory appears close. Mr. Obama’s efforts to foster democracy in Myanmar are reflective of his overarching strategy of diplomacy and engagement with those leaders who he seeks to persuade on human rights issues. Now, as inter-ethnic clashes are on the rise, it is time for Myanmar to demonstrate its commitment to a society that protects the livelihoods of all its citizens.

Jake Simon

Sources: New York Times, Reuters