Ongoing Conflict and Prospects for Development in Burma

By Claire Balani
posted on October 14, 2013 in Global Development, Politics and Society

Thoughts from the Second International Development Discussion Group Meeting

In the 2012 United Nations Human Development Index, Burma (Myanmar) ranked 149 out of 186, placing it squarely in the “Low Human Development” corner. Slowly but surely, however, development now starts to take shape in Burma. Coca Cola and Unilever plan to invest $1 billion in Burma over the next decade. Despite these signs of progress, the New York Times reports that on October 2, violence erupted in Arakan State in western Burma, leaving six dead. Locals reported that Buddhist mobs rampaged through Muslim neighborhoods, stabbing a 94-year old Muslim woman to death.

The recent violence between Burmese Buddhists and Muslims hampers the country’s political and economic development. Unfortunately, as President U Thein Sein’s ineffectual visit to Western Burma just hours after the violence represents, no easy solution is in sight. Several important questions revolve around development in Burma. Is it a good idea for companies to invest in Burma? Does the ongoing conflict make Burma an unstable environment for investment?

The second YPFP International Development Discussion Group meeting focused on the topic of conflict and development—what drives conflict, how conflict hampers global development, whether a country can or should develop in the midst of ongoing conflict. The group discussed several timely and informative articles, such as the World Bank's 2011 World Development Report, which described the challenges of working in weak states. The Group discussed several topics from the report over the course of the reading.

Among the interesting points emerging from the readings, the World Bank report indicates that while violent conflict seems to be decreasing, it now falls into a new paradigm, both protracted and not limited to one actor against another. Violence is no longer simply defined as warfare between states, but takes place in a complicated and integrated global system. Conflict can be a primary driver of the lack of development. When a country is unstable due to conflict, people avoid investment, avoiding work or school, making the conditions for development impossible.

One group participant worked in Iraq. She commented that people may ask why there is a focus on business development in Iraq amidst sectarian violence and a struggling economy. She conceded there are risks but that the potential payoffs were enormous. Some of the motivation may be driven by global competition, as the Chinese and Turks were making investments in Iraq. However, a lot of the effort put into business development in Iraq involves laying the groundwork: making the initial contacts, rebuilding institutions. While conditions are violent now, violence will subside perhaps six months to a year from now. Countries and companies want the “first mover advantage.” Eventually, the participant argued, Iraq would re-build itself, as the Iraqis would see that it is in their own interest to stabilize.

The “first mover advantage” may also apply to Burma. The U.S. eased decades-long sanctions against Burmese industry and financial services despite years of criticism towards its human rights record, and skepticism towards the willingness of President U Thein Sein and former military junta members in parliament to truly enact change. Other major multinational companies such as Nissan and Nestle are following Coca Cola’s lead, opening up factories in Burma.

Since transitioning from military rule, Burma has experienced a small but significant increase in freedoms. When I first visited the region six years ago, it would have been impossible to imagine Burma as it is now, with Aung San Suu Kyi released from house arrest and freedom of press restrictions loosened. However, these freedoms appear to have caused tensions between Buddhists and Muslims in Burma to boil over, resulting in many deaths and fears of the country plunging into instability. In addition, other conflicts in Burma continue to escalate, such as that between the Burmese army and ethnic groups such as the Kachin, after peace talks ended this month without any deal reached.

This meeting exposed me to different ways that people think about international development. It has even helped me read more about Burma, a passion of mine over the years. To end, I think that every player involved in Burma’s burgeoning development, whether the people, companies, or foreign governments, can agree that development would benefit Burma. The British colonial area buildings in the capital of Rangoon are crumbling. Poor infrastructure throughout the country, such as lack of  electricity and running water in the outer townships, make conditions in the country difficult for development and company workers. After decades of authoritarian military rule, the people of Burma finally deserve better, and may soon receive it. However, as easy as it is for us to discuss solutions here from the U.S., I hope that President U Thein Sein, Aung San Suu Kyi, and other key players in Burmese politics can continue to call for tolerance and reconciliation between all of the diverse peoples in Burma. Otherwise, the new ventures in development in Burma will be for naught.