AS U.N. SECRETARY General Ban Ki-moon was urging the world last week to expand investment into Burma, the Irrawaddy, a Burmese magazine-in-exile, was publishing a story about 7,800 acres of Burmese farmland being confiscated by the government to make way for copper mining.
“Farmers also said that they were only given a small amount of compensation for their property as, according to company officials and local authorities, their lands are actually owned by the state and the confiscation was carried out by presidential order,” the Irrawaddy reported. Companies mining in the area are Chinese, Canadian and Burmese state-owned.
Maybe the farmers of Salingyi Township, Sagaing Division, aren’t on the top-10 list of Mr. Ban’s concerns. But as Europe, Japan, Korea and, to a more cautious degree, the United States lift restrictions on doing business with Burma (also known as Myanmar), the reported dispossession is worth a moment’s attention.
Burma, run by one of the most brutal and repressive military regimes, has long been one of the world’s most isolated economies as well. But President Thein Sein has initiated some political reforms and released some political prisoners. Last week Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace laureate and longtime political prisoner, was sworn in as a member of parliament , an emblem of the swift political change taking place and a harbinger — it is hoped — of more to come.
Last month, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won 43 of 44 parliamentary seats it contested in a by-election. The vote proved that she remains the indisputable spokeswoman for Burma’s people. But it didn’t shift much power from the generals and retired generals who rule Burma. The NLD controls only 7 percent of parliamentary seats. The regime’s control of media remains among the world’s 10 most stifling, as the Committee to Protect Journalists reported last week (“its vast censorship structure remains in place”). Hundreds of political prisoners remain in jail. And — as the farmers of Salingyi no doubt understand — there is no rule of law and no independent judiciary.
In light of all this, the question of how quickly to relax sanctions is tricky. Too slowly, and the generals will see no benefit to democratization. Too quickly, and outside nations will lose leverage to promote further democratization. The Europeans, in voting to suspend rather than lift sanctions, acknowledged the need for balance, but Burma’s reforms may prove more reversible than Europe’s suspension, once its companies are on the ground.
In the unseemly rush for minerals and other natural-resource contracts, developed-nation companies and their governments are giving the impression that a 7 percent solution is good enough. The people of Burma deserve better.