News / Asia

Analysts Fear Burma's Reforms Stalling

A couple takes a self-portrait at People's Square on Valentine's Day near Shwedagon pagoda in Rangoon, Feb. 14 , 2014.
A couple takes a self-portrait at People's Square on Valentine's Day near Shwedagon pagoda in Rangoon, Feb. 14 , 2014.
Ron Corben
— Analysts said there are fears Burma's program of political and economic reforms are stalling before the 2015 national elections.  Bangkok rights concerns are growing as the foreign business community remains upbeat over Burma's long term economic potential.

The Asian Development (ADB) said Burma can become a middle income country by 2030 if it is able to sustain economic growth rates of more than six percent a year.

The economic and political reforms begun in 2011 have led most nations to set aside long standing economic sanctions against military rule in Burma, which is also known as Myanmar.

Australian lawyer and consultant on Burma John Hancock said foreign investors recognize Burma's potential.

"It is just remarkable what has happened there in the last five, six, seven years.  The opening up has been just quite remarkable," he said. "The will to change, the will to move forward, is quite amazing.  There is such potential there now.  Everyone wants to be there, everyone is willing to throw money in there to support their interest to get on the fast track."            

But Hancock said economic challenges include land reform, infrastructure spending and education, as well as rebuilding the country's civil service.

Burma remains one of the poorest nations in South East Asia, with more than one quarter of the population of 61 million living below the national poverty line.  Many of the poor are in the rural areas and affected by an absence of adequate land registration and titling, leaving millions vulnerable.

The editor of the Irrawaddy newspaper, Aung Zaw, said many in Burma fear a regression in the pace of reform.

"It has been more than three years, people now in Burma said that they have seen a regression on every front, particularly with the 'gold rush,' Zaw said. "The world is going in [to Burma] and they praise the regime for making the changes.  They were just fooled by this reform process. If you looked at it now it is very messy because this land confiscation is unresolved.  It is a huge issue in the country."

Zaw said in the border regions evidence points to the army "taking over everything," forcing villagers to relocate in order to make way for foreign investment. He said development of Special Economic Zones, such as Dawei in Burma's south, have drawn foreign investors, but often at huge social and environmental costs as people are forced to leave their homes, often without adequate compensation.

The Australian government has warned investors that individuals and companies with close ties to Burma's military continue to exercise influence across many areas of the economy, including oil, gas and timber.  

An economist at Sydney-based Macquarie University, Sean Turnell, said reform has also slowed in the agricultural sector where 65 percent of Burma's population makes a living.

"What I am really struck by is the lack of progress in agriculture.  What would make the biggest difference now to the lives of the people?  It is about reforming agriculture," he said. "One aspect is the land and somehow bringing about land security and in that front alone we have actually seen regression rather than any progress." .

Turnell said without land rights farmers have little access to credit leading to high rates of indebtedness.  Reforms are also facing resistance from conservative members in the government.

Analysts said the key lies in the outcome of the 2015 national elections, but say vested interests fearing further change are working to undermine reforms by stirring ethnic and religious divisions.

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