NAYPYITAW, BURMA — The World Economic Forum for East Asia opened Thursday in Burma's new capital, Naypyitaw. Business leaders, ministers and governments from all over the world are meeting to discuss topics such as foreign investment, development, and trade for the region.
Burma's President Thein Sein officially opened the World Economic Forum for East Asia in Naypyitaw, alongside the forum's founder Klaus Schwab, who predicted a staggering growth rate of 10 percent for Burma's economy.
The forum is an independent international organization intended to discuss a number of issues facing developing economies in the region, in particular the economic integration of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
In other sessions, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and reformist minister Soe Thein engaged in a live debate, and discussed the possibility for constitutional amendment, lack of independence of the judiciary, and reconciliation with activists and ethnic minorities.
Aung San Suu Kyi also addressed the role of the military in government. She was criticized for similar comments made in Hawaii in February, when she expressed "fondness" for the military.
"The military have special place in the hearts of our people. I want a military that is professional and honorable, and there to defend our nation, and this is the kind of army my father wanted when he founded it," Suu Kyi said.
She also praised so-called cronies who amassed large fortunes under the military regime for now spending the money at home for humanitarian causes, instead of hiding it in foreign bank accounts.
Tarek Sultan, chairman of Agility, a Kuwaiti logistics firm, sat on the opening panel. He says there is incredible investment potential in Southeast Asia for the next 10 years, but free trade and logistical barriers within the ASEAN bloc present significant barriers.
"I think it is very clear that the largest barriers are the supply chain impediments that are holding back investment and growth. And in fact the research shows that growth would improve by 10 percent if some of these soft barriers, supply chain barriers, were to be addressed," Tarek Sultan said.
Many rights groups expressed concern that it is still too early in the reform process to hold this type of forum in Burma.
Burma Campaign UK criticized organizers for ignoring the ongoing human-rights abuses of the army, which has displaced hundreds of thousands of people in the past two years, and shared concern that this type of forum lends legitimacy to a government that persecutes its own citizens.
But Dave Mathieson of U.S.-based rights group Human Rights Watch believes this type of forum should be regarded as part of the reform process.
"But it is a forum that is basically discussing the future of the country. It is a forum that is trying to bring together a lot of disparate voices, and talk about all the concerns that we've been talking about for the past two years during the reform process," he said. "So while it might seem a little bit too early and seem as something that is legitimizing the government, I would not actually say so, I think it is a mark of how the country is trying to open up."
Mathieson cited concerns about a rush to invest in Asia's last frontier market, and said the biggest human-rights issue being addressed at the forum was greedy land grabbing and displacement, especially in ethnic areas with tentative and fragile peace processes.