How to Invest in Myanmar

Doing Well by Doing Right

A man unties timber in front of Myanmar International Terminals Thilawa, January 6, 2013. Minzayar / Courtesy Reuters

For a nation that was frozen in place for half a century by a repressive military junta, it is ironic that the government of Myanmar (also called Burma) is charging that change is not happening fast enough. But that was the scene in November, when government officials seized a multibillion-dollar industrial project in the southern port town of Dawei for its owners’ failure to attract foreign investors in a timely fashion. To restart the project, which had previously been run by a Thai company, Myanmar appealed to government officials and private investors in Japan. The first to bite was the Mitsubishi Corporation, which agreed to build a large, coal-fired plant to generate electricity and kick-start operations.

In the middle of the Dawei drama, a local human rights group, known as the Dawei Development Association, warned Japanese investors that they risked becoming complicit in harming half a million minority residents in the area. The group charged that Myanmar’s government had forced thousands of poor farmers off their land “without fair or equal compensation” or “access to adequate housing or livelihoods after being displaced.” 

Dawei is far from an isolated case. As part of a yearlong study in southern Myanmar, the Karen Human Rights Group documented thousands of instances of “abuse, destruction of property, pollution, theft, and confiscation of land” between 2011 and 2012. In northwestern Myanmar, local activists and farmers have documented the illegal seizure of more than 7,800 acres from ethnic minorities to allow for the expansion of a Chinese-financed copper mine -- a case that sparked national outrage when police used deadly phosphorous on protesters. In central Myanmar, 8,000 villagers -- primarily from minority groups -- were forcibly relocated onto barren land to make way for an enormous hydroelectric dam that British, Swiss, and Chinese firms are building. And in the southeast, just 13 miles from Yangon, hundreds of local farmers received notices ordering them to leave their land in 14 days or face arrest. The fields were needed for the construction of another “special

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