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Burma needs transparency extracting natural resources

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Burma/Myanmar has been congratulated for its transformation under the quasi-civilian government including some political and legislative reforms. Regarding such changes, wide-ranging economic sanctions are being lifted.   In addition, President U Thein Sein turned out to be the first head of state of Myanmar to allow visiting the White House since 1966. Yet, this does not mean things are going towards a right track of democratization in the nation.

Anyhow, the time is now to start a working plan for true and effective growth. In the face of taking fruitless change, local inhabitants show displeasure concerning wide-ranging environmental damage and human rights breaches. In fact, Government's wrong steps are being witnessed on the ground.

A new report released by Shwe Gas Movement on 17 July 2013, reveals glaring weaknesses in Myanmar/Burma's legal framework regarding the extractive industries, resulting in human rights abuses, environmental damages and poor revenue distribution.

The report - Good Governance and the Extractive Industry in Burma - examines the current laws and regulations set, assessing what's missing in Myanmar/Burma against worldwide standards and ethics. Research for the report shows major shortcomings in the areas of environmental conservation, human rights, revenue transparency and natural resource management. The report released by Shwe Gas Movement further suggests that new investments should be halted until these gaps in governance are put right.

In contrast, despite repetitively talk about change, questions such as civil war, extensive human rights abuses, blatant disregard for rule of law, and other controversial topics continue to be amended in support of genuine conciliatory trend for the majority population. For the time being, existing constitution continues to strengthen the central government power, restrict basic citizens' rights as well as human freedoms, and put off persons who work establishing sufficient, impartial and rightful societal change. In such a moment, the country's unbalanced constitution is not competent to support the current reform process.

According to the Shwe Gas Movement's report, when the country begins to open up for the first time in more than 60 years, foreign investors and energy consumers worldwide are beginning to look increasingly towards the country's rich natural resources. Aimed at policy makers, investors, corporations, various governments, intergovernmental groups and other stakeholders, the Shwe Gas Movement's report seeks to highlight the necessity of a sound domestic legal framework in Myanmar/Burma through a critical analysis of the current limitations and implications thereof.

It is notable that the report pointed out the country's Constitution and legislation must not solely represent a centralized government, but simultaneously protect the people and environment of motherland. The report also recommends that in the course of the essential policy changes, natural resource development, foreign direct investment and other relevant activities, particularly in the extractive industry, should be put to a halt.

As mentioned by the Shwe Gas Movement via its report, national governing body may possibly carry out transparency of the extractive industry if the country lacks an adequate regulatory framework. According to The Heritage Foundation, in partnership with the Wall Street Journal, "The 2013 Index of Economic Freedom' gave Burma/Myanmar an overall economic freedom score of 39.2 out of 100, thus ranking at number 172 of freest countries in the world, followed only by Eritrea (36.3), Venezuela (36.1), Zimbabwe (28.6), Cuba (28.5), and North Korea (1.5).

While Myanmar/Burma's score increased by 0.5 in comparison to 2012 figures thanks to provisional institutional reforms in 2012, Burma is still ranked 40th out of the 41 countries in the Asia-Pacific. It is in this light that the Heritage Foundation accuses Burma/Myanmar of maintaining a regulatory environment that is "hampered by a lack of legal transparency" with much business activity concentrated inside of state-owned enterprises.

Moreover, pervasive corruption characteristic of Burma's military government is reportedly worsening, despite the 2012 reforms.

In his presidential address on 31 March 2011, President Thein Sein underlined that the newly formed Union Government "to be a clean government.

He said, "To be a clean government, we must abstain from corruption and bribery, which tarnishes the image of the nation and the people. Therefore, we have not only refrained from it, but also ensure that the organizations stay away from it. What is very important is that we must not abuse the mandate in the interest of our friends and relatives. Only then, can our government be recognized as a clean government."

Although the junta officially transferred power to the Thein Sein government, corruption, forced-labour and land-confiscation cases are going on throughout the country so far. Chairman of Democratic Party of Myanmar Thu Wei recommended that governmental institutions should take the president's speeches seriously, while political parties need to be constantly reminding them.

All government departments such as administration and judicial bodies should follow President's words precisely for the country. The key question is that the president or the government has not enough decision-making powers. It is under the control of the National Defense and Security Council in which the military faction is the majority and the commander-in-chief has the supreme power.

In Burma/Myanmar, 65 percent of the population, or approximately 35 million people, depend on the land and forest to ensure their livelihoods, according to the report. In such a situation, faulty legislation and centralized government control of land and natural resources often fails to protect local populations from corruption and may lead to growing inequalities or frustrations between rich and poor, state and civilian, and also between and amongst various ethnic groups and numerous regions of the country.

According to Dan Smith, in the World Economic Forum 2013 report, such results may impede social cohesion, and, along with institutional deficiencies and economic deficiencies, may provide "fertile soil in which conflicts are generated, grow and explode'. In this regard, it becomes apparent how a lack of transparency in terms of government and private practices fuels conflicts and even civil war.

Regarding Transparency and Natural Resource Management, the Shwe Gas Movement's report dated 17 July 2013 has recommended that as Myanmar becomes a signatory to Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), it has to ensure Civil Society Organizations involvement in EITI preparation and implementation. Until Burma becomes EITI compliant, the government should adopt the following policy guidelines to mitigate existing flaws in extractive industry governance: disclose contracts signed with extractive companies; ensure that regulatory agencies publish timely comprehensive reports on their oil, gas and mining operations, including detailed revenue and project information; extend transparency and accountability standards to state-owned companies and natural resource funds.

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Zin Linn was born on February 9, 1946 in a small town in Mandalay Division. He began writing poems in 1960 and received a B.A (Philosophy) in 1976. He became an activist in the High School Union after the students' massacre on 7th July 1962. (more...)

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