This November’s elections have once more brought Myanmar’s nascent democracy and human rights to the fore. ASEAN Forum speaks with the director of the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business and former UK Ambassador about the country’s future. Interview By Mark Bibby Jackson.
Can you explain how the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business (MCRB) came about?
The MCRB was set up in Yangon in 2013 as a collaboration between the UK-based Institute of Human Rights and Business and the Danish Institute for Human Rights. It is funded by the governments of the UK, Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Ireland. The intention was that it should provide an effective and legitimate platform for the creation of knowledge, capacity and dialogue concerning responsible business in Myanmar, based on local needs and international standards, which results in more responsible business practices.
Why do you feel that responsible business and human rights are so important for Myanmar’s development?
Myanmar has suffered from decades of poor governance and poverty. Its citizens have suffered human rights abuses as a result of business, particularly in the natural resources sector. Private sector growth is essential for Myanmar to escape from poverty, but it needs to be well regulated. MCRB is trying to support government, business and civil society to adopt, practice and enforce more responsible business practices. Until the change of government in 2011, it was difficult to identify businesses behaving responsibly. This was partly because of the way the previous government ran the economy, but also because there were few of the usual mechanisms to hold businesses to account such as effective regulators, free media, trade unions or NGO watchdogs. Furthermore, there were very few international investors who faced any pressure at home from either shareholders or home-country regulation – TOTAL was a rare exception. All of those factors are now changing, with the increase in new investment and increased freedom of expression and economic reform.
What is a responsible business?
MCRB believes that some of characteristics of a responsible business include obeying the law, respecting human rights, including workers rights, being committed to combatting corruption and not paying bribes or ‘tea money’, as facilitation or ‘grease’ payments are called in Myanmar, paying the taxes you legally owe, respecting the environment, treating other customers and business partners responsibly, and being transparent, which involves responding to and engaging with stakeholders.
What projects are you actively involved in?
The Pwint Thit Sa or Transparency in Myanmar Enterprises (TiME) report is something we developed to encourage busi- nesses to demonstrate their commitment to combatting corruption, organisational transparency and best practice on health, safety, environment and other forms of respect for human rights. Each year we publish a report with a score chart rating the information about these issues provided on the websites of 100 of the largest Myanmar-owned companies. We believe that transparency is the backbone of a responsible business. It makes good business sense for every company to have an up-to-date website and Facebook page, and use it to make information available to stakeholders about its business approach. We have found some Myanmar companies have really competed to be the most transparent and release more information year on year that puts them up with some of the most transparent companies globally. We’ve also seen that foreign investors are very interested in this score chart, and always want to check to see where their actual local partner or potential partners are.
What lessons did you take away from the recent workshop on responsible tourism?
We co-organised the tourism workshop with Hanns Seidel Foundation (HSF) in Naypyidaw and over 100 participants from government, Myanmar tourism companies and business associations and civil society groups, as well as international NGOs and tourism specialists, attended. It was an opportunity for them to get together, in some cases for the first time, and highlight and prioritise their concerns about issues and tourism sites in Myanmar. Some of these are already facing environmental stress and experiencing negative social impacts. The main conclusion was that if tourism growth is to be sustainable, there has to be more coordination between local authorities, business and communities, and increased local participation in tourism-related decisions and the tourist economy. This is something which is in the Myanmar government’s policy frameworks but isn’t yet happening in practice, except in a handful of examples of projects promoting Community Involvement in Tourism.
MCRB presented the research we have done on ‘hotel zones,’which are being developed in certain parts of Myanmar with negative impacts on the environment and livelihoods. With a top-down infrastructure focus, these are the diametric opposite of an approach involving community involvement in tourism and participatory destination planning and management. We and HSF plan to follow up with some local-level discussions in 2016 at the main tourism destinations to promote multi-stakeholder coordination.
At a recent conference in Bangkok you advised potential investors looking towards Myanmar to take a long-term outlook. Why?
Myanmar is not an easy place to invest because its physical and bureaucratic infrastructure is a long way behind a number of its peers in ASEAN. The country also lacks skilled human resources and is suffering a property speculation bubble that makes land prices ridiculously overvalued. The legal framework is not stable, and not well signposted, and every day brings new surprises. But with a population of 51.5 million, a strategic position and natural resources, it is a cliché, but true, to say it has huge potential.
How optimistic are you about Myanmar’s human rights?
The spotlight which has been put on these issues in Myanmar over the last decade has ensured that business-related abuses which are routine in some neighbouring coun- tries are much higher profile and now more likely to be nipped in the bud in Myanmar. Businesses are also treading more carefully from Day 1 as they know they are under scrutiny, both at home, and in Myanmar. I hear businesses and consultants who have worked in Laos and Cambodia, which are the obvious points of comparison, express pleasant surprise that Myanmar civil society organisations and the media are better developed and stronger than in those countries, despite this still being supposedly the early days of the transition. Myanmar civil society has benefitted from significant capacity-building and networking both in the exile years and during the transition, and they are making use of that experience. Obviously if we see backsliding on freedom of expression and association their ability to push business to respect human rights could deteriorate. So I hope that’s not going to be the case.
Some observers see the AEC as leading to a ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ divide between the rich and the rest. Do you agree with this assessment?
That divide has always existed, but Myanmar has the potential to narrow the gap, given its resources, population and strategic position. But it needs still better governance and responsible investment to do so.
Vicky Bowman has been the director of Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business (MCRB) since July 2013. Prior to that she spent over seven years in Myanmar as a diplomat and also worked in the private sector, in mining, where human rights and responsible business are major issues. She served as ambassador of the UK to Myanmar from 2002-2006.