Time to Open the Myanmar Office?

April 5, 2012
  • Dunstan Allison-Hope portrait

    Dunstan Allison-Hope

    Senior Advisor, BSR

When creating corporate human rights strategies, it is common to assess the risk inherent in the countries where that company operates and establish plans to mitigate that risk. An easy part has always been the no-go list—countries such as Iran, North Korea, and Syria are usually best avoided altogether. Myanmar has traditionally been on that list.              

Frankly, I’ve always been skeptical of the idea that avoiding high-risk countries is always the responsible human rights approach to take. As I’ve argued in earlier blogs on Google in China and Vodafone in Egypt, I think there are many good human rights reasons for companies to invest and engage in high-risk countries rather than steer clear of them.

Despite this skepticism, for me, there has always been a common feature of a no-go zone: a democratically legitimate local leader calling for a boycott by multinational companies. Myanmar, like apartheid-era South Africa before it, has for a long time met those criteria.

But things are changing. We’ve all been encouraged by the good news coming from Myanmar over recent months, such as the release of political prisoners, significant advances in freedom of expression, and the signs of greater electoral fairness that resulted in the election of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to Parliament this week.

There is, without doubt, a very long journey to travel to a more democratic Myanmar. A lot could still go wrong, and there are many reasons to remain suspicious of the military’s motives. The scale of Aung San Suu Kyi’s recent success could itself create a backlash.

But my supposition is this: I believe we could be very close to the moment in time when a greater presence of international business in Myanmar—with investment, jobs, and enhanced potential for international exchange—would increase rather than decrease the chances of progress on human rights. Crucially, for the ethics of my case, Aung San Suu Kyi, who previously supported sanctions and a business boycott of Myanmar, would need to reverse her position. This could happen soon, and she has already welcomed tourism back into the country.

Of course, investing in Myanmar would need to be consistent with a company’s business strategy. A global conglomerate supplying energy, transportation, and health care infrastructure might have good reason to invest, while a U.S.-focused telecoms company…not so much. And of course there would be all sorts of risks—political, human rights, and enterprise risks—that would need to be proactively managed.

But if events keep moving in the right direction, and democratically legitimate voices do change their position, then a major company deciding to invest in Myanmar—and engaging constructively on human rights issues while doing so—should receive a warm welcome. Done successfully, it would be another step toward a democratic Myanmar.

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