International Trade Minister Ed Fast has just concluded Canada’s first official trade mission to Myanmar. The visit comes on the heels of the announcement that Canada will soon open an embassy in the formerly blacklisted country. The news was long in coming – so long that the excited spate of Western proclamations and supplicating delegations is reminiscent of Kipling’s “Great Game” renewed.
At a time when Canada is contracting its diplomatic presence in many corners of the world, and shrinking its Foreign Affairs bureau by some $170-million, it’s hoped that planting a Canadian flag in the country formerly called Burma is a harbinger of much commercial success to come. But the diplomatic staffers, their bosses in Ottawa and representatives of the Canadian business community should call things as they truly are: The Burmese people don’t need our extractions and consultants – they need our ideas.
Mr. Fast says Myanmar is “in desperate need of improvements to its infrastructure,” which is true enough. Former colonial vestiges have become dilapidated, former government buildings in Rangoon sit eerily abandoned, the road system is too archaic for the needs of modern transportation, and upgrading the country’s state-steered telecommunications is an ongoing struggle.
But here’s a news flash: China beat us to the punch. Admittedly, this quotidian observation hints of defeatism, but it’s an admission well known by our business leaders, who have looked longingly eastward while Western sanctions and boycotts all but enshrined China’s status as the chief beneficiary of the Burmese resource grab. Parts of the country resemble little Chinese satellites – and not just Shan state on Myanmar’s eastern flank or restive Kachin state in the north.
It’s surely worth every effort to enhance the competitiveness of Myanmar’s business environment – the state-run oil and gas company, state-owned enterprises across the multibillion-dollar mineral, gem and teak industries – and to break up the conglomerate holdings of the regime’s cronies. Rather than discouraging Canadian activities in Myanmar, these situations should serve as a clarion call for our true purpose there.
Ordinary Burmese, especially outside Rangoon, are elated to play host to foreign visitors – fulfilling the exhortation on signs found ubiquitously around the country to “warmly welcome and take care of tourists.” While the fear created by years of repression won’t recede overnight, it’s clear that the reforms enacted by President Thein Sein’s government over the past 20 months have eased Burmese into sharing not just their incredible warmth and generosity of spirit but also their curiosity and eagerness to learn about the outside world.
While this is no substitute for the leverage created by state-to-state diplomacy, these people-powered cultural exchanges are essential to promoting “Brand Canada” in Myanmar.
To RIM, SNC-Lavalin, Bombardier and other Canadian companies seeking a foothold in Myanmar: After securing your contracts, be sure to pony up for investments in human capital. Call it “CSR” if it plays better at home – or just call it smart business. Because this is where we’ll beat China, which most Burmese think of as little more than the opportunistic behemoth next door.
We can make our mark in Myanmar through investments in education, for instance – by supporting training for more English teachers or by sponsoring more cultural exchanges between Canadian and Burmese students. On health, we could help organize workshops for Burmese community health workers to educate typically superstitious villagers on the merits of high-quality modern medicine.
These suggestions may not seem overwhelming, but they don’t need to. Burmese crave simple exchanges to learn more about the outside world. Why shouldn’t Canadian businesses champion such initiatives? As in many other countries with huge developmental needs, foreign businesses often may obtain greater returns on human capital investments than non-governmental organizations, which may struggle for support and access.
The future earnings value of such investments shouldn’t be overlooked: Top-down reform of the sort witnessed in Myanmar is essential, but to keep those reforms creeping forward will require bottom-up pressure. The terminology ever in vogue with development practitioners and policy consultants – good governance, rule of law, transparency, the freedom to question and to tinker – isn’t just wordsmithery. It’s the very ammunition Burmese will need to keep their country’s business environment humming.
Myanmar is a country of abundant promise, with no resource greater than its people. While our politicians are wise to ensure Canadian companies have every opportunity to get theirs, this access comes with the duty to ensure that Burmese don’t miss out on getting theirs, too.
Jeffrey Bernstein, a former human-rights adviser to Senator Roméo Dallaire, spent the summer leading a pilot study of fake medicines in Myanmar and South Sudan for STATT, a group dedicated to mitigating transnational threats and expanding transnational opportunities. Follow him on Twitter at @JeffMBernstein.