Canada, Burma and the rule of law

August 3, 2012
Connie Carter

Connie Carter, professor in the Faculty of Management, recently traveled to Burma to study the directions and determinants of Burma’s investment law reform program and what it means for Canadians. She shares her insights below.

Foreign investors are flocking to Myanmar (Burma) now that a fledgling pro-democracy government has replaced decades of military rule.

Canadians could be among those to benefit since Canada has decided to open an embassy there. But Canada should do more.  

On July 4, when the Burmese parliament reconvened for its first legislative session since the April election, the Foreign Investment law headed its agenda, followed by the Special Economic Zone law.

But Burma’s legislative burden is heavier, for President Thein Sein claims that law is key for creating trust among foreign investors, eradicating corruption, and strengthening trust and unity among the Burmese population, all of which will lead to sustainable economic development and poverty alleviation.

Currently, more than 400 laws are in the pipeline. Most of them speak to economic development.

Canada acknowledged Myanmar’s political shift by lifting economic sanctions, and presenting the Speaker of the Burmese parliament with a set of Canadian parliamentary procedure books.

These are excellent gifts but what Burma needs more than anything is legislative guidance from neutral brokers. This was made clear on a recent fact-finding trip that I took to Burma.

I was there to study the directions and determinants of Burma’s investment law reform program, with particular focus on foreign direct investment and special economic zones.  

Soon I realized that irrespective of who I interviewed, all roads led to the rule of law. Whereas many developing countries often pay lip service to the concept, leaving it to the World Bank to organize theoretical courses for government officials, my interviewees wanted practical workshops immediately. They wanted to know how to live the rule of law.

Opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, reiterated her call, claiming that only acceptance, understanding and implementation of the rule of law throughout society can render Myanmar’s reform program irreversible. 

But Burma’s previous regimes have fostered a culture in which people fear to share information. Feedback and consultation are not sought on Bills or draft laws as is the practice in most countries – even in neighbouring China.  

Legal drafters and law-makers are prohibited from discussing Bills with outsiders. Until they become law, Bills are considered state secrets. Worse: under sections 5 (h) and (n) of the Emergency Provisions Act 1950, anyone who comments negatively on the economy “shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which shall extend to 7 years or with a fine or with both”. 

Canada can help Burmese legislators immediately through an open dialogue about transparency and how to draft effective legislation.

Mutual benefits could be derived if Canada would help build rule of law and governance capabilities, with specific focus on a mechanism through which to transfer knowledge and expertise in how to unlock, maximize and share – equitably – the benefits and opportunities available in Burma’s huge, metals, minerals, forestry, fishery, agriculture, water, oil and gas resources. 

Canada is equally rich in these industries, with huge expertise in financing, exploration, extraction, processing and logistics operations. Our large mining and extractive services sector is experienced and professional. Sharing such expertise with Burma could be a win-win proposition.

Such capacity building would increase the skills of multiple actors in government, research institutes, universities, and civil society. The outcomes would be improved quality of legislation, increased legislative capacity, improved policies and practices in the governance of mining, extractive and other industries, more meaningful engagement between stakeholders, including their interaction with the environment; empowerment of the Burmese people to sustain local capacity through needs assessment and train-the-trainer programs. 

Having been bullied by authoritarian governments for decades, the Burmese people are now eager to experience democracy and the rule of law, and through them, economic development and prosperity.

Canada is well-positioned to help, thereby benefiting brand Canada, the Burmese people and Canadian companies.