Posted in Ideas & Impacts on Oct 21, 2020

Economic freedoms – to work, own property; safeguarding environmental assets and workers' rights

Twenty-five civil society organisations have outlined some of the most pressing reforms necessary to protect human rights and democracy in Myanmar. An [online platform]( will be launched on 9th October 2020, where election candidates from all parties will be able to sign up to these pledges and commit to taking action in the Hluttaw or in government, if elected. Members of the public will be able to see which candidates support the various legislative or policy reforms, helping to inform their choice at the ballot box. After the election, the platform will be used to monitor progress with reforms. To mark the launch of the platform we will be publishing a series of articles on the pledges between now and the elections on 8th November.

As a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Myanmar as a nation believes that everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment; to equal pay for equal work without discrimination; and to just and favourable remuneration. Further, all people have the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of their interests, and the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay. No one shall be held in slavery. These commitments are set out in Articles 4, 17, 23 & 24 of the UDHR.

Many of the civil society organisations we spoke to felt that the government lacks a clear vision for the economy. The economy is dominated by a small number of elite crony capitalists with whom the government seems to have a close relationship. Inequality and poverty remain high in spite of high rates of growth in recent years.

Although some laws/policies have made some improvements little has been done to make economic governance transparent, effective and accountable. Businesses have to navigate complicated processes, for example for licenses or permits, run by committees that operate according to opaque rules, and which rarely publish/announce their decisions, let alone open them to judicial review. This creates huge opportunities for corruption.

The system continues to be rigged in favour of the same cronies as in the past, they have simply switched their allegiance to the new government. The economy therefore remains relatively closed to competition, and therefore weaker and lacking innovation. There are persistent patron-client relationships between government (including the military), state-owned enterprises, and domestic firms.

Government does not consistently consult communities on development activities, nor does it consistently follow its own rules on environmental impact assessments – undermining the ecosystem services on which current and future generations depend.

Civil society is especially saddened by this government’s approach to land-related policies and laws. At the strategic level, in spite of a national land use policy there is no strategic approach to land use planning, and no mechanism for properly involving local people in decision making via state/region governments. Amendments to the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Land Management Law (VFV Land Law) and the Land Acquisition, Resettlement and Rehabilitation Law (LAARL) are considered particular embarrassments, as they are poorly conceived and do little to protect people’s rights to their land, especially landholdings under customary systems of tenure. Ambiguities in new legislation allows decision makers to take arbitrary decisions about who owns land, evicting farmers whose families have worked plots for generations. Such decisions are taken without the oversight of a competent court, without any publication of the decision, nor any publication or explanation of what rules are being followed by officials.

CSOs are pleased there has been continuity of policy and implementation of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), as well as with relatively ground-breaking actions for Myanmar such as beneficial ownership disclosure. Some action has also taken to halt licenses for jade and gemstones, which served as a wake-up call for some companies in terms of the need to improve their environmental/social performance. However, in a highly natural resource dependent economy, much more must be done to improve governance of extractive industries and ensure profits from this national endowment flow back to the people. Improvements to natural resource transparency are slow and data is often inaccurate and not checked, and for some reason SOEs and SEEs appear to have been exempted from disclosing data. Government has not made any efforts to tackle conflicts of interest: government officials can own businesses in a sector related to the department they run and not have to declare it!

Myanmar is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world in the face of climate change yet the status of environmental conversation within government is low. Much more recognition and buy-in to Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) processes is necessary across all parts of government, and government must ensure the most significant and impactful projects are prioritised for EIAs before any development activity may begin.

Workers in both the formal and informal economies often work long hours in poor conditions for meagre pay. Factory workers and their families often live in slum conditions. Workers who organise through trade unions to try to improve their situation can be fired by company bosses.

If economic rights are to be protected in Myanmar, election candidates are invited to agree with / commit to the following statements:

  • Government should focus its economic strategy on eliminating poverty and improving the lives of the poor. It should devise economic policies that address inequality and break up the monopolies of the crony capitalists, to encourage more competition and innovation.
  • Bureaucratic complexity inherent in running a business in Myanmar must be streamlined, due to the corruption risk this creates.
  • SOEs and SEEs must be fully transparent and accountable in their operations, like any other government department, and conflicts of interest in their governance ended.
  • It is important to ensure that there is neither intrusion nor ownership directly or indirectly by government officials in any business related to their respective areas of responsibility.
  • All politicians and all senior government officials must register and keep updated all of their financial interests and assets, and conflicts of interest. This is standard practice for all democracies and essential for avoiding corruption.
  • Public participation in policymaking is essential at all levels of government.
  • Only when the public is informed, and affected communities have been consulted, should any development projects proceed.
  • Human rights can never be compromised in the name of ‘development’.
  • Government is obligated to follow its own rules on consultation and impact assessments when implementing development projects.
  • If a development project does not benefit local people and harms the environment, it should not proceed.
  • Strategic land use planning is needed, as well as a mechanism for routine open public consultation to develop these plans.
  • The government must listen more carefully to the voices of smallholder farmers, especially when reforming land laws based on a national land use policy.
  • With regard to land law reform, respect for customary land tenure should be more than just words.
  • Land registration and confiscation of land should be suspended unconditionally in any emergency.
  • Government is avoiding recognition of the importance of natural resources to the economy, but should instead lead a national conversation with the public and all relevant stakeholders as part of any future federal political settlement regarding how mineral wealth ought to be distributed.
  • Government should unconditionally suspend planning and implementation of business investments using Myanmar’s natural resources such as water, land and ecosystem during any emergency such as COVID-19.
  • Any economic transformation of the agricultural sector must be in the interests of smallholder businesses.
  • Climate change adaptation and avoiding environmental degradation are amongst the highest priorities for the country.
  • Minimising environmental impact is the responsibility of every part of the government, not just the Department of Environmental Conservation.
  • The government will increase employment opportunities and make the workplace safer.
  • The Government will review labour laws, and work to effectively protect workers' rights and protect the rights of trade unions and their members. Legal action will be taken against businesses that lay-off, threaten or otherwise mistreat union members.
  • The formal minimum wage will be set at a level that ensures a wage that people can live healthy and socially enriched lives. It will be regularly reviewed and increased.
  • The establishment of special economic zones must include housing for workers and their families; education and health infrastructure; and green space for environmental diversity and recreation. These things should be paid for from taxation of the businesses making their profits in the SEZ.
  • Large companies will publish the pay ratio between the CEO and the lowest paid worker.
  • All workers (government and private) will be entitled to fair standards of benefits (eg holiday pay) and social protection (eg sick pay).