Free For All: Who Wants a Piece of Myanmar?

Aung San Suu Kyi's historic victory overshadowed another piece of equally important news: a new exchange rate came into effect, the first step in transforming Myanmar into a more open, market-based economy. Pretty soon, the whole world will be fi

Money-giving celebrations at a Nat Festival in Myanmar (Antonio López Torregrosa)
Money-giving celebrations at a Nat Festival in Myanmar (Antonio López Torregrosa)
Frank Stocker

NAYPYIDAW- By now the whole world has heard about the sweeping victory of pro-democracy, Nobel prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi's party in Sunday's special elections. On the same day, however, there was another piece of news from Myanmar that will have major consequences but didn't capture nearly as much attention.

The news is that, on April 1, a new exchange rate came into effect -- a reference rate at 818 kyat to the dollar. The country is changing at breakneck speed, politically and economically.

The repercussions of Myanmar transforming into a more open, market-based economy will be huge all around the region. The country is strategically placed between fast-developing countries - India, China, Thailand and Vietnam - and could soon be leading a boom in the region.

"The opening up of Myanmar marks a turning point. It was the missing link in a chain that needed all its links for the dream of a high-growth region along the Mekong to be realized," says Hak Bin Chua of Bank of America Merrill Lynch. One development relevant to that prospect is the deep-water port project in Dawei, which lies at about the same latitude as Bangkok.

Another development still in the planning stages is the road construction project that will link Myanmar via Bangkok and Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh City in southern Vietnam. A similar network is planned some 200 kilometers north, from Myanmar's capital Rangoon to the Vietnamese city of Hue.

The northern part of Myanmar that borders the southern Chinese growth regions will also be the focus of new transportation projects with Indochina. When the U.S. and the E.U. lift sanctions against Myanmar, which everyone expects to happen, these will become crucial.

The end of the economic sanctions will also bring an influx of capital from around the world. Until now, money has mainly flowed in from China, which has led to considerable dependence on the big northern neighbor. One of the main reasons for the reforms is that they will reduce that dependency.

To draw in investors from around the world, a slew of further reforms are in the preparation stages. Among other changes, foreigners would no longer need a local partner to set up a business or lease land. Investors would be exempted from paying taxes for up to five years. Property protection guarantees are also being promised.

Foreign capital will mostly flow into the natural resources sector: Myanmar is rich in oil, gas, wood and precious gems. Heavy industry is likely to be drawn to the southern part of the country, transferring across the border from Thailand where costs are significantly higher. Tourism to Myanmar will also experience a significant boom.

The country's potential is huge, particularly if one considers that even with the sanctions the economy grew 5.5% in the last year. With its population of 60 million, Myanmar could become a second regional powerhouse after Thailand with its population of around 70 million.

As Myanmar expands economically, Thailand is likely to be one of the countries benefitting most. That has been clear in the last few months as Bangkok's stock market booms and leads most other exchanges.

But Vietnam's performance has also been on the up in recent months, with first-quarter stock exchange developments in Ho Chi Minh City among the best in the world. Investors who want to get in on the new boom region now are best advised to do it through investments in these two countries.

The stock market in Myanmar is still in the making, but the Tokyo exchange is already in talks about collaboration that would lift the Rangoon exchange to world level and make it accessible to international investors.

However, "As with every ‘gold rush," there may be a little too much enthusiasm," Hak Bin Chua warns. The transition is not going to be easy, and when vast amounts of capital start to flow in, he says, it could spur inflation.

A natural resources boom could also send currency values soaring and that in turn would pose problems for the rest of the economy. And of course the political reforms are just beginning.

"One thing is very clear, though" says Hak Bin Chua. "The way Myanmar manages the transition in the coming months will not only have a significant impact on its direct neighbors Thailand and China, but on all of Asia" - and on investors in the region.

Read this article in Die Welt in German.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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