Trade should not be priority

04:05, Nov 27 2012
Prime Minister John Key meets with Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
FIRST MEETING: Prime Minister John Key meets with Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Myanmar a place full of crazy contradictions.

Its impoverished people - who earn no more than US$1000 in a year - pray before golden, jewel-encrusted pagodas. Eighty per cent of the population are peace-loving Buddhists, yet it was for years "an outpost of tyranny". Its shiny new capital, Naypyitaw, boasts 16-lane highways, yet they carry only bicycles and subsistence farmers driving ox and cart.

Its reformist President Thein Sein - lauded last week by US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister John Key - is a former junta general, who refused to let humanitarian agencies reach starving cyclone victims for three years.

Key only served to highlight those contradictions when he called in on the former pariah state last week. He held talks with Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung Sang Suu Kyi in the city where it cost $5 billion to shift the administrative capital from Yangon. Standing in the lavish, 100-room Presidential Palace, Key announced a $7 million aid package.

The West has rushed to embrace this former "outpost of tyranny". But it's questionable if extending the hand of friendship is less to do with empowering the people of Myanmar - and more about trade and boosting regional influence. Obama's visit was certainly part of an attempt to counter China's influence in the region.

Myanmar is resource rich and Kiwi businesses want to slurp from that particular noodle bowl. The Government has offered to bankroll a $6m farm - and Fonterra wants to grow its new base there. However, Suu Kyi believes aid should be targeted to bolster democracy.

While a new foreign investment law, passed recently, is undeniably welcome, Key needs only to look to Cambodia, where he spent half of last week, to see the horrifying effects of exploitation by big business. Chinese and Korean money has poured in, but rather than spreading wealth, the poor and the weak have been forced from their homes and livelihoods as the government grabs land to satisfy big business.

In Myanmar there are still more than 300 political prisoners and thousands are stateless, the result of religious hatred. The military is yet to fully rescind power, and its constitution remains undemocratic.

The gestures of goodwill by Key and Obama could well encourage reforms. Key has proved he has influence on the world stage - but New Zealand's place is to advocate for a peaceful and democratic world. Pushing our own trade interests should come well behind that.


Sunday Star Times