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Time to Divest from Myanmar? Not Quite

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In an op-ed that ran in the Guardian last week, Hannah Lownsbrough of the NGO SumOfUs put forward a highly provocative take on the Rohingya crisis gripping Myanmar. Running just a few days before Christmas, Lownsbrough asked whether Christmas shoppers buying gifts from brands like Bulgari wanted to “consider their role in propping up the genocide of Rohingya people.” As she tells it, outside companies that source materials from Myanmar (and, by extension, their customers) are bankrolling the violence against the one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.

The article puts forward an appealingly simple narrative of corporate complicity in Myanmar’s conflict. Unfortunately, that simplicity ignores far more important factors in the Rohingya’s ongoing suffering and advocates a course of action (divestment) whose efficacy is a matter of contentious debate. Why the fixation on what the Guardian op-ed refers to as “genocide gems” just one year after the Obama administration lifted remaining US sanctions on the industry?

One possible explanation: the people advocating divestment may not be exactly who, or what, they seem. In her op-ed, Lownbrough states her organization is campaigning alongside the International Campaign for the Rohingya (ICR) to “cut off this income stream to the Burmese military.” The ICR indeed seems laser focused on pressing multinational companies do “no business with genocide” but does not otherwise seem active in supporting relief efforts.

In a peculiar coincidence, the organization seems to be led by American lobbyist Joseph Grieboski and staffed entirely by his associates. Grieboski’s wife is named as ICR co-chair, while the campaign’s treasurer is an employee at Grieboski Global Strategies and the chief strategy officer at Grieboski’s firm Grieboski Jolly Caraway is listed as the group’s “secretary.” Joseph Grieboski is also founder of the obscure “Institute on Religion and Public Policy” and known for his connections to the controversial Church of Scientology (including alleged lobbying work on its behalf).

Does this mean there are ulterior motives behind the SumOfUs/ICR campaign against foreign companies who do business in Myanmar? The ICR’s website makes no mention of funding sources (other than pointing visitors to a donate button). However, one of Grieboski’s major clients is the 57-country Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC). The OIC, which technically represents the entire Islamic world but in practice is closely aligned with Saudi Arabia, has offered more rhetorical support for the Rohingya than concrete assistance.

If there were a deeper connection between the OIC and the ICR, it would be a bizarrely roundabout way of responding to the crisis. Fully 860,000 Rohingya men, women, and children have sought refuge in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. The UN and other aid organizations need hundreds of millions of dollars to assist up to 1.2 million people impacted by the crisis.

Funding shortfalls mean those organizations do not have the resources on hand to handle the sheer scope of the exodus. The UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has met only 35% of its $434 million US fundraising target. The $15 million in aid Saudi Arabia’s King Salman pledged for the Rohingya in September does not stake up to the generosity of previous monarchs: during a previous crisis 2012, King Abdullah donated $50 million. Before that, King Faisal allowed many Rohingya families to resettle in Saudi Arabia. Salman, for reasons that remain unclear, later moved to deport many of them.

There are reasons for Riyadh to dissimulate its criticism of Myanmar, many of them economic. Saudi oil uses a new, 771-kilometer pipeline that starts in Rakhine State and traverses Myanmar to reach customers in China’s Yunnan Province. Myanmar’s central location gives it a key role in Saudi regional economic aspirations. Curiously, the ICR has not called on companies like Saudi Aramco to abandon their interests in the country.

Saudi Arabia isn’t the only Muslim country with a problematic stance. Bangladesh has taken in the vast majority of the Rohingya to flee Rakhine State over the past few months, but is making their stay a precarious one. Bangladeshi prime minister Sheikh Hasina is moving ahead with a proposal to resettle 100,000 Rohingya refugees on a remote, flood-prone island liable to being completely submerged by the tides. Dhaka signed a deal with Myanmar to repatriate displaced Rohingya to Myanmar, even as Rohingya villages still burned.

The campaign to force corporate interests out of Myanmar raises a broader question: what, if anything, would divestment actually do for the Rohingya? Campaigners like SumOfUs point to apartheid-era South Africa to illustrate the power of ostracization. However, comparing South Africa in the 1980s to Myanmar today is problematic at best. This is not least because Suu Kyi, the one leader who could translate a global divestment campaign into effective grassroots action, is herself guilty of ignoring the crimes perpetrated against the Rohingya by her country’s military.

One of the most important factors driving the Rohingya crisis is the fear, hatred, and suspicion with which even pro-democracy members of Myanmar’s Buddhist majority view their Muslim neighbors. While Myanmar’s military is obviously implicated in the deadly attacks on Rohingya communities, vigilante groups and the Buddhist nationalist movement have actively stoked and committed anti-Muslim violence for years.

Having grown accustomed to decades of seclusion, it is difficult to imagine Myanmar’s generals or sectarian extremists bowing to pressure from abroad. Economic isolation may instead produce the same retrenchment Myanmar’s junta fostered for decades. Western officials recognize that blanket sanctions and economic disengagement are unlikely to help the Rohingya, but even the targeted measures now under consideration by American policymakers could undermine Myanmar’s economy and end up strengthening domestic support for the military’s anti-Rohingya campaign.

As Hannah Lownsbrough herself wrote in the Guardian, untangling the conflict between Myanmar’s government and its Rohingya will “not be straightforward.” Unfortunately, changing the government’s behavior is also far more complicated than her piece lets on. If the international community (and especially Muslim-majority countries) want to help the Rohingya, they should look directly to the refugee camps where the need is greatest.

Southeast Asia

In Myanmar, Better Oversight of Forests a Vital Step in Transition to Rule of Law

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Authors: Art Blundell and Khin Saw Htay

For the first time, the Myanmar Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (MEITI) has opened the books to share information with the public on revenue Myanmar’s government collects from harvesting timber. Last month, the MEITI released two reports juxtaposing statistics on production and tax payments from government ministries’ ledgers with corresponding figures reported by the state-owned Myanma Timber Enterprise (MTE) and forestry companies.

The reports are an important step toward improved transparency and accountability in Myanmar’s forest sector because they shine a light on irregularities that may point toward mismanagement or illegal activities. Unclear legal frameworks and weak enforcement in Myanmar’s forestry sector – a remnant of decades of military rule – have created an environment ripe for illegal logging and illicit trade, and mismanagement of natural resources.

The role of forests in Myanmar’s transition to democracy cannot be overemphasized. Money from illegal logging helped to fuel Myanmar’s decades-long civil war. Smuggling of illegally harvested timber to countries like Chinahas led to the loss of millions of dollars each year in government revenue. Corruption also fuels continued violence and prolongs armed conflict, especially in the heavily forested states that are home to most of Myanmar’s ethnic minorities.

The MEITI is committed to sharing its results at the state level—especially in Myanmar’s forest-rich regions. Myanmar’s citizens have the right to understand how their forests are being managed for the public good.

The EITI framework was launched globally in 2003 with a focus on oil, gas, and mining, given that these lucrative sectors are often key drivers of corruption in resource-rich countries. Myanmar is one of only a few countries (following Liberia’s lead) to add forestry to its EITI reporting, thanks to advocacy from civil society. 

Myanmar’s newest MEITI reports are a commendable step by the government toward transparency. But producing a report like this is not easy. The reporting highlights numerous disparities and irregularities in government record-keeping. This is not unusual for a first EITI report. It is also a major objective of the EITI: transparency leads to meaningful discussion about necessary reforms, while regular reporting creates an accountability mechanism to demonstrate progress.  MEITI is now preparing their next report covering fiscal years 2016-2017 and 2017-2018.

The MEITI is already driving progress. Myanmar’s Ministry of Planning and Finance (MoPF) has announced it will close the so-called “other accounts” maintained by State-owned Economic Enterprises, like the MTE, that have kept more than half their profits separate from the government’s central budget. Data in the MEITI report suggest that MTEretained74% of its $1 billion profits from fiscal years 2014-2015and2015-2016 in these other accounts–significantly more than the 55% that is permissible.

Myanmar’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation (MoNREC) now holds important data that can be used to investigate and resolve irregularities uncovered by the MEITI reporting. For instance, the Forestry Department’s data on production does not match the data provided by the MTE, and it is substantially more than the Annual Allowable Cut (a government-determined sustainable level of harvest). Likewise, the MTE indicated that more teak was sold than its total reported supply. The source of the additional volume of teak logs is unexplained.

Reforms should help MoNREC address these irregularities.  Current reporting is obviously insufficient to capture reality.  With the help of a workshop that followed the MEITI launch, stakeholders are working with MoNREC to develop appropriate reforms for MTE and the Forestry Department, and to improve forestry sector governance in general. 

Opacity hurts the country in more ways than one. Illegal logging, corruption, and smuggling siphon off revenues meant for programs serving the public. Illegalities also threaten forests – and the communities that rely on forests for their livelihoods – and they drive off credible investment, leaving a gap often filled by investors with less regard for environmental and social regulations.

It is important to note that the MEITI reports cover only the period from April 2014 through March 2016, prior to Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD Party coming into power. The current administration has committed to fairer distribution of benefits from Myanmar’s natural resources among its citizens, yet systematic barriers remain. Endorsing the recommendations from the MEITI report and implementing a roadmap for reform would signal the NLD’s commitment to good forest governance. Meanwhile, companies should do their part to comply with the law and accurately report production, sales, and other data in an accessible manner that allows for independent monitoring.

Myanmar’s forest resources hold great promise for the country’s people, its economy, and the government budget, if managed responsibly. The MEITI has a clear role in charting that path forward and in helping Myanmar manage its natural resources based on the principles of good governance.

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Southeast Asia

South-East Asia youth survey: Skills prized over salary

MD Staff

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Young people in South-East Asia face a relentless challenge to upgrade their skills as technology disrupts job markets, according to research released today by the World Economic Forum and Sea.

In a survey of 56,000 ASEAN citizens aged between 15 and 35, some 9% of respondents say their current skills are already outdated, while 52% believe they must “update their skills constantly.” Only 18% believe their current skills will stay relevant for most of their lives.

These concerns about skills are reflected in attitudes to jobs. ASEAN youths say the number one reason they change jobs is to learn new skills – the desire to earn a higher income comes second. 5.7% report having lost a job either because their skills were no longer relevant, or because technology had displaced them. Other reasons include the desire to create a more positive social impact and to have a more innovative working environment.

The survey also shows 81% of ASEAN youths believe internships are either equally important or more important than school education. In addition, over half are keen to spend time working overseas in the next three years, probably to gain new skills, with a significant portion wanting to work in another ASEAN country.

“It is impossible to predict how technology will change the future of work.” said Justin Wood, Head of Asia Pacific and Member of the Executive Committee at the World Economic Forum. “The only certainty is that job markets face accelerating disruption, where the lifespan of many skills is shortening. It is encouraging that ASEAN youths are aware of these challenges and show a deep commitment to lifelong, ongoing learning.”

Soft versus STEM skills

Overall, ASEAN youth attach greater importance to soft skills, and less importance to STEM skills – science, technology, engineering and maths. They see “creativity and innovation” as the most important skill – in which they also rank themselves highly – followed by the ability to speak multiple languages. They are confident about their soft skills, such as emotional intelligence, and list the two least important skills as “maths and science” and “data analytics”. They are particularly positive about their ability to use technology such as social media platforms, e-commerce sites, and e-payment systems.

Santitarn Sathirathai, Group Chief Economist of Sea, noted: “While it is essential that the region continues to invest in developing STEM skills among young people, we can also see that soft skills will have a vital role to play – even in the tech sector. In the world where knowledge becomes obsolete more quickly, soft skills such as adaptability, leadership and creativity will be crucial in ensuring young people have the resilience to constantly evolve their skill-sets in step with a changing market.”

The importance of re-skilling

Responding to the need to train workers in the face of technological change, the ongoing ASEAN Digital Skills Vision 2020 programme, launched by the Forum in Bangkok in November 2018 is assembling a coalition of organizations to train 20 million workers at ASEAN SMEs by 2020, and to provide internship and scholarship opportunities.

“The World Economic Forum’s ASEAN Digital Skills programme is delivering significant impact. In its first eight months, the initiative has already secured commitments to train over 8.9 million workers at SMEs, and to provide over 30,000 internships,” said Mr Wood.

Some 16 organizations have so far joined the programme: BigPay; Certiport, a Pearson VUE Business; Cisco; FPT Corporation; General Assembly; Golden Gate Ventures; Google; Grab; Lazada; Microsoft; Netflix; Plan International; Sea; thyssenkrupp; Tokopedia; and VNG Corporation.

“Government policy and business practices need to catch up to what is happening on the ground. Advances in technology will continue to impact labour markets into the future, and this requires ongoing education and skills training,” said Saadia Zahidi, Managing Director and Head of the Centre for the New Economy and Society at the Forum. “Anything less than a systematic shift in our approach to education and skills risks leaving people behind.”

Future jobs

When asked what type of organization they work for today, and where they would like to work in the future, ASEAN youths show a strong preference for entrepreneurial settings. Today, 31% are either entrepreneurs or work for a start-up. In the future, 33% want to work in an entrepreneurial setting. 19% of young people also aspire to work for foreign multinationals in the future (the current figure is 9%).

Traditional SMEs (as opposed to start-ups) are seen less favourably. While SMEs form the backbone of ASEAN labour markets, the survey reveals that small companies face recruitment challenges. 18% of youths work for SMEs today, but only 8% want to work for an SME in the future. One reason for the low interest is because young people say they receive less training at small companies compared to larger ones.

When asked what industry sectors are most attractive, the results reveal a clear preference for the technology sector, with 7% working in the industry today and 16% aspiring to work there in the future. In comparison, more traditional parts of the economy may face recruitment challenges. For example, 15% of youths work in manufacturing today, but only 12% want to work there in the future. Likewise, 8% work as teachers, yet only 5% want to work in education in the future.

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Being Wealthy Helps Singapore’s Naval Ambition

Bahauddin Foizee

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There’s an image that has been imprinted in the minds of the millions about Singapore, that it is a tiny yet wealthy city-state and an important Asian financial hub. But many are unaware of the fact that Singaporean armed forces are stronger than many regional forces, as it has one of the best navies, airforces and armies in the region.

Singapore’s navy, officially known as the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN), in particular has been shaped over the years into a maritime force which is highly sophisticated and well-trained. An article on The National Interest ranked the RSN among the top five Asian navies, even when Indian Navy did not find a place in the list.

According to the aforesaid article, the RSN is a better navy than the Indian Navy in terms of quality, operation and policy-making, though the RSN lacks the experience, manpower and size of the Indian Navy. Arthur Waldron, an International Relations academic at the University of Pennsylvania, believes that if Chinese Navy, necessarily dividing the fleet, sends a taskforce to subdue the RSN at the Philip Channel, the narrowest part of the Strait of Malacca, the RSN would beat the Chinese taskforce.

Ambitious Procurement Plans

Singapore intends to build a navy that could protect its territories and economic interest from the potential hostility by any immediate larger neighbours, and more importantly a navy that could become lethal if combined with other regional and extra-regional navies (like Australia and Indonesia) against a greater navy (e.g. against Chinese navy). That is why, the RSN is currently on a spree to acquire more capabilities and next-generation platforms.

As part of its submarine force renewal program, the RSN is acquiring four Type 218SG submarines from Germany to improve the operational and combat capabilities of its submarine fleet. These new submarines will be having far more capabilities and durability — and are built to stay submerged about 50% longer — than those of the existing ones.

It’s worth mentioning here that submarines, unlike surface warships that have both peactime and wartime functions, is built to shoot and destroy targets as well as to conduct surveillance, even surveilling foreign coasts to gather vital intelligence. The very fact that a small city-state like Singapore has submarines in operation and is now renewing its fleet with even more capable submarines — shows how ambitious Singaporean navy has become about increasing its naval power.

Because of the larger capacity, these submarines have plenty of scopes for future upgrades, meaning that these submarines could be equipped with weapon systems such as long-range missiles to carry-out an offensive strike.

There’s more to the Singapore’s naval ambitions. Take for example the Joint Multi-Mission Ships (JMMSs), one of the RSN’s major new procurements. With full-length flight deck, these vessels would be almost 540 feet long with an estimated displacement of around 14,500 tons, and are expected to carry five medium and two heavy helicopters on a flight deck. What’s more, these vessels could potentially support limited operations of fixed-wing aircraft, including the F-35B warplanes which Singapore airforce is expected to purchase from the U.S. sometime in near future. Therefore, these vessels could potentially serve as aircraft carriers.

The RSN is also very well aware of the fact that wars these days are fought from a distant with the help of unmanned drones and unmanned vessels that carry cameras and weapons in order to see farther and respond quicker. Hence, the RSN plans to procure new vessels that will be having multiple unmanned air and surface vehicles to extend their reach and flexibility against threats. Take the eight new Littoral Mission Vessels (LMVs) for example. These LMVs will have a helicopter landing pad that will be able to carry an unmanned aerial vehicle. The aforesaid JMMSs and the new Multi-Role Combat Vessels (MRCVs) too will have unmanned air and surface vehicles.

Being Wealthy Helps

An Asian financial hub, the city-state of Singapore has a lot of wealth. The tiny landmass of the state and the already developed infrastructures allow the Singaporean government to allocate comparatively lesser wealth on infrastructures and other conventional sectors and to invest more on innovation and technology as well as defense and security. This is how the tiny state affords to make the quality defense procurements.

Singapore has been the Southeast-Asia’s largest military spender for several years now. Singapore was the top regional military spender in 2018 with an expenditure of US$10.8 billion and the Southeast Asian neighbour with the closest figures was Indonesia with an expenditure of US$7.4 billion. For 2019, Singapore has allocated US$11.4 billion for defense on its budget — something which amounts to about 19 percent of total government expenditures and around 3.3 percent of national GDP.

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