Veteran Foreign Correspondent Bertil Lintner warns foreign businessmen of bitter lessons to be learned in Burma.
By Gregers Moller
Bertil Lintner, award-winning Swedish Foreign Correspondent based in Thailand, is highly critical of the majority of corporations moving in to do business in Burma since the country has opened up and international sanctions against the regime has been lifted.
“I am much more critical of the so-called transition process in Burma than most other foreign observers, and foreign investors don’t want to hear that,” Bertil Lintner says.
“They seem to prefer glossy, more upbeat interpretations of recent developments in Burma. But most of my Burmese friends share my views. They know as well as I do that the military is still in charge of all important decision making, and that the military even controls the country’s most powerful business conglomerates, the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings and the Myanmar Economic Corporation.”
“I would argue that most foreign businessmen, business consultants and risk analysts are out of touch with reality. There are a few exceptions, though, but the general trend is to look at things through rose-tinted glasses,” Bertil Lintner adds.
“It’s not just that the military remains in power, there are many other obstacles as well which are the legacy of decades of brutal military rule: rampant corruption on all levels, military meddling in private businesses, a fragile legal system – yes, the military is acting with impunity even when it comes to businesses – and an acute shortage of educated and skilled people. Hundreds of thousands of educated people have left the country because of military rule; at home, universities and even high schools have been closed off and on ever since the military seized power in 1962.”
“Many new Western investors are talking about “ethical” and “socially responsible” investment, but they have to remember that their competition comes from Chinese, Indian, Thai, Singaporean, Malaysian and Korean businessmen who do not have such considerations when it comes to investing in Burma.”
“It is my impression that most foreign investors are very naive when it comes to Burma and its supposed economic potential. They should be prepared for some bitter lessons to be learned, but most of them are not,” he warns.
The ethnic wars
Bertil Lintner agrees with the observers who are concerned with the brutal war that the central Burmese rule is waging against states with different ethnic majority.
“There is hardly going to become any peace in the ethnic areas because there are two fundamentally different, incompatible views of what kind of country Burma should be,” he explains.
“The ethnic groups, whether armed or not – such as political parties and civil society organisations – are demanding the same thing: a federal system with autonomy for ethnic areas. The military wants to maintain a highly centralised state structure. The military believes that federalism would be the first step toward disintegration of Burma.”
“Although peace talks are being held and ceasefire agreements agreed upon, the military keeps attacking Kachin and Shan rebels in the north. In the south, we are seeing a heavy militarisation of Karen and Mon areas.”
First visit in 23 years
Bertil Lintner is one of many foreign correspondents who have been blacklisted and not been allowed to enter Burma for many years. Only in his case, he has been on the list since 1985. The previous Burmese government body, the State Peace and Development Council, said his reports on Burma were groundless and based on wishful thinking. Ironically, Lintner was the first foreign journalist to learn about Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest in 1995.
In October 2012, Bertil Lintner legally visited Burma for the first time in 23 years. He wrote about this in a report in the German magazine Du:
“While walking down the streets of Rangoon for the first time in 23 years, I remembered how it all began in March 1988.”
“It was March 12, a Saturday, and Win Myint, his namesake Win Myint and Kyaw San Win – three young students from the prestigious Rangoon Institute of Technology, RIT- strolled down to a small teashop opposite their campus on Insein Road. It was a simple, country-style bamboo structure with an earthen floor, not fancy but popular with locals as well as RIT students. A brawl broke out between them and some locals over what kind of music should be played on the teashop’s tape recorder: their favourite, Sai Hti Hseng, a singer from the Shan national minority whose songs resembled Bob Dylan’s, but set in a Burmese context – or Kaizar, a Burmese crooner who sang only love songs.”
“The police intervened, but mishandled the situation. A 23-year old RIT student, Maung Phone Maw was shot and killed by the police, the first victim of the turbulent events of 1988. From then on, resentment with the authorities grew – and, in August 1988, erupted into a nationwide uprising. Burma would never be the same again.”
“I have no idea where Win Myint, Win Myint and Kyaw San Win are today, and they could never have imagined the avalanche of events they were about to precipitate when they strolled down to that nondescript teashop a Saturday evening 24 years ago.”
Suu Kyi and the 2015 election
During this visit, Bertil Lintner also met with Aung San Suu Kyi. About this visit he wrote:
“It was evident from my discussions with her that she has her own agenda and refuses to be a pawn. But it is also clear that the government has gained an enormous amount of goodwill by releasing her from house arrest, and letting her travel to Europe and the United States to promote “the new Burma” – without having to give up an inch of its power.”
“There is still an open question, what will happen at the next general election, scheduled for 2015? Judging from statements by several ethnic leaders and spokespersons, the NLD may already have lost “the ethnic vote” by being vague on issues relating to the civil war and the refugees. Moreover, Aung San Suu Kyi seemed very frail when I met her – and three years from now, she will have turned 7o. Her NLD is also not nearly as well organised – and well funded – as the military’s Union Solidarity and Development Party, USDP.”
“There is no doubt that Aung San Suu Kyi will have her place in Burma’s history – and the world’s – but then perhaps more as a beacon of hope during the dark years of military rule and, in the words of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee in 1991, her “struggle is one of the most extraordinary examples of civil courage in Asia in recent decades. She has become an important symbol in the struggle against oppression.”
“As an elected politician, however, she has a long way to go before she becomes a national leader assuming any high office within the state. If indeed she ever gets there.”
Swedish immigrant – stays in Thailand
Bertil Lintner was born in Sweden, but his father was Austrian, so he only became Swedish citizen when he was three years old. His surname, Lintner, is south-German/Austrian, not Swedish.
“My father came to Sweden as a refugee from Nazi Germany, which at that time had occupied Austria, and he and my grandfather had both been incarcerated in concentration camps in Germany. So you can see that my background is not exactly that of an “ordinary” Swede,” he explains.
He left Sweden in 1975, when he was 22 to travel in Asia and worked in New Zealand, Hong Kong and Japan before returning to Thailand in December 1979 with the intention of staying here for good.
“I have lived here since then, apart from two years in the wilds of northern Burma in 1985-1987. I feel much more at home in this part of the world – Thailand, Burma, India and so on – than in Sweden.”
He has no intention ever of moving permanently back Sweden.
“When I am in Sweden, which happens about once a year, I feel like an outsider, can’t relate to what’s going on and what people are talking about. Chiang Mai, where I now live, is my home and I am not going to move anywhere.”