The US recently exercised a partial waiver authority underU.S. law which allows the US to support the work of international financialinstitutions (IFIs) including the World Bank and the International MonetaryFund (IMF) to operate in Burma, notwithstanding the existing US sanctions regime.The State Department announcedthat Secretary Clinton used a provision in the Trafficking Victims ProtectionAct to waive restrictions on Burma that previously kept the US from supportingassessments by IFIs.
The shift in US policy reflects some recent changes in Burma,including the release of high-level political prisoners, the politicalrecognition of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and the National Leaguefor Democracy, as well as the loosening of media restrictions.
This decision will allow the US to support initialassessments and limited technical assistance by IFIs, which aim to tacklesystemic poverty in developing countries. Poverty alleviation is an importantgoal, but the international community must remain vigilant regarding theongoing human rights violations in the country. The US should use its voice andits vote at the World Bank to ensure that any assessment or intervention isconducted in a way that will improve the well-being of marginalizedcommunities, including minority ethnic groups in rural Burma, and not the individualswho have long profited from the country’s military regime. The US and theinternational community must understand that IFI interventions will beeffective only when attacks on civilians end, impunity gives way toaccountability, and the rule of law is established and respected.
IFI programs must ensure that any economic support directly meetsthe needs of survivors of human rights violations and is not diverted by themilitary regime, and that this support fully includes members of minoritygroups. Crucial pre-conditions for successful poverty alleviation programs are theend of the ongoing military conflict in the ethnic regions, the end of severehuman rights violations which still continue in those areas, and accountabilityfor perpetrators of these crimes.
Given the checkered history of the World Bank in SoutheastAsia, the US should carefully track the institution’s activities in Burma. Inthe past, the World Bank has pushed for the construction of dams and otherinfrastructure projects, and in Burma, such projects are often the foundationfor displacement, increased food insecurity, the destruction of cultural and religious sites, and significant environmental damage.
Instead of being lifted out of poverty,people living in the vicinity of dams and similar projects face the prospect oflosing their homes and going to more extreme lengths to find food and othernecessities. In Burma, other similar projects have historically benefited thegovernments of neighboring countries, not the people of Burma—such programshardly deserve the worthy title of poverty alleviation.