The Burmese parliament should amend the country’s constitution to enable the central government to share revenue with ethnic states from exploiting their natural resources, a government minister said.
Senior minister Soe Thein said President Thein Sein’s government was all for providing greater autonomy to ethnic states, where armed conflicts had raged for years, particularly under the previous military junta rule.
“It is our dream, the president’s and ours, to transfer the power to [the ethnic nationalities] to govern their regions,” he told RFA’s Burmese service on Monday.
“Parliament needs to amend some of the revenue sharing [laws], for instance, to increase [the ethnic states’] portion in revenue sharing, as stated in the appendix to the constitution, for their development,” said Soe Thein, who is on a U.S. visit.
Ethnic groups have long been excluded from Burma’s politics during decades of brutal military rule which came to an end in March 2011 when Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government took over.
Parliament is at present considering a proposal to change rules in the appendix to the country’s 2008 military-written constitution to allocate a percentage of revenue from natural resources to each of the country’s states and divisions.
The proposal was made by a head of the ethnic Rakhine Nationalities Development Party.
Soe Thein, who is a minister in Thein Sein's office, said that ethnic-based parties should not be ignored in the national agenda.
“There are not only two main parties, the USDP and the NLD; we have multiple parties, including ethnic parties and others,” he noted, referring to the ruling, military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy.
Most of Burma’s natural resources, which include mineral and gas deposits, are concentrated in the country’s predominantly ethnic states, particularly Kachin, Shan, and Karen.
Under Burma’s previous military junta, much of the income generated from exploitation of natural resources was used to fund wars with ethnic rebels, some of them in those states.
But since Thein Sein’s government came to power and enacted a series of reforms, Burma is poised for fresh investment, officials say.
The U.S. announced plans to lift an import ban on Burmese goods last week, during Thein Sein’s visit to New York to attend the U.N. General Assembly—the first U.S.trip by a Burmese government leader in nearly half a century.
Soe Thein said Thein Sein had discussed with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton details of how to proceed with removing the ban.
The minister said he would also meet with officials at the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank this week to speed up the process of easing financial restrictions.
The import ban and other restrictions were imposed by countries aiming to punish the previous military junta for rampant human rights abuses.
Soe Thein denied there would be any relaxation of environmental protection measures as the once-pariah state moves to attract foreign investment.
“The president's investment policy has four points of emphasis, and one of them is ‘not to affect the environment,’” he said.
“We will strictly apply these rules to protect our citizens. If these issues are affected, I will be responsible. We will make sure this doesn't happen,” he said.
There are also plans to compensate states and divisions for potential environmental damages from development projects, Soe Thein said.
“We also have a plan to provide payment for ecological systems for the projects that are in their regions.”
The countries interested in investing in Burma had similar concerns about managing the environmental and social impact of investment, he said, citing Japan, South Korea, Singapore, U.S. and EU member countries as among them.
The Burmese parliament has passed a new investment law, but Thein Sein is sending it back to parliament for amendments amid foreign investor concerns regarding protectionist provisions.
Soe Thein said that the new measures would “definitely” draw more investments within the next year.
He also spoke about the government's vision for the country one decade from now, saying he expects Burma to achieve a development standard like that enjoyed by neighboring Vietnam.
“In 10 years, I expect that we will overtake Cambodia and Laos and at least become like Vietnam. I want to aim for us to be like Thailand, but practically that is not possible, as we have much more to do. “
Reported by Khin Maung Soe for RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by May Zaw Khin. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.