04/01/2016, 11.53
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Myanmar's democratization scares Tokyo and its companies

The National League for Democracy has made it clear that foreign investment in the country must "first and foremost benefit the population", but has not yet presented a real economic plan. Since 2011, Japanese companies have fled to Myanmar, but must wait and see if there will be changes to production costs and labor rights. Investors "want profits first. Respect for human rights takes a back seat".

Tokyo (AsiaNews) - The democratic change that is sweeping Myanmar has been globally applauded. After decades of military rule, the first real free elections have crowned the National League for Democracy and its historic leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. But this great result scares the world of big business, and especially the Japanese. With about 300 Japanese companies operating in Burmese territory, in fact, Tokyo wants to understand - before making any new investments – how the new leaders will move in the economic and industrial spheres.

This is what emerges from a lengthy analysis published by the Japan Times, explaining: "Investors from around the world want to profit first and foremost. Respect for human rights takes a back seat". The reference is to the labor market and the fact that the new government could change its parameters in a few weeks. According to the Japan External Trade Organization - JETRO, a sort of Chamber of Commerce for Japanese firms abroad – currently the situation "is very advantageous due to the low cost of labor".

The same group does not enter into details on the remuneration and trade union representation for workers. The World Trade Organization estimates place Myanmar among the last in the ranking of countries that respect workers' rights. The challenge, says an anonymous government source, "concerns relocation to other areas of Southeast Asia. In the long term Thailand and Vietnam could be more advantageous".

A second problem is represented by business relations with Washington. The sanctions imposed by the United States on the Myanmar junta prevent economic relations with those nations that have "links with the military sphere". Kei Namoto, a professor at Sophia University in Tokyo, says that this might limit Japanese expansion: "It is not yet clear how the junta will be held behind the scenes. I believe that Washington might gradually relax the sanctions, but for now they are an obstacle to consider".

Aaron L. Connelly, of the Lowy Institute in Sydney, highlights another aspect: "Suu Kyi has been critical of the way the peace process was handled under the previous government”. He noted that one of Suu Kyi’s top lieutenants, Win Htein, “accused the Myanmar Peace Centre of being a corrupt organization and wanted to audit the foreign money going into it.” “There’s an impression within the NLD that Japan was trying to buy influence through the MPC,” Connelly said. “So how the NLD handles those questions will have a bearing on Japan’s relationship with Myanmar".

Toshihiro Mizutani, of Jetro, it still optimistic: "We have invested a lot and I am convinced that many other national companies will follow us. Sure, some will want to take a wait and see what this new democracy that has emerged in Myanmar will bring. But eventually trade will start flowing again".

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