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(Washington, DC) – The World Bank should promote civil society participation in proposed development programs in Burma, Human Rights Watch said in a letter to the World Bank released today. The World Bank’s board of directors is scheduled to meet on February 16, 2012, in Washington, DC, to discuss future programs in Burma.

The World Bank should call upon the Burmese government to increase transparency and accountability, make urgent social needs a priority, and carry out systemic reforms necessary for meaningful development, Human Rights Watch said.

“The World Bank has an opportunity to ensure that the Burmese people are at the center of the development agenda,” said Arvind Ganesan, Business and Human Rights director at Human Rights Watch. “For more than 20 years, Burma has been closed to the world. Now the Bank and the Burmese government can make sure engagement is open and inclusive.”

The World Bank has not provided financial aid to Burma since 1987 because Burma has not met its loan repayments or instituted economic and other reforms. Burma’s development situation is dismal, with the country ranking 149 out of 187 – below the regional average – in the United Nations Human Development Index. The index takes into consideration life expectancy, education, and other poverty indicators. Burma’s new government, which took office in March 2011, has released several hundred political prisoners, enacted laws on freedom of assembly and forming trade unions, and eased official media censorship. However, the government, led by former generals, has not addressed ongoing, serious human rights violations in the country, especially abuses related to the long-running civil armed conflicts in ethnic minority areas, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch, in its letter to World Bank President Robert Zoellick and the board of directors, urged the World Bank to:

  • Actively engage with the Burmese people and a broad range of civil society and be transparent in developing its proposals for working in Burma. The World Bank’s open and transparent engagement is critical as it reestablishes ties to a country that has been isolated and opaque for decades.
  • Ensure that people who engage with the World Bank do not face reprisals from the government. In the past, some activists have been imprisoned as a result of meeting or working with foreign officials, for instance following Cyclone Nargis in 2008.
  • Emphasize the need for revenue and budget transparency and meaningful anti-corruption measures to ensure that Burma’s own considerable resources and any subsequent World Bank assistance benefit the people of Burma and are not squandered or stolen.
  • Urge the Burmese government to carry out systemic reforms to facilitate participatory development such as allowing an open public debate, eliminating forced labor, and providing land tenure for the Burmese people, particularly farmers.

“Civic participation matters to development,” and “[a]n empowered public is the foundation for a stronger society, more effective government, and a more successful state,” Zoellick said in an April 2011 speech about the Arab Spring.

“Burma provides an opportunity to act on World Bank President Zoellick’s insights on the Arab Spring,” Ganesan said. “The Bank can have a significant impact on human rights in Burma by promoting public participation in the country’s development.” 

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