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Burma’s government just took another step onto an international stage that it was excluded from for years. Today, the governing body of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), the international effort to promote transparency in natural resource revenues, approved Burma’s membership application . Burma now joins a group of 18 candidate countries, including the United States.

Burma's government will certainly tout this as a further sign of reform from the days of corrupt and opaque military rule. But claims of progress in Burma outpace the reality.

There's been worrying backsliding on key issues, including press freedom. And the abusive military still has a lot of political and economic clout, and is guaranteed 25 percent control of parliament. Perhaps for that reason, the current government has not investigated how billions of dollars in natural gas earnings were used under the military. Allegations persist that the funds were corruptly siphoned off and stowed in foreign bank accounts.

EITI’s leadership should be concerned about this. The initiative is based on the idea that publishing credible information about government earnings from the oil, gas and mining industries would help drive an informed policy debate that would, in turn, lead to better use of those funds for the public good. 

Yet it has never clarified the minimum ingredients for that recipe to work – notably that if the media can't report freely, and if people can't use the information, mobilize or speak out critically, then transparency will not improve governance. EITI has increasingly ignored concerns about harsh repression of activists in current and aspiring member countries, even though its criteria call for unfettered civil society participation in the initiative, including respect for fundamental rights. 

It recently admitted Ethiopia, despite the government’s harsh and effective campaign to silence independent voices. And Azerbaijan’s government sits on the governing board of EITI, despite a worsening record of harassing, arresting and jailing journalists, opposition members, and critics.

Transparency for its own sake offers very little as a tool to advance reform. It also requires respect for human rights, including freedoms of the press, association, and peaceful assembly. To be effective, transparency initiatives should monitor and react to the human rights context in the countries that are members or seek to join. Otherwise they can allow corrupt or abusive resource-rich governments to simply disclose information while remaining corrupt and abusive.

If EITI it wants to achieve its aims in Burma or elsewhere, it cannot afford to ignore rights. 

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