Environmentalists are viewing signs of openness in Myanmar with a measure of fear because of the risk that one of Asia's last bastions of biodiversity could be lost.
Myanmar has avoided rampant development because of decades of isolation brought on by harsh military rule. But as foreign investors begin pouring in, activists in what was once known as Burma say endemic corruption, virtually non-existent environmental laws and a long-repressed civil society make it ripe for exploitation. Pro-democracy reformers and conservationists are urging the government to put more safeguards in place, but the rush is already on, primarily from other Asian countries. Sanctions still prevent the U.S. and European countries from starting companies in Myanmar. Yangon, the nation's largest city, is getting an influx of businessmen looking for deals, along with throngs of tourists. Singapore dispatched a delegation with 74 company representatives in March while the Malaysians sent a high-level investment mission focused on property development, tourism, rubber and oil palm plantations.
Positioned at the core of one of the world's richest biodiversity hotspots, Myanmar is endowed with the plant and animal life of the flanking Himalayas, the Malay peninsula, the Indian subcontinent and mainland Southeast Asia. It is home to 1,099 of Southeast Asia's 1,324 bird species, and to extensive coral reefs. Unexploited rivers, on- and offshore oil deposits and minerals abound.