Myanmar (Burma) has distinguished diversity in both its ethnicity and geography. Myanmar has been ruled by the formidable military junta that has contributed to raising many problems in the social, political and economic spheres. Myanmar is infamous for the world’s longest civil war, dire poverty, poor public health and systematic human rights violations. Especially, the oppression of the military regime against some indigenous groups and pro-democracy demonstrators have been done in cruel manners such as forced displacement, arbitrary detentions, rapes, torture and massacres. In the pro-democracy demonstration in 1988, as many as 3,000 unarmed protestors were killed by the Myanmar army (Human Rights Watch, 1989). The regime has maintained tight control over all facets of economy and society, including the country’s natural resources.
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Myanmar has plenty of natural resources: natural gas, petroleum, timber and valuable minerals such as gold, tin, rubies and jade. In contrast with the country’s abundance of natural resources, Myanmar’s development has never been on the right track; the outcomes are poor economic growth, extensive poverty, military dictatorship and prolonged civil war. In reality, the abundance of natural resources in Myanmar has contributed to extensive human right abuses and environmental degradation: forced labor, displacement, deforestation, soil contamination, etc.
According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the military regime of Myanmar spends at least 40 percent of its national budget on military expenditures, in contrast with the indiscreetly low allocation of the health budget (only 0.4 percent), regardless of the exploding public health crisis (Taisamyone 2007). The military junta has exploited billions of dollars from the national revenue to fuel the military force; in other words, the money that was supposed to enrich the Myanmar citizens has been used for the military activity to control or oppress the citizens.
The situation of Myanmar ― a paradoxical outcome of natural resource abundance ― can be true of the “resource curse” that has been addressed for years in a multitude of researches of countries’ development. The term resource curse is used to describe the paradox that dependence on natural resources, especially in developing countries often negatively affects the economic growth, democratization and promotion of human rights. As a matter of fact, many countries rich in natural resources have failed to develop and remain in miserable situations. (Humphreys 2007)
It is well known that the economic instability in a resource-rich country is caused by an economic concept called “Dutch disease” ― a country’s currency value is raised by the export of natural resources, and it will makes the other domestic industries uncompetitive in the other export activities due to the inflationary exchange rate (Humphreys 2007). In addition, it is now widely agreed that the curse of natural resources degrades the quality of governance, and as a result, natural resources often provokes civil war (Collier 2007).
This paper seeks to analyze the formation of the resource courses in Myanmar, by taking up the key issues of the primary resources that have largely influenced the state’s condition. The paper especially focuses on the relation of the parties involved with the natural resource issues in the context of economical, ecological and social aspects, rather than focusing on the theory of economic science such as the Dutch disease. Also, this paper will provide some suggestions of how to resolve the Myanmar’s resource curse from a point of view of sustainable development and environmental scarcity.
Myanmar’s natural gas exports in the fiscal year of 2007-08 was 2.6 billion U.S dollars, and account for 43 percent of the total exports, according to the report from Myanmar’s Customs Department (Yao 2008). The largest of Myanmar’s industrial projects is the Yanada project. The Yanada pipeline was bridged from the offshore area to the Thai border with a 60-kilometer-long route across southern Burma. During the construction, the Burmese military regularly conscripted villagers in the pipeline area to impose forced labor. The villagers were afflicted with extensive human rights violations including torture, rape and extrajudicial killings by the military junta (ERI 2008).
Environmental degradation during the construction and operation period is also serious problem. Offshore drilling creates massive toxic wastes that are usually dumped into the ocean. Both the disposal of toxic waste and the drilling cause a hazardous effect on the wet lands, fish and habitats, and pollute water supplies (ALTSEAN-Burma 2009).
There is another serious problem in natural gas projects other than human rights abuses and environmental degradation. The military expenditure of the military junta dramatically increased due to the Yanada project. According to the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Myanmar’s military budget was estimated at $900 million U.S. of the total budget of $2.3 billion. The Yanada project provided the largest portion of the revenue, and at least 50 % of it would flow directly to the military regime (CIA Factbook cited in ERI 2008).
The natural gas and multinational corporations have not benefited the local population at all but they have contributed much to financing the military junta. There has been no threat from neighboring countries since the county’s independence in 1948; the purpose of enforcing military rule is only to control or oppress its citizens. While Myanmar pours its huge budget into the military activities, the country is severely impoverished as one of the poorest countries in the world.
Aside from the natural gas industry, the timber industry also produces a significant profit in Myanmar. Because of its lucrative nature, especially in the variable teak, the military junta has overexploited the country’s forests. The extensive illegal logging is a huge problem, leading to the deforestation and the destruction of biodiversity. The forests covered 70% of Myanmar’s total land area at the time of its independence in 1948, but most independent estimates indicated that over half of the country’s forests were cut down by commercial logging operations as of 1998 (Dennis 1999).
Deforestation contributes to massive soil erosion, temperature increase and flooding in the areas logged. Deforestation spoils the quality and availability of water and directly harms the local communities’ livelihood; farming is impossible in the land and a shortage of clean water undermines the health of the people. Not only that, forests are furthermore important for the indigenous people in their religious beliefs and practices. “Karen people in Lu Thaw Township are famous for their traditional beliefs related to forests…If there was no forest, there would be no rotational farming, plant diversity, and the specific cultural identity, traditional beliefs and values of the Karen would disappear.” (PKDS and KESAN 2004)
In the peripheral part of the country, the ethnopolitical groups manage the logging industry for the benefit of .hard currency. The logging business provides both the military junta and the local ethnopolitical minorities with profit, and this has led to an incompatible relationship between them. The military junta started to monopolize the timber industry and forcibly removed ethnopolitical groups that managed some forest areas, such as Karen National Union States (KNU) that dealt with the logging business in the unreserved forest area of Karen State. The military junta has cut down forests indiscriminately whether they are reserved or unreserved. The military junta stripped the living environment and a significant source of income from the local communities. Thus, logging and political conflict are interrelated in the Karen State (PKDS and KESAN 2004).
The military junta has been enforcing the construction of dams along the Salween River for the sake of hydropower. In the dome sites, forced labor and human rights violations were regularly conducted by the Burmese military, as well as the construction of the natural gas pipeline construction described above. A series of dam constructions caused a threat of flood and water scarcity, and tens of thousands of people have been forced to flee to higher ground.
Although the military junta once promised abundant electricity and water supplies along the dam sites, the local population has never received the benefit. On the contrary, local communities in the area, mainly Karenni ethnic people, have been suffering from the destruction of the environment and shortage of water, which have directly damaged both farming and fishing industries, and the local communities’ livelihood. One of four dams of the Salween River, the Weigyi Dam, flooded several times, extending over 640 square kilometers, and made 30,000 villagers homeless, submerging 28 towns in Karen State (KDRG 2006).
Ongoing Civil War in Myanmar
Myanmar has a long history of numerous civil wars due to the great diversity of the ethnic groups and the problematic politics of the military regime. Several ethnopolitical minorities had organized rebellion and fought simultaneously against the military regime to achieve their self-determination. Most of the ethnopolitical minorities, however, compromised on cease-fire agreements with the military regime in the end of 1980s, after an offer of the military regime that promised a part of the political rights for the combatant ethnopolitical groups. A few ethnopolitical groups such as the Karen National Union (KNU) and Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) are still in combat against the military junta.
Both the Karen and Karenni state have been severely oppressed by the military junta. In Karen State, the number of Internal Displaced Persons (IDPs), by forced displacement or relocation by military junta, counts over 157,000 since the end of 2002, and over 240 villages were destroyed or relocated (Human Rights Watch 2005). In Karenni State, more than 81,000 civilians, equivalent to 25 percent of the total population, were displaced and 267 villages were destroyed (Burma Issues 2008). Karen and Karenni State are the locations that are troubled with some of the largest numbers of IDPs in Myanmar.
The cruel oppressions of the military junta against Karen and Karenni definitely caused a grievance that incites the ethnopolitical groups to take up arms against the military junta. In some cases, those oppressions are closely linked with the interest of natural resources. As a reason for displacement, there are two main reasons: “conflict induced displacement”― a forced displacement induced as a result of conflicts in the area and “development induced displacement” ― a forced displacement for the purpose of development or exploitation of natural resource of the area (Burma Issues 2008).
Karenni State is a very example of development induced displacement. “Karenni State a number of different development projects are being undertaken by the military junta including, mining, logging, hydro-electricity, industrial development and agriculture projects.” (Burma Issues 2008) The development project led the military junta set up military base along the construction sites, and forces extensive human rights abuses and causes environmental degradation. Massive forced displacement was done along both with its process and operation process (see Dams section in this paper).
Also, there are several examples that conflicts were exacerbated over a right to control natural resources. One of the cease-fire groups, Karenni National Democratic Party (KNDP), was compelled to recruit into the military junta as the exchange condition for receiving the control of the local area. The KNDP participated in the Burmese troops in 1997 to attack a refugees shelter located in the side of Thai border. This means ceasefire groups fought against non-ceasefire groups, resulting in intra-ethnic conflicts. Moreover, the military junta granted control of areas and resources to the ethnopolitical groups who joined to attack non-ceasefire groups to raise a grievance among ethnopolitical groups. (KDRG 2006)
Some displacement in Karen State was done for the purpose of seizing control of the dam, mining and logging sites, that is, the development induced displacement. However, the displacement of Karen State was triggered in reasons for conflict-induced displacement rather than development-induced displacement. Those conflicts can be regarded as the consequence of a series of oppression and development-induced displacement by the military junta (see Timbersection in this paper).
The destruction of environment, livelihood, and cultural value of the ethnic people induced the KNU to take up arms against the military junta. As a result of prolonged numerous conflicts, the people in Karen State, especially the 157,000 IDPs, were severely victimized in both development-induced displacement and conflict-induced displacement. As the examples of Kanenni and Karen State, an abundance of natural resource have induced huge mount of cruel displacement and civil wars across the country, and it would be the body of the resource curse in Myanmar.
Analysis from a Concept for Sustainable Development and Environmental Scarcity
This section examines: 1) how the military junta, the body of Myanmar’s politics, is getting along with a major concept of sustainable development, 2) the relation between environmental scarcity and conflict, based on a academic theory.
Promoting sustainable development is based on the three pillars:
- The social: this relates to human mores and values, relationship and institutions.
- The economic: this concerns the allocation and distribution of scarce of resources.
- The ecological: this involves the contribution of both the economic and the social and their effect on the environment and its resources.
(Ekins 2000 cited in Banker 2006)
For the social context, military junta has extensively violated human rights against the citizens, especially ethnopolitical group who live in the sites of natural resources. For the economic context, military junta has monopolized the profit of the resource to enforce their military capacity, intending to control over the population with the country. This resulted in the extremely poor economic growth of the country. For the ecological context, there have been a myriad of environmental degradations in any types of natural resource extraction (see sections of Natural Gas, Timber and Dam in this paper). Unflatteringly, the military junta has been doing the things in the opposite way of sustainable development.
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In the concept of sustainable development, scholars all agreed that social participation is an essential to promote sustainable development; making decision procedure should involve democracy with local communities (Banker 2006). In the case of Myanmar, the National League for Democracy gained the support from the majority of the country citizens in 1990 national election, and Aung San Suu Kyi was elected as the Prime Minister. However, the military junta demolished the election and refused the citizens to participate the national politics, by making military threats.
In recent decades, environmental scarcity could plausibly generate some types of violent conflict in a country much dependent on environmental goods and services. One of the types refers to “Disputes arising directly from local environmental degradation caused, for instance, by factory emissions, logging, or dam” (Thomas and Homer 1999). For the relation between environmental scarcity and conflicts, some scientists adopt a process called reciprocal causation.
As the causal steps show, Myanmar’s environmental degradation by military junta caused a significant environmental scarcity in the local communities, such the cases of Karen and Karenni State that is still in a situation of violent conflicts today. All the cases of Myanmar, described above in the paper, have proved that the military junta has contributing to ignoring the country’s sustainable development, and inducing to create violent conflict against local communities. In this perspective, it is absolutely important to address the Myanmar’s ethnopolitical conflicts, based on environmental issues.
Due to the combination of the bad governance and an abundance of the natural resources, Myanmar has lapsed into a miserable situation: poverty, poor economic growth, continuous civil wars, etc. These catastrophic outcomes are definitely attributable to the failure of the natural resource management by the military junta. Even the effort to establish a democratic state by the citizens was destroy by the injustice of the military junta. It is necessary to have further cooperation both within the country and out side of the country (international communities).
The attitude of international communities against the military junta is controversial.Althoughinternational communities have imposedeconomicsanctionandlimittheir trading, this directly benefited the nonbearing countries such as China, Thailand, and India. As a result, the economic sanction has decreased the performance of the country’s economic growth; Myanmar has to sell their products in cheap price due to the lack of trade partners. Besides, the interest between China and Myanmar has hindered the use of Responsibility to Protect of United Nations Security Council. In any case, international communities have to immediately come up with another alternative to change the military junta.
For the cooperation within the country, it is important to refer to the capacity of ethnopolitical minorities. Although some ethnopolitical minorities have some power to negotiate with the military junta, each group has their own policy and sometimes the policies among ethnopolitical minorities are incompatible. If there is a chance to overcome the power of the military regime, it is a time when all the ethnopolitical minorities and citizens unite their purpose for the democracy for whole nation, not pursuing each own political rights.
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