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Burma at a Crossroads for Peace-Building and Natural Resource Governance

By Kirk Talbott

Kirk Talbott is visiting scholar at the Environmental Law Institute (ELI), where he contributes to ELI’s “Post Conflict Peace-Building and Natural Resources Management  Initiative.”  Note: The views expressed in this comment are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the ELI.

After a half century of authoritarian rule, armed conflict against millions of ethnic minorities, and natural resource plunder, Burma, also known as Myanmar, now stands at a crossroads.  As conditions for peace coalesce and civil society begins to blossom, there is hope once more for Burma’s people. Burma’s quasi-civilian government, led by reformist Thein Sein, has initiated a series of surprising political openings and continues to engage actively with Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, now a member of Parliament.  Civil society and international relations are flourishing in contrast to conditions just one year ago.  In May the United States suspended economic sanctions and President Obama appointed a U.S. Ambassador for the first time in decades.

A new set of challenges emerge, however, around sharing the benefits and responsibilities of governing the country’s diverse wealth of natural resources.  Nestled strategically between China and India, Burma has been isolated from the world’s attention since a coup in 1962. Its military government has consolidated a brutal grip on power through the sale of its rich timber, mineral, natural gas and other resources, primarily to China and Thailand. This practice expanded after 1995, when the regime brokered a series of cease fire agreements with several ethnic armies along mountainous border areas.  (For the first time in 60 years the Karen National Union (KNU) joined almost all other major ethnic armies in agreeing to a cease fire, with the notable exception of the Kachin Independence Army.)

Sign outside airport,Yangon, Burma, saying "Welcome to Myanmar."
Sign outside airport, Yangon, Burma. Many locals refer to their country as Myanmar, but with foreigners call it Burma. Credit: netdance.

Oil and gas revenues fund the Tatmadaw, Burma’s half-million-strong army, one of Asia’s largest.  Currently the huge offshore Shwe and Yadana natural gas reserves provide more than 90% of the nation’s foreign exchange.  Chinese and Thai companies fund extensive pipeline, hydro-power, and transport networks as Burma becomes a potential regional economic corridor and natural resources production hub.  China looms large in the geo-political equation investing over $12 billion in Burma in 2011.

Hope of a changing perspective regarding the exploitation of Burma’s natural patrimony may be seen in the Burmese government’s decision in 2011 to suspend development of the Chinese-financed  Myitsone Dam, located in the remote headwaters of the Irrawaddy River. The Myitsone Dam is the largest of a planned $20 billion, seven-dam cascade, mega-project. The 6,000-megawatt hydroelectric dam , targeted for Kachin State in the northernmost  part of Burma and bordered by China to the north and east, would have flooded more than 700 square miles and displaced tens of thousands of people. This was not a concern for the previous regime, which ruled a country mired in poverty, with 70% of the people living off the land and water. But the suspension at very least suggests an increased willingness of the current  government to take public opinion into consideration:  the fact that ninety percent of the electricity and more than 70% of the profits from the Myitsone Dam were slated for China galvanized local opposition against increasing Chinese influence.   However, recent leaked government reports bring into question whether in fact the dam will be suspended.

The flux surrounding the Myitsone Dam development project provides the international community with one of many tangible benchmarks to monitor real change in Burma. With the US and other Embassies restoring relations and a new “race” to engage in Burma already underway, new sets of questions and challenges emerge.  Can the international community support natural resources management rather than unaccountable exploitation?  Can Burma learn lessons from its neighbors and rebuild a greener economy with more equitable and transparent production and benefit sharing?

A rare opportunity has emerged to strengthen natural resource policies, laws, and governance.  Yet, as the flood gates open for corporations, aid agencies, and NGOs to pour into this isolated, impoverished nation of 55 million people, the international community would do well to exercise caution, pay attention to detail, and do no harm.  Burma’s prospects for peace and development hinge largely on its capacity to transparently manage its vast array of natural resource for the benefit of the country and not just an elite few.

At this historic crossroads, Burma’s beleaguered citizens and half-century of violent history require nuanced and sequenced attention and support in strengthening environmental laws and natural resource management policies and practices.  International development experience increasingly links governance of the use and allocation of natural resources with both post-conflict rule of law and civil society building. Conducting social and environmental impact assessment, actively engaging local communities in mapping and planning, sharing equitably in the benefits of resource use and other best practices will demonstrate the government’s sincerity, or not, in building a new Burma.

Whether the encouraging signs of change recently represent only temporary candles against the darkness of Burma’s enduring repression or a signal of a brighter future, we do not yet know.  But for today at least there exists the real possibility to build peace and secure a better future in a country in desperate need of both.
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This article is one in a series emerging from the conference, “Identifying Lessons for Natural Resource Management in Post-Conflict Peacebuilding,” held at Columbia University April 25, 2012. The conference was based on a six-volume series of case studies being produced by the Environmental Law Institute, United Nations Environment Programme, University of Tokyo and McGill University. They also co-hosted the conference with the Earth Institute and the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN), the Advanced Consortium for Conflict, Cooperation and Complexity, and the Vale Columbia Center on Sustainable International Investment. For more information about the conference and the book series, please go to www.environmentalpeacebuilding.com.

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