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Myanmar still has far to go on road to democracy

Despite recent reforms, human rights and transparency issues pose real challenges for Myanmar

Many observers see a strong link between energy projects and violence – with much of the fighting occurring in areas where Chinese projects are under way. Attacks have been reported on ethnic groups in the country’s north to secure an oil and gas pipeline corridor from the Indian Ocean to the Chinese border.

Human rights groups claim the military is paid by China’s state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) to protect the cross-country pipeline it is building. And if the corridor is not secured or the project is delayed or even halted, then the government – or rather the military – faces big financial losses, motivating a clampdown on local opposition, say non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

At the beginning of January, the government made an unprecedented admission that it had carried out military air strikes against ethnic Kachin rebel forces in the north of the country.

The increased fighting in Kachin state follows the breakdown of a 17-year ceasefire in mid-2011 which has displaced more than 70,000 people over the past 18 months. More significantly it belies president Thein Sein’s assurance 14 months ago that the military would cease its attacks on rebel forces.

Elsewhere, sectarian violence late last year between Buddhists and Muslims in western Rakhine state has displaced more than 110,000 people.

Nevertheless the government has won praise for its moves to resolve ethnic conflicts amid other reforms, most notably from US president Barack Obama. The International Crisis Group is due to give Thein Sein an award for his peace efforts in February.

Even so, at a local level, serious environmental and human rights abuses remain a direct consequence of resource development and lack of regulation.

New construction projects are one of the biggest drivers of abuses, Paul Donowitz, campaigns director with EarthRights International, told Petroleum Economist.

Credible allegations have emerged claiming that individuals from within the military, as well as army battalions, have confiscated land to sell to investors without compensating landowners, Donowitz said. The government is currently investigating some of these claims.

Development can also affect land adjacent to infrastructure works, much of it arable land. In situations such as these, landowners are seldom offered compensation. There are also concerns about environmental degradation.

International companies such as Total and Daewoo say they take voluntary steps to protect the environment, despite the lack of regulation. But, according to US diplomatic cables, Daewoo’s senior management has admitted that local firms, particularly Moge, do not follow the same high standards.

Last year, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi urged nations to bar their companies from forming joint ventures with Moge until it improved its business practices.  

Foreign participation at present takes place through Moge, which Suu Kyi says lacks both transparency and accountability. 

CNPC and Moge agreed deals to develop the Shwe pipeline, but NGOs claim neither company carried out any environmental or social impact assessments.

Even though the international community believes the government has implemented political reforms, sources within Myanmar claim these reforms have not reached ethnic areas. Mai Amm Ngeal, a spokesperson for the Ta’ang Students and Youth Organisation, which represents the Ta’ang people who live in the mountains of north-western Shan state, points to increased militarisation along the route of the Shwe pipeline, which has had negative consequences for local residents, as an example of this.

Donowitz concurs, saying extortion and harassment of local communities is common in areas close to resource and development projects.

Aside from the violence, the biggest challenge facing Thein Sein is providing benefits and access to resources for the Burmese people. The government will earn around $30bn over the next 30 years by exporting hydrocarbons to China, which has triggered conflict. Resentment has escalated, particularly among those living along the route of the Shwe pipeline, who have no access to electricity.

There is much for the new administration to do. During the 49 years of military rule, the junta neglected the needs of its people. It favoured lucrative gas export deals with neighbouring China, as well as Thailand, and failed to invest in the domestic sector. Myanmar’s population of around 55 million people suffers from extreme energy poverty as a result.

Per capita energy consumption of electricity in Myanmar is next to Nepal in being among the lowest in Asia. This reflects the poverty-level per capita incomes and an electrification rate of only 26%, says the Asian Development Bank (ADB). Outside the former capital, Yangon, this drops to 10%.  

Now the new quasi-civilian government aims to develop hydrocarbon resources for domestic use before considering export options.

Thein Sein’s government is trying to improve transparency too. U Soe Thein, minister of the president’s office, has been appointed to lead the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) implementation. The EITI – a multi-stakeholder approach that requires the disclosure of payments made to foreign governments by oil, gas and mining companies, and for governments to account for these payments – would be a crucial first step in energy industry transparency.

But so far the distribution of benefits from the nation’s natural resources remains to be seen. The impoverished country’s revenues, which fuelled the military regime, were largely generated from its vast gas reserves. EarthRights claims the military junta hid billions of dollars derived from the Yadana and Yetagun gas projects in offshore bank accounts.

Hopefully in future secrecy will be replaced with transparency for the sake of the Burmese people.

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