Time to End an Era of Disastrous Development

natural resources, Hpakant, Dawei, Myanmar, Yangon, Aung Zaw, development, economy, business, investment, politics, governance

Paving the way to a prosperous future? (Image: Sai Soe Kyi)

In Myanmar, there are few things people dread more than the sudden appearance of rich businessmen in their town or village.

Ever since the country’s military rulers abandoned socialism in the wake of the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, well-connected cronies and other business partners of the all-powerful generals have been almost as feared as the men in uniform themselves. To stay in power, the hated regime put the whole country up for grabs, and if someone with money or influence wanted the land your family had lived on for generations, it was theirs for the taking.

Many things have changed in Myanmar over the past few years, but unfortunately, this isn’t one of them. Land grabs and forced displacement are still an inescapable fact of life for many of the country’s citizens, and precious little has been done to improve the situation.

There are many examples of “development” in Myanmar turning into unmitigated disaster, but none is worse than what has happened in Hpakant over the past 20 years. Famous for its high-quality jade, this region of Kachin State has been reduced to a wasteland since a ceasefire agreement was signed by the government army and the ethnic Kachin Independence Organization in 1994, paving the way for an all-out assault on its jade-studded mountains.

Fueled by Chinese demand (and largely controlled by Chinese business interests), the rape of Hpakant has left it deeply scarred. Entire mountains have been leveled and whole new lakes—filled with polluted water—have been formed, all to enrich “investors” and corrupt officials.

In exchange for the wealth beneath their feet, the people of Hpakant have received nothing—except rampant crime and drug abuse, which rot their communities the way that unregulated mining has eaten away at the region’s landscape.

There is more than one guilty party in this sordid tale of social and environmental degradation, but the chief player is the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd. (UMEHL), a military-run conglomerate that still dominates large parts of the national economy, despite the transition to quasi-civilian rule nearly three years ago.

Aung Zaw is founder and editor of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]

Needless to say, the people of Myanmar will never see any benefit from this wholesale theft of national treasure. Once it is extracted from the ground, much of Hpakant’s jade is smuggled across the country’s northern border, while the revenues that remain in the country end up in private hands or are used to finance a deadly conflict that further victimizes the powerless people of Kachin State.

In some ways, Dawei, in Myanmar’s far south, is a very different story. Instead of natural resources, its chief asset is its geography: Located some 350 km west of Bangkok and possessing a deep-sea port, it is ideally situated to become a major transport hub for the region.

To realize this dream, billions of dollars will have to be poured into Dawei (whereas in Hpakant, billions have been extracted). Most of that money will come from Thailand, which also hopes to attract Japanese investment in the planned Dawei Special Economic Zone (SEZ). The Myanmar government has boasted that the project will not only transform a coastal backwater into an economic powerhouse employing thousands of people, but will also become an engine for the national economy.

The trouble is that none of this can be done without exacting huge social and environmental costs, and the signs so far are that the government has learned little from the travesties of the past about how to mitigate the negative impact of large-scale economic development.

In Dawei, as in Hpakant, people have been forced to leave their homes, often with inadequate compensation. Fears of massive damage to the environment from the construction of an industrial zone that will spew toxic chemicals have never been properly addressed. And a hasty ceasefire agreement with former adversaries active in the area (the 4th Brigade of the Karen National Liberation Army) offers no real promise of lasting peace.

Strangely, the “experts” and “analysts” who have been flocking to Naypyitaw to applaud the government’s economic reforms have been silent on these issues, as if they assume that the “new and improved Myanmar” won’t repeat the mistakes of the past. But what is to prevent Dawei becoming a wasteland like Hpakant? Certainly there are no laws in place to protect people’s right to their land, or the land itself from the ravages of blind greed.

President U Thein Sein, who won praise for suspending the Myitsone hydropower dam in Kachin State—another megaproject designed to benefit a neighboring country at the expense of local people—has also acted as if he sees no need to seriously examine the impact of large-scale foreign investment in Myanmar’s economy. It’s unlikely that he is unaware of the problems, so we can only conclude that he doesn’t care enough about them to exert any political will to find solutions.

Since the opening of Myanmar, everyone, including Western governments, has talked about the country’s rich natural resources and its vast economic potential. There is no doubt that as Asia’s last frontier, Myanmar is ripe for development in many sectors, including energy, mining, tourism, and agriculture. But to realize its true potential, the country will need to radically change the way it does business, away from practices that benefit the powerful while imposing huge burdens on ordinary people.

Myanmar has long been the poorest country in a fast-growing region, weakened by a predatory state and vulnerable to exploitation by better-off neighbors. So changing the way Myanmar develops its economy is not just about doing right by its citizens—it is also about building a stronger nation.

Aung Zaw is the founding editor-in-chief of The Irrawaddy.

This story was first published in the February 2014 print edition of The Irrawaddy magazine.

5 Responses to Time to End an Era of Disastrous Development

  1. When Khin Nyunt flew to Hpakant, Chinese businessmen loaded a ton of gold in his helicopter. So, Khin Nyunt reaped his fortune from traveling to Hpakant too. Khin Nyunt has millions $ in Singapore under the name his son who is a doctor there.

  2. Thanks Ko Aung Zaw, for exposing the truth and calling a spade a spade. The traditional social fabric Burmese people and the beautiful pristine and rich natural environment of the country where my ancestors lived have suffered enough from ruthless exploitation over all these decades. Things have to fundamentally change. It’s not just about the economic interests and political ambitions of the ruling class (which nowadays includes the Posh Lady?) but about the fundamental rights of the people of Burma. They have a right to their ancestral lands and to live in peace and safety in a healthy natural environment and not be bullied and oppressed just for the benefit of the greedy few, especially foreigners such as the Chinese.

    • What do we do with the foreigners in Kachinland, Shanland, Waland, Chinland, and Karenland? those foreigners over-breed, and have exhausted their own resources. They have been stealing/robbing resources from ethnic areas without any regard to the well beings of the ethnic people. DASSK used to say ‘Please use your liberty to promote ours’. Unfortunately, she is using her liberty to turn a blind eye to the genocides in the ethnic areas. Burman are using their liberty to destroy ethnic lives. Where is the justice to right the wrongdoings by the Burman?

  3. We are about to play the roulette with our environment.Some definitely believe we could win.Unforeseen events are waiting to happen anytime for those who had never experienced large scale development and lack of knowledge on caring of environments.Hopefully we could overcome all the challenges.

  4. Thank you for writing this. You and your brother and Irrawaddy still OK in Burma, I hope.

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