‘Burma Must Follow a Global Standard and Match It With Political Will’

By Nyein Nyein 10 July 2014

Last week, Burma was accepted as a candidate for the Extractives Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), a global anti-corruption scheme that requires member governments to disclose payments earned from oil, gas and mineral wealth. Burma’s EITI arrangement could also be expanded to include hydropower and forestry.

Under the previous military regime, deals with local cronies and international companies extracting natural resources were shrouded in secrecy, and payments to the government were pumped into the Burma Army or stolen by junta members.

Joining EITI is a centerpiece of President Thein Sein’s reform agenda. As a candidate country, Burma will have to file a first report on its EITI approach within 18 months and be fully compliant by January 2017.

A key element of EITI is civil society involvement. Burma’s government, oil, gas and mining companies, and local NGOs work are required to work together in an EITI multi-stakeholder group and jointly agree on transparency standards for extractive industries.

Wong Aung, director of the Shwe Gas Movement, is an NGO representative in the EITI multi-stakeholder group and recently he travelled to the EITI International Board meeting in Mexico, where Burma’s candidacy was announced.

He spoke to The Irrawaddy about his expectations and concerns regarding the success of EITI in Burma.

Question: Do you think that EITI has the potential to force the Burma government to disclose all its earnings from resources in the country?

Answer: After becoming an EITI candidate, Burma must follow a [global] standard procedure and match it with political will [to implement it]. If the government can do this, there would be some progress and better results than during the previous junta.

Our multi-stakeholders group’s three-year work plan faces many challenges and difficult circumstances if we want to solve current problems because of a lack of technical skills, [financial] resources and institutional readiness. The ministries’ lack of understanding on the subject and the current government mechanisms’ difference from international [EITI] standards will also make it difficult.

Solving the issue of public organizations’ involvement in natural resource extraction in Burma, and dealing with related problems such as labor issues, environmental derogation and human rights violations will take at least a decade to overcome.

We hope the public will become informed about how natural resources are extracted, in which amount and how many of the earnings are used for the public good. Civil society has an important role to play to inform the public in this current political situation and to push for company accountability and responsibility.

Q: Why are not many people in ethnic regions talking about resource-sharing? Since their regions hold the most resources.

A: We, stakeholders, need to discuss these questions in depth. More public awareness is needed. Ethnic regions are facing the environmental and socioeconomic impacts [of extractive industries]. So, ethnic people need to know how they can become directly involved in managing extractive projects, and receive a share of the benefits.

A question would still be if civil society groups [supporting EITI] are just stakeholders to support the work of the government, or whether they can reflect the public’s desires.

Q: Will EITI candidacy for Burma make a difference when dealing with the negative impacts of extractive industries in ethnic areas?

A: It is not that, by becoming an EITI candidate, the problems will solve themselves. We use EITI standard as a tool to make broader reforms, but it depends how the NGOs in each states and regions can implement this on a professional level.

Q: What challenges do you expect in compiling the report for EITI in the next 18 months?

A: We understand roughly what to include in our work plan. We have to select which [resource] sectors… will be included in the report. So far, oil, gas and mining sector will be covered in the scoping study in the first three years.

Even for these sectors, major challenges are there… That is mostly due to the government system and technical issues. The ministries’ department-level officials are not that familiar with the [EITI] issues and it is likely they will not know that they have obligations under EITI. If you look at the oil, gas and energy ministries, only the ministers are familiar with the [EITI] subject, not many lower level directors.

Q: How would NGOs monitoring the extractive projects be free from the government’s influence and threats, and gain full access to information?

A: Our multi-stakeholder group’s plan focuses on a checks and balances system, as the group is formed by civil society representatives, companies and government officials. This approach is in accordance with the EITI standard, but not every problem can be solved through EITI framework.

We could also face threats to the NGOs, discrimination and other limitations.

Q: Can the EITI process help establish transparency for old or existing resource projects started many years ago that still impact the public?

A: There are existing problems for the old projects that were signed under the junta. Roughly speaking, a scoping study may include the previous two years, so EITI reporting could cover projects started from 2012 onwards.

There are complications in applying transparency standards for the projects that commenced [earlier] such as the Yadana, Yetakon and Shwe Gas pipelines, the Letpadaung copper mines or Myitsone hydropower dam. We don’t have an approach to solve these past conflicts and challenges.