In Person

Karen State Chief Minister: ‘Our State Needs Electricity: Coal Could Be The Answer’

By Nyein Nyein 15 March 2017

HPA-AN, Karen State – Since the National League for Democracy (NLD) government took office in March 2016, a female chief minister, who has been involved with the NLD since its inception, has led Karen State. Nang Khin Htwe Myint recently sat down with Irrawaddy reporter Nyein Nyein to talk about the progress and challenges following the peace process in the state.

In the second part of the interview, the chief minister talks about boosting tourism, damage inflicted by mining operations, and the future of coal in Karen State.

In 2018, Burma is due to join the Asean Economic Community (AEC), a body that promotes the economic integration of Southeast Asia. As Karen State borders with Thailand, how are you preparing for membership in the AEC?

Our state has many untapped natural resources compared to Kachin State [in the north]. We have quartz, which is mostly used for cement, but some of the quartz is old enough to use for décor, creating more revenue than cement. Instead we have been making powder for the cement. This is not good. We have invited experts to study the rocks in Myawaddy, Kawkareik and Kyainseikgyi townships so that we can use the mineral for decorated stones and interior decorations.

I noticed on the way to this interview that the mountains near the highway are shrinking because of mining. What are you doing to prevent this from happening?

We have banned activities such as rock mining near the road so what you saw was the remnants of previous mining operations. We mine in areas far away from people but if we want roads, we have to get the rock to build them. We want roads connecting villages, towns, and districts, and as the Asian Highway is under construction, we need to provide the standardized rock. However we limit the extraction of the rock below what we could take. As far as I know, the permits we give in Karen State allow less extraction of rock than other states and regions.

Why did you extend the permit for mining operations near Taungkalay village despite the protests from local people in February who were concerned that the project was damaging their health and destroying their homes?

We extended the permit to fulfil the needs of our state. We sent an inspection team led by Upper House lawmaker U Saw Moe Myint, a member of the parliamentary committee of natural resources and environmental preservation, to the site. For this extension we obtained their pledges [to follow rules set out by the government] before granting permission. The projects’ duration is one year, but they would be suspended if they don’t follow the agreement in a month or two. If they respect the agreement, we would consider giving them further extensions in the year to come. We have a supervisory committee for the mining operations, too.

So you don’t allow them to use heavy machinery for extractions?

Of course we don’t. We only allow small mining operations.

There are many caves in good condition in Karen state, something that has proved popular among tourists who have shared images of the attractions on social media. Is your government doing anything to promote eco-tourism?

Yes, we invest in eco-tourism because this is a good way of making money from this natural beauty. Our attractions are all natural¬–nothing artificial–and tourists love that. We try to provide good services for visitors in order to earn a good reputation and attract even more visitors. We also invite people to Mt. Zwekabin and other mountains. In addition to that, Burmese hoteliers are planning to build more eco-lodge style hotels around Mount Than Taung.

How much would attracting more tourists to Karen State contribute to creating jobs for local people? Also, are you creating any job opportunities to draw back people who have migrated to Thailand?

We have been trying to create many job opportunities. The garment factory, which had about 700 workers, is now asking for 300 more women and 30 more men¬¬ to iron and wash clothes. After talking to the Labor Ministry, more jobs were created and the women’s positions were filled. We also focused on creating jobs in the hotel industry, and solar companies who came to the state followed our instructions to hire local people. They hired and trained 40 locals who had basic knowledge of electrical power and computers. We have provided some jobs for unemployed people so that migration would lessen; even if we cannot yet create enough jobs to lure back migrants to Thailand, we are trying our best.

You have been in the Karen State administration for one year. What percentage of jobs have you created for people in your state?

It’s too low to tell.

Why is it that low?

The main challenges are the supply of electricity and the demands [of investors] to adhere to an international standard. They asked whether we could provide electricity, and whether we have enough fire stations and police. We could only provide what was from the electricity grid and couldn’t guarantee it would meet their needs. Although we could provide raw materials such as land, they would have to obtain other materials themselves. To attract investors, easing restrictions is possible. As Karen State is in the category of Zone A, investors would be tax exempt for seven years. Our land is also sold at a reasonable price. We have talked with many potential investors almost everyday over the last year. Companies that are interested in building a tyre factory, a chopstick factory and a factory to decorate ceilings with quartz have talked to us about land plots. We will have a memorandum of understanding with [mostly Thai and Japanese companies] within days. As we are in process of negotiating, we cannot yet tell the percentage although I think we could this time next year.

As the Asian Highway passes through your state, what benefits does the project bring and what do you need to give to it?

With more restaurants, petrol stations, parking lots, and other businesses expected, locals near the highway should have more job opportunities. Land needs to be made available for investors, so we have to review land compensation for locals. For instance, take the [Thailand-Burma] Friendship Bridge No. 2; it was stopped before we took office because the government was unable to compensate people for their land, but we resolved this and now the road will open at the end of this month.

A possible coal plant in the state has been criticized. How is the Karen State government tackling this issue?

We have not started the plant yet but Karen State uses the least amount of electricity in the whole country. We need the plant because electricity usage in Karen State has increased annually by 15 percent: our people and state need it to develop but we are unable to distribute it. Other countries such as India and China get up to 70 percent of their energy through coal, and others get about 40 percent this way. In Myanmar we use coal to provide electricity for 2 percent of the country but none of that comes from Karen State. Mon State has a railroad, harbour, and airport, yet we have nothing because of the civil war. Nine out of 10 townships in Mon State have access to the national power grid but only three out of seven townships do in Karen State. Out of more than 2,000 villages, 700 have access to electricity in our state. We want to distribute it cheaply for 35 kyats per unit but to do so our efforts must double. We have the materials, now we have to utilize them. We won’t, however, accept any development that damages the health of people and the environment. Experts from countries such as Japan are advising us how to implement the projects without causing damage. If coal is useful for our state, I want to start using it. I would have to persuade more people and create awareness about it. We’re at the stage of trying to educate the public about it so that we might use coal in the future.