Environmentalists Hope for Stronger Safeguards under NLD

By Nyein Nyein 26 November 2015

In the wake of recent disasters that have shone a light on the human toll wrought by a lack of environmental and development-related safeguards, local activists are hoping to reverse Burma’s abysmal environmental protection record when a new government assumes office in March next year.

In July and August, swaths of the country were inundated by severe flooding, which in some areas triggered deadly mudslides, exacerbated in part by deforestation. Less than a week ago, a landslide near a jade mine in Kachin State’s Hpakant Township claimed more than 100 lives when a man-made mountain of earthen waste collapsed on workers’ makeshift huts.

Such events have added urgency to public calls for more attention to be paid to the social impact of environmental neglect and rapacious resource extraction.

President Thein Sein’s decision to suspend the Chinese-backed Myitsone hydropower dam project in 2011 was an early positive gesture. The following year, the Environmental Conservation Law was enacted, supplemented with by-laws passed in 2014.

Yet these moves have hardly been a panacea for Burma’s environmental woes. On Wednesday, the Myanmar Alliance for Transparency and Accountability (MATA)—a collaboration among environmentalists, civil society groups, and environmental lawyers to push for better management of environmental resources—held a press briefing, urging for the 2012 conservation law to be amended.

According to MATA, the law does not stipulate punishments sufficient to deter offenders or compensation for victims; allows virtual impunity for projects that have Naypyidaw’s stamp of approval; and creates little incentive for conservation efforts.

People across the country are being adversely affected by deforestation, the unchecked extraction of natural resources, and water, air and soil pollution perpetrated by big business, MATA said in a statement.

Win Myo Thu, the director of prominent NGO EcoDev, said the law is too broad to be effective.

“It doesn’t clearly state people’s rights in relation to the environment,” Win Myo Thu said.

Aung Kyaw Lin, a lawyer and volunteer with MATA, concurred, arguing that the law was not effective in putting environmental concerns ahead of development interests. He also cited the need for better environmental awareness training in Burma’s rural areas, which account for 70 percent of the country’s population.

Davi Thant Zin, a prominent environmentalist and member of the Myanmar Green Network, said Burma was not alone in facing environmental challenges. What is key, she said, is implementing effective laws and policies.

“Our government has signed international treaties [to support environmental conservation], but these won’t be effective unless they—the people with the power to legislate and implement—work hard and listen to the public’s needs,” Davi Thant Zin said.

A Greener Government?

Tin Thit, a Lower House MP-elect for the National League for Democracy (NLD) in Pokebathiri Township, Naypyidaw, said he expects the new government to place more emphasis on preserving the environment.

“We will work more and try harder,” he declared.

Tin Thit, a poet and environmental activist who is a current advisor to local civil society group Sein Yaung So (Greenery) in Mandalay, argued that better law enforcement was needed to punish those who violate the law.

“We must monitor both the environmental conservation body [established under the conservation law] and the practice of the law,” he said.

Tin Thit has also been involved in the multi-stakeholder group (MSG) tasked with implementing the requirements of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), an international resource revenue reporting protocol. The group is required to submit its first annual EITI report to a team of independent auditors in 2016.

Burma will benefit from abiding by strict international standards, Tin Thit said in relation to the scheme. “[But] it’s not only about financial transparency,” he said. “We must pay attention to resource governance weaknesses and recommendations as well.”

The new government will also be faced with addressing the unresolved Myitsone dam project.

While the NLD’s stance is unclear, public opinion is firmly against the project, according to Davi Thant Zin. The dam would be constructed at the confluence of the Maykha and Malikha tributaries which meet to form the Irrawaddy River.

“Whatever government is formed, we will continue to object to the Myitsone dam,” Davi Thant Zin said. “It would affect residents living downstream from the delta, but also, the Irrawaddy River is a national, mother-like symbol for our country.”