Category Archives: Myanmar/Burma

Advancing Gender Advocacy in Myanmar: Beyond False Promises & Deep Divides

A young female recruit of the Kachin Independence Army. Photo: Asian Correspondent

A young female recruit of the Kachin Independence Army. Photo: Asian Correspondent

Women living in Myanmar’s conflict areas face enormous pressure from ethnic autonomous organizations to support a war effort that does not necessarily serve their interests. These pressures are subtle, and often invisible to development actors who focus on tackling intersections of gender and conflict that are more overt. As a result, advocacy efforts do not always reach women who need them most at the ground level. Building on my previous discussions of the need to see beyond the visible, and overcome divides between international and national-level peacebuilding actors, here I argue that gender advocates should work alongside women in communities to understand the social dimensions of conflict. To do this, we need a new approach to gender advocacy—one that incorporates an ethic of partnership dedicated to bringing these “invisible” spaces to light.

I have a good friend who is an ethnic women’s rights activist in Myanmar. Recently, we sat together in a teashop in Yangon and she told me the story of her mother, who was born in a rural village in Kachin, Burma’s northernmost ethnic state. As a child, her mother traveled on foot weekly between her village and the border of China, where she traded goods to help her family survive. At fourteen, after completing grade eight, she was recruited to join the Kachin Independence Army, or KIA.

She became a soldier and went to fight. She was told this was all for a cause—a cause much greater than her, that meant life or death and the survival of her people. This cause, she was told, was more important than going to school, than pursuing her own aspirations, or escaping to some other, far away-seeming world. This was her world.

She was expected to marry, and have children. Her new husband was also a soldier, and always put the war effort first. In the momentum of these choices that were made for her—choices that were never hers to make—she gave up the possibility of advancing goals beyond those of the movement she was told to support. Goals that her daughter, living out in a world her mother never knew, is now realizing.

My friend is not close with her mother. “She doesn’t understand women’s activism,” she explained. In fact, she added, her mother doesn’t understand the idea of gender equality at all.

There is a rift between this mother and her daughter—a rift around what it means to commit to a cause that is greater than oneself, a cause more important than women’s lives, centered around national identity and the unity of a people. This rift reveals that conflict in Myanmar is not limited to what takes place between ethnic communities and the Tatmadaw (the Myanmar army)—it happens within communities, and within families themselves.

Women are often made false promises during times of war. As Dyan Mazurana (2012) has noted, ethnic armed organizations often promise women a better life after the conflict is over, reasoning that when peace comes, the goals of gender equality will finally be realized. In the meantime, however, women are expected to take up arms, migrate across borders, or forgo education to support a conflict that is not of their making. These sacrifices go unnoticed until they grow roots and are entrenched—the mother who tells her daughter she should not seek a higher education because it isn’t necessary to advancing the family’s status in society (only marriage and children can do that). The daughter who bears the guilt of her mother’s limitations and sends money home—whatever small amount she can—month by month, from her good job in Yangon. She is welcomed home, but she can never really go home. Her feminist work has set her apart from the very women that work ultimately tries to empower.

 

The social dimensions of gender advocacy

Responding to the plight of women like my friend’s mother, many gender advocacy organizations in Myanmar strive to reach beneficiaries at the most local levels of society. Part of this work involves raising awareness on the ground about conventions such as UNSCR 1325, which is dedicated to women’s participation and representation in conflict prevention and resolution, and the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which draws a conceptual link between gender parity, peace and development. Grassroots women’s rights organizations seek to advance the goals of these agreements by advocating for women’s participation in peace negotiations and bringing international attention to the effects of armed conflict on women. These organizations also work to combat traditional gender stereotypes, educate communities about peacebuilding and justice, and organize workshops on gender-based violence in ethnic communities.

Yet the impacts of these gender-related programs are not always felt by women at the village level. Conversely, being caught between allegiances within one’s community or family is a social constraint seldom addressed in high-level policy negotiations, or given voice in projects looking at gender discrimination. This may have to do with the fact that many grassroots women’s organizations are, to varying degrees, themselves aligned with the armed organizations controlling the territories in which they work. Some organizations report having difficulty advocating for gender equality among armed actors, revealing a tension constantly felt by advocates who live and work in these environments.

Moreover, being caught between allegiances—what I am calling a “social dimension” of conflict—can affect women working in the structures of rights organizations themselves. An example of this can be seen in the case of another friend, who worked for an ethnic women’s rights organization for many years. At a certain point, she felt ready to advance her career by seeking a job in an international development organization that would afford her a better salary and advance her career. Such opportunities, previously unavailable to Myanmar nationals when the country was still closed, are now on offer to those with the right qualifications. However, when the organization learned about her desire to leave, she was told that doing so would be a betrayal—that the “cause” was more important than her own personal advancement. In essence, the rights organization mirrored the tactics used by conflict actors to hold women back.

Again, we see the subtle ways in which conflict entrenches itself into women’s lives. While international convention and gender advocacy groups work hard to press for change at the policy level, the experiences of women who live and work in conflict-affected communities remains comparatively less understood.

 

Women’s rights and the narrative of war

Ethnic autonomous organizations have, on occasion, spoken out about women’s rights. But their advocacy is rarely attuned to the social dimensions of conflict I am describing. Instead, women’s rights are presented through the lens of the war narrative itself, showcasing how the “other” conflict actor is to blame for women’s mistreatment. In this way, “women’s issues” are used to exemplify the way armed conflict—not the social constraints that perpetuate it—keeps women oppressed.

This dynamic can be seen in the case of the rape and murder of two Kachin schoolteachers in Northern Shan State in early 2015.  Civil society actors quickly assigned blame for these crimes to the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s army, which is notorious for committing acts of sexual violence against civilians with impunity. Recently, senior Tatmadaw members agreed to testify in a civilian court—a landmark achievement for ethnic actors seeking to bring the Myanmar military to account for its systemic crimes of sexual violence in conflict. The trial, however, has since derailed due to army’s blocking civilian involvement, preventing Kachin community leaders question the defendants directly. The case highlights the sweeping powers of the military and the lack of recourse for ethnic leaders to seek justice for what they see as being war crimes.

This case, and its fallout, is an illustration of the way women’s bodies and lives are impacted by conflict. But it is more than that. The case also shows us how women’s experiences of violence are used by armed actors themselves to serve a narrative of war. This narrative eclipses the fact that war inherently endangers all women and degrades their human rights. Moreover, and critically, it leaves out the voices of the very women who have been most impacted by conflict—in this case, the Kachin school teachers themselves.

 

The role of international advocates

By focusing on the more overt and dramatic effects of conflict, as well as on policy advocacy issues, gender advocates risk overlooking the more subtle divides and social constraints that many women experience on a daily basis. However, these areas of focus do not have to be exclusive. International gender advocates can work to raise awareness around the seemingly “invisible,” difficult-to-reach spaces of social divide while also advancing policy advocacy aims.

International actors are, in fact, in a unique position to take on these dual challenges. As “outside” actors looking through a more detached lens, they are well-positioned to call attention to the constraints that ethnic women face, but do not feel authorized or safe to push against. They can help shed light on problematic cultural norms and on the “taken-for-granted” ways that ethnic communities hold women back.

Often though, as I’ve pointed out in my previous writing, Western actors doing this type of work are treated with suspicion, seen as paternalistic, or worse, as seeking to advance an agenda of dominance. The “Western versus third world feminist” divide—discussed extensively by post-colonial feminist scholars, is an ongoing problem in many development spaces. This divide, which Chandra Mohanty (2002) characterized as the “third world difference” illustrates the problem of Western feminists who “speak on behalf of” women in the developing world. In doing so, Mohanty explained, Western feminists enact an arrogant assumption that they know what’s best for women in these contexts. As elsewhere, Western gender advocates in Myanmar risk falling into this trap.

In order to avoid replicating this divide, I suggest that Western practitioners re-frame the way we look at gender advocacy, by taking into account the experiences of women who may not seem to be affected by armed conflict in overt ways. The rift between mothers who have had no choice but to follow the mandate of war and their daughters who, in becoming women’s rights activists, have seemingly “abandoned” that cause; the pressures faced by women’s rights organization members who are equally bound to a cause considered more important than their own needs; and the ways in which women’s experiences of sexual violence in conflict become co-opted to support a narrative of war, while leaving out the experiences of the very women who have suffered this violence, all speak to a need for a different kind of attention to gender and conflict.

 

An ethic of partnership

How can development practitioners working on gender strengthen the approach we take to gender and conflict? I suggest we begin by incorporating a new ethic into our work, one that puts importance on women’s experiences of everyday life. I would call this approach an “ethic of partnership.” From a practical standpoint, this approach would take several forms.

First, it would require focusing advocacy efforts on places where women are not currently being reached. Program design should be based on, and inclusive of women at the local level who are rarely given a voice in conversations about women’s rights—in part because they do not have any pre-existing framework to guide their understanding of these issues. Allowing women to speak about their experiences, and taking those experiences seriously, requires being attuned to the paternalism Mohanty warned against. It also requires not being afraid to tackle social problems that are happening within ethnic communities out of fear of being insensitive to culture.

Next, an ethic of partnership would ask that advocates prioritize social inquiries at an institutional level. This would involve utilizing the structures of international organizations to access funding and raise awareness about the seemingly less-obvious places where gender and conflict intersect. International actors are well-positioned to work within these structures, which are inaccessible to many local women. They can build relationships with donors and access fundraising channels that, if done right, can benefit people on the ground in meaningful ways. This requires that local and international practitioners strengthen alliances between their organizations.

Finally, incorporating an ethic of partnership into gender advocacy means approaching this space with a new curiosity about women’s experiences of the mundane. Research in this area could look at the dynamics of family, work, and faith, and connect these inquiries to advocacy projects. It would allow for a diverse array of disciplines to inform new types of interventions. On the programming side, funds benchmarked for “gender” issues should not be considered ancillary to peacebuilding or development work—they should, instead, be made integral components.

Women caught in the throes of conflict grapple with conflicting allegiances—not only to armed organizations, but also to family members, communities, and women’s rights organizations themselves. These struggles show us how women’s everyday lives are impacted by armed conflict. In order to better understand these issues, development practitioners should take a new approach to the places we look and the lens through which we see. Above all else, we need to constantly interrogate the ethical approach we take to our work. Doing so could help give voice to—and ultimately repair—the seemingly impenetrable spaces of division experienced by so many women in Myanmar.

This article is the third in a series by Erin Kamler on gender, development, and Myanmar’s peace process. Here are links to the first and second parts of the series.

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“Peace Process” Versus “Peacebuilding Project” – Why Nuance Matters in Myanmar’s Development Landscape

gender myanmar

This article is the second of a three part series on development, peace, and gender in Myanmar. The first article in the series is linked here.

Development practitioners in Myanmar should view the phenomenon of “peacebuilding” as two separate, but intersecting projects—one driven by Myanmar nationals, and the other driven by international actors. The “peace process” is a closed system invested in the balance of power between ethnic communities and the Myanmar government, while another project—what I call the “peacebuilding project” represents, among other things, an international contest for geopolitical control in Mainland Southeast Asia. In this piece, I will discuss the nuances of these two different, but intersecting projects, the limitations of development practice within them, and the implications of all of this for women on the ground.

Since Myanmar opened its doors to the world in 2012 after decades of isolation, many international organizations and the governments supporting them have turned their efforts to repairing a nation perpetually reliant on armed conflict to solve disputes over ethnic autonomy and resource control. The UK, The US, Norway, the European Union and others have bolstered funding for peace-related programming and inter-communal violence reduction, resulting in a flourish of new initiatives by civil society, local and international organizations. This investment has occurred alongside the lifting of economic sanctions—a policy shift that Western governments believe is key to helping the country transition to democracy.

Despite the international community’s desire to be involved, Myanmar’s peace process is highly internal—what I would, in fact, call a “closed system.” The country’s Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team, comprised of sixteen Ethnic Armed Organizations and the Union Peace-making Work Committee, the peace-making arm of the government (now termed the Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee) have been in dialogue since 2013, all the while resisting international involvement. One notable exception was the signing of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement in 2015, which international and local actors were invited to observe.

Myanmar’s peace process differs from that of other countries in recent history. The 2004 peace agreement in Aceh, Indonesia, for example, was brokered by the government of Finland, with the goal of allowing the international community to provide humanitarian aid to a country reeling from both conflict and natural disaster. Similarly, the Bantay Ceasefire agreement of Mindanao, in The Philippines, incorporated an international ceasefire monitoring team. Unlike these countries, which championed international involvement in ending civil conflict, Myanmar’s peace actors seem committed to keeping the international community at bay.

But the international community is not just sitting idly by. Parallel to Myanmar’s peace process, another project is underway, which operates independently of ethnic armed actors and the Myanmar government. This project, led by international actors, is also invested in helping Myanmar achieve peace—only for different reasons. I call it Myanmar’s “peacebuilding project”—a movement led from the outside by international governments who, in addition to advancing humanitarian aims, are also working to further their own geopolitical interests in Mainland Southeast Asia.

These objectives, while shared by a number of Western governments, are heavily US-dominated. With tens of millions of dollars in aid invested in Myanmar’s development in 2015 alone, the US has taken the lead among Western governments in engaging the former pariah state—now making sweeping economic, political and social reforms. Doing so is part of the US’s “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region—a process of re-orienting foreign policy toward an area of the world that the US sees as central to the political and economic gains of the 21st century. As part of this re-balancing act, the US’s engagement with Myanmar has already been hailed as a success.

Within this context, the US is playing out a number of agendas in the form of its “peacebuiliding project.” The primary goal involves balancing against China’s rise in the region. Seen as a heavy-handed northern neighbor intent on plundering Myanmar of natural resources in the form of its hydroelectric dam, oil and gas pipeline, copper mining and logging projects, China’s reputation in Myanmar has recently diminished. Myanmar’s government has accused China of stalling the peace process by supporting ethnic autonomous organizations such as the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and the United Wa State Army (UWSA) in the north—groups who refuse to sign the NCA due to grievances over the its non-inclusivity. Capitalizing on this unpopular sentiment, the US seems intent to drive home the point that by contrast, its own peace agenda is benign in nature.

The second goal of the US’s peacebuilding project is to divert international attention away from the US’s disastrous involvement in the Middle East. Helping Myanmar achieve peace represents a step in the right direction for the US as it struggles to uphold its brand of promoting democratization and human rights around the world. Ever concerned with the potential decline of its image, the US is relying on the success of Myanmar’s democratic elections coupled with advances in the peace process as a marker of its own foreign policy gains. The hard part, of course, comes with the slow progress being made toward actual peace.

Finally, in addition to these political motivations, I suggest that there is a genuine ethical incentive on the part of the US government to advance a peacebuilding agenda in Myanmar. While a decisive end to armed conflict has yet to be seen, US agencies are investing in programs being implemented by international, local and civil society groups that work to empower people on the ground in conflict areas. Examples include a US Embassy small grants program that supports local civil society organizations conducting human rights, environmental awareness and civic engagement training; USAID funding for humanitarian assistance to vulnerable populations in conflict-affected areas; and peace education and social integration programs that have successfully impacted ethnic communities. While geopolitical concerns do steer the peacebuilding project, I suggest that this project should not simply be seen as a form of Western dominance. Rather, like all complicated processes, it should be understood according to its nuances, and not painted over with too broad a brush.

Problematic polarizations

The problem, however, is that many actors working in the peacebuilding arena—as well as those critiquing it from the outside—do just that. Because the West’s “peacebuilding project”—a project that means many things to many people—is so complex, national actors in Myanmar often conflate the “good” development work being done around peace with the West’s less altruistic geopolitical aims. This, in turn, has created a culture of mistrust in Myanmar’s development space—an ongoing assumption that international actors are trying to “meddle” in a process that should remain internal. Some national actors have suggested that international organizations are moving too quickly to implement humanitarian and economic strategies in a country still fragile and rife with conflict. Others have gone so far as to suggest that the international community “take its money elsewhere,” expressing disdain for what they see as being a disingenuous agenda.

These actors represent a diverse array of civil society human rights activists and organizations, many of whom worked in exile prior to Myanmar’s “opening” in early 2012. Indeed, the history of Myanmar’s civil society activist culture is characterized by an “inside-outside” dichotomy, in which numerous groups were forced to conduct their efforts across the border in Thailand for fear of being discovered by a repressive and hostile government. Many suffered the consequences of their bravery in protesting, demonstrating, and taking up arms. Now, the country has officially “opened” to these groups and their constituents, in a radical reversal accompanied by an influx of donor support.

An example of this reversal can be seen in the case of the Kachin Women’s Association of Thailand, or KWAT, a civil society organization with whom I worked between 2011 and 2014. Prior to 2012, KWAT was wary of being coded as a “rebel” organization by the US government, who, the organization members suspected, viewed them suspiciously because of their involvement with the Kachin Independence Organization. Now, KWAT receives support from that very same government in the form of a grant to research the trafficking of women in Kachin State. Given the quick and quite radical shift in support for civil society actors like KWAT, it is understandable why critics would be skeptical of international involvement.

I suggest, however, that this “broad brush” suspicion of international involvement in peacebuilding can be dangerous for those who live under the conditions of armed conflict. As other scholars have noted, peace processes in which international communities play an ambiguous role can end up entrenching existing conflict dynamics, even after peace agreements are signed. This can happen when ethnic armed groups are authorized to make vague deals that circumvent the rule of law—deals legitimized by an international community whose involvement is too weak to put pressure on national actors to adhere to human rights standards.

This occurred in Bosnia, where, as Mary Kaldor (2016) has explained, following the Dayton Agreement that officially brought an end to war, police and judicial reform processes were implemented at the behest of international community. These reforms, however, were obstructed by corrupt political leadership. While the peace agreement held, the power dynamics of the conflict actors became entrenched. Kaldor notes that this often occurs in post conflict situations, where remnants of the conflict and the return to war loom as constant possibilities. Police rarely attend to human rights violations, and a historic culture of impunity leaves people in fear.

These dangers are ever-present in the Myanmar context, where armed conflict still rages, and gains of the ceasefire agreements in place are fragile, at best. Thus, a strong international presence that holds conflict actors accountable is not only desirable, it is essential. For this reason, Myanmar nationals who genuinely want to empower their communities should resist the temptation to see all international actors as nefarious.

Implications for women

All of this has implications for women living under the conditions of conflict. By viewing international involvement in the peace process with suspicion, national actors reinforce an agenda of keeping that process “closed.”  In doing so, however, women who are affected by the outcomes of this process could end up at a stark disadvantage. This could happen in a number of ways.

First, keeping the peace process internal leaves open the potential for social norms that do a disservice to women to go unchanged. Cultural practices like customary laws that discriminate against women, for example, often hold strong under the guise of ethnic nationalism. By resisting—or flat out rejecting—international involvement, national actors risk creating barriers for women who need these structures to change. As I will discuss in my next article, international efforts around gender advocacy could make important strides in resisting these norms.

Moreover, keeping the process internal risks cementing women’s inequality in peace agreements themselves. In the Myanmar context, the continuous breaches of bilateral ceasefire agreements, the escalation of conflict in various parts of the country during the signing of the NCA, and the NCA’s vague stance on gender inclusivity reveal the weak nature of the agreements in place. Until these agreements are strengthened and taken seriously, women’s needs will go unaddressed. While there is a call on the national level to strengthen gender equity within the NCA, this call risks being overridden by the need to achieve consensus around its signing. In the rush to bring all parties to the table, neither the gender inclusion component of this agreement, nor the rule of law that would enforce it are being adequately addressed. International actors could put pressure on the parties involved to make gender equality an imperative in the NCA, and in rule of law capacity building more broadly.

Finally, if the international community doesn’t take a hard look at its own contradictory agendas, it risks mis-stepping in ways that could have detrimental consequences. Clarifying the agendas of the “peacebuilding project” will require international actors to make some difficult decisions about which investments best serve the needs of communities in Myanmar.

For example, relief programs for internally displaced persons that fail to comprehensively assess the conditions of conflict areas can create more harm than good. Weak accountability mechanisms of international financial institutions investing in development projects pose threats to women in rural environments where those projects are operationalized. Additionally, power relations between ethnic armed organizations and women who live in the territories they control should be taken into consideration in programming that engages these actors. As development practitioners, we must constantly interrogate our own interventions to ensure they are not doing a disservice to the very people we are trying to help.

The politics of peace are not without consequence for women. The closed system of the peace process poses specific risks—as does the international peacebuilding project, if its complexities and contradictions are not fully understood. One resists outside involvement, while the other balances multiple, sometimes competing aims. Understanding the nuances of these projects will not only advance development practice around peacebuilding, it will also illuminate the pitfalls and possibilities for ethnic women in Myanmar, who stand to lose the most from the continuation of armed conflict.

This article is the second of a three part series on development, peace, and gender in Myanmar. Read on to the third part here. The first article in the series is linked here.  

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Seeing Beyond the Visible: How Development Practitioners Should Think About Gender & Peacebuilding in Myanmar

Women lead the voting lines at Myanmar's national election in 2015.

Women lead the voting lines at Myanmar’s national election in 2015.

Peacebuilding practitioners in Myanmar should re-orient the way we look at peace and conflict processes, by viewing them through the experiences of women. Applying a gender lens to Myanmar’s peace process—which is largely dominated by male elites and leaves out the voices of ethnic communities, will reveal a more complete picture of the strategies being enacted by civil society actors to mitigate the effects of armed conflict. This, in turn, could inform policies that are more likely to generate productive results.

Since the advent of Myanmar’s transition to democracy in 2012, bringing peace to conflict-ridden ethnic areas has become a focus for actors engaged in the country’s development. Western governments including the United States recently hailed the signing of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement in 2015 by a handful of ethnic Armed Organizations as an important, albeit nascent step toward the end of decades-long civil unrest. In addition, development practitioners at the national level have begun implementing peacebuilding initiatives of their own.

Much of this work is being done against a backdrop of caution: conflicts in Kachin and Shan, two of Myanmar’s largest states, have left over 120,000 civilians displaced in the last five years alone, making optimism about peace seem premature. Additionally, the presence of a plethora of international “experts” in this space has led to criticism on the goals of the peacebuilding agenda. Development practitioners, well-aware of these cautions, continue to hope that the recently-elected National League for Democracy (NLD) government will usher in a new era of nationwide reconciliation, making Myanmar an exemplary case study for conflict practitioners around the world.

Despite this optimism, however, the lens through which many practitioners look at peacebuilding in Myanmar remains incomplete. In the rush to implement solutions, gender, a crucial factor in understanding the effects of armed conflict is often left out of key programming and policy initiatives. This is compounded by the fact that in national-level peace negotiations, women (especially ethnic women) are rarely allowed a voice.

Research has shown that beyond simply a being call for diversity, there are concrete benefits to integrating gender-sensitivity into development work. These include sustainability of programming and, in post-conflict situations, an increased likelihood of sustained peace. Therefore, rather than creating programs that are “gender blind,” practitioners should put gender at the center of the peacebuilding conversation. Seeing peace and conflict from “below” will provide a more complete picture of what is happening on the ground, and inform the creation of more productive policies.

 

The limits of visibility

Actors who call for applying a gender lens to Myanmar’s peace process unanimously suggest that women’s circumstances in Myanmar will improve when the numbers of women in public life increase. Gender inclusion, representation and participation have surfaced as focal points in these discussions, with a host of civil society women’s organizations shedding much-needed light on the lack of women’s participation in formal peace negotiations. Instilling a gender lens onto governance, particularly during the advent of the Suu Kyi-led NLD, these groups suggest, is paramount to advancing Myanmar’s peace agenda. More women in power, the argument goes, will lead to sustainable peace on Myanmar.

As important as this argument is, I suggest that it is incomplete. Incorporating women into pre-existing structures of power, while arguably beneficial, can also replicate hierarchies dominated by elites, leaving out the experiences of ordinary women. The sheer accomplishment of instilling more women in political office doesn’t tell us, for example, how gendered cultural practices are supported by, or lead to the exacerbation of, armed conflict. It doesn’t tell us how certain women become authorized to take on leadership roles, while other women lack even the most basic understanding of gender equality. We don’t yet understand how gender dynamics at the village level authorize wars to remain entrenched, or how resistance to war and refuting gender stereotypes go hand in hand. Issues of access and power are as much a part of “gendering” peace as are questions of women’s visibility.

Development practitioners should widen the lens to look at places where gender and power intersect. This can be done by looking to the ground and examining cultural spaces where women are seemingly invisible: at the village level, in grassroots civil society, and in peacebuilding organizations themselves. We must ask how gender dynamics in these spaces inform social inequalities, keep women at a disadvantage, and cement the roots of conflict.

 

Broadening the lens: Gender and ethnic civilian ceasefire monitoring

One example of an area that can help us better understand the intersections of gender, conflict and peace is civilian ceasefire monitoring. In recent years, ethnic peacebuilding practitioners have begun implementing a new approach to monitoring the fragile ceasefire agreements between Ethnic Armed Organizations and the Union of Myanmar Government. Civilian Ceasefire Monitoring, or CCM, began as an answer to the failed United Nations (UN) model of armed civilian protection in contexts such as Rwanda, Bosnia and Somalia throughout the 1990’s. It differs from other peacebuilding approaches in that it engages the direct participation of communities working on the ground, rather than relying on “outside” actors (such as the UN) to monitor conflict. In the CCM approach, villagers themselves are trained to understand the ceasefire agreements in place, and monitor incidents that breach those agreements. Often included in this work is “unarmed civilian protection monitoring,” which engages villagers’ participation in reporting on broader human rights violations (i.e., land grabbing, sexual assault). Notably, civilian ceasefire monitors must remain neutral in their efforts—making a commitment to align with neither side of an armed conflict. They also, by definition, must remain unarmed.

Civilian ceasefire monitoring mechanisms in Myanmar are diverse in their practices, goals and capacities. While some draw from previous experiences monitoring conflict in their regions, others are only beginning to develop the tools and knowledge necessary to achieve their goals. Overall, though, the mechanisms are aligned in their mission to actively monitor violations that persist in ethnic conflict areas.

Recently, I conducted preliminary research for Mercy Corps Myanmar’s Supporting Civilian Ceasefire Monitoring program on the gender dynamics of civilian ceasefire monitoring in Myanmar. The research assessed CCM mechanisms in six ethnic states, where over two-hundred-and–forty-four monitors are working in twenty-four villages and townships.

The research took place in Kayah, a small state in eastern Myanmar that has suffered from decades of conflict with the Union of Myanmar (UOM) government, and where weak infrastructure and food insecurity remain rampant; Kachin, home to the Kachin Independence Organization which has been entrenched in armed conflict since 2011, resulting in the internal displacement of over one-hundred-and-twenty thousand civilians; Chin, a remote, isolated area of Western Myanmar with scant natural resources and little infrastructure and one of the poorest regions in the country; Shan, a state which has suffered from decades of civil conflict and reports the highest levels sexual violence in armed conflict; Kayin (Karen), where land confiscation, natural resource extraction, and foreign-led development projects are ongoing concerns of citizens, with armed actors often implicated as perpetrators; and Mon, whose governing body, the New Mon State Party (NMSP) abstained from signing the NCA out of protest around its non-inclusiveness of other EAOs.

Our team conducted interviews with ten men and eight women, in an attempt to understand the practices of CCM mechanisms in these areas, and what role gender inclusion (and omission) might play in their work.

The findings revealed that a correlation exists between gender inclusion strategies and network functionality. Formalized gender inclusion strategies were discussed by mechanisms in Kayin, Shan and Mon states, who demonstrated conscious efforts to include women’s voices in decision-making processes and leadership roles within the mechanism.

By contrast, mechanisms in Kachin, Kayah, and Chin demonstrated comparably less commitment to including women in their processes. It can be argued that this, in turn, affected the overall functionality of the mechanism. Women from these networks reported being silenced in meetings, excluded from decision-making, and discouraged from working as monitors. This negative feedback, they explained, came from the community, their families, and male members of the mechanisms.

In addition, the findings revealed that gender issues inform the way a mechanism approaches its ceasefire monitoring mandate—specifically, whether to monitor a given bilateral or nationwide ceasefire agreement, or whether to monitor issues of civilian protection –i.e., human rights abuses within the community. Women, we found, consistently requested that their mechanisms attend to problems of sexual violence in conflict, domestic abuse, land grabbing, and other issues of importance to women at the village level. These issues are, of course, pertinent to all members of a community, not just women. However, it was often women who brought them to the forefront of the discussion.

Above all, the research found that seeing the work of civilian ceasefire monitors through a gender lens helps us understand the way these mechanisms function, the strategies they undertake, and the challenges they face. Conversely, by not including a gender lens, we risk negating half of the conversation.

There are numerous other ways in which the “how” and “where” of gendering peace and development practice can intersect: Research on women and customary law, women’s forced labor (for example, trafficking, which I have discussed here), and issues of gender and ethnic nationalism could reveal how peace and conflict processes are informed by women’s experiences. These spaces, though not directly related to women’s participation in public life, are nevertheless worth examining.

As development practitioners, we should ask deeper questions about how peacebuilding can be more inclusive of, and responsive to, women’s needs. Changing the dynamics of firmly entrenched systems of power is not simply a matter of quotas. When we think about gender and peace in Myanmar, how we look is important as where we look. Viewing peacebuilding from “below” helps us see places where gender neutrality is often assumed, rendering women’s experiences invisible. By probing these spaces, we create a new type of visibility—one in which the structures of power that keep women at a disadvantage can finally be laid bare.

This article is the first in a three part series by Erin Kamler on gender, peacebuilding, and development in Myanmar. Read on to the second and third parts.

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What’s Old is New Again: Predictions for Southeast Asia 2016

Will there be more skirmishes in the South China Sea in 2016? Photo: Getty Images

Will there be more skirmishes in the South China Sea in 2016? Photo: Getty Images

Much can change in a year’s time. In January 2015, Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew was still alive, Aung San Suu Kyi’s future as leader of Myanmar was quite uncertain and East by Southeast was not making any predictions about international affairs in Southeast Asia. But again, much can change in a year’s time.

2016 will be a critical period for geopolitics in the region, as new strategic relationships are formed and existing ones strengthened. Many experts talk of a growing polarization of the region as countries position themselves between the US and China, a trend due in large part to rising tensions in the South China Sea. The conflict will take center stage in 2016. Look for the the Netherlands-based Permanent Court of Arbitration to publish its initial findings on the Philippines’ case against China in the first half of 2016. Despite not ruling on sovereignty issues, the outcome of this case will likely anger China and lead to a more aggressive stance towards the Philippines and other claimants. As the Philippines and Vietnam rely more heavily on the US for security guarantees in the South China Sea, more US flyovers and naval patrols in the contested waters are to be expected. Look for the US Navy to begin to use Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay for “maintenance” purposes and to park its ships on a somewhat permanent basis  in the Philippines’ Subic Bay after joint military exercises finish in April 2016.

Conversely, look for the emerging Sino-Thai regional axis to be solidified in 2016. This relationship, despite not bringing much to the languishing Thai economy, will tighten the ruling junta’s grip on power. Thailand’s long drift towards authoritarianism will add further strains on ties with the US, its long-term external security power. Of course, the permanent white elephant in the room in Thailand is the king’s health. With his majesty in poor health, lese majeste cases will continue to multiply as the junta’s concern grows.  His death and the subsequent succession struggle would likely send the country into chaos, even with the army in control. Such a collapse of the Thai political structure would have major repercussions for the region’s stability.

Laos is also in for a tough year ahead. Its chairing of ASEAN will do more to highlight its shortcomings than celebrate its successes. With the opening of Xayaburi Dam, Don Sahong Dam scheduled to break ground in 2016 and preliminary studies beginning on a third Mekong dam at Pak Beng, there will be renewed calls from the international community for Laos to reconsider its hydropower plans for the Mekong River. The landlocked country’s lack of finesse in dealing with the South China Sea conflict will also draw criticism, all punctuated by continuing questions about the kidnapping of Lao activist Sombath Somphone.

In Cambodia, the political impasse between the ruling Cambodia People’s Party and the Cambodia National Rescue Party will continue through the first half of 2016. Expect strongman Hun Sen to find an 11th hour solution paving the way for opposition leader Sam Rainsy to return from self-imposed exile to begin preparing for the 2017 parliamentary elections.

Barring another major fracture in Thai politics, Vietnam’s National Party Congress will mark the region’s most significant political transition in 2016. Nguyen Tan Dung is likely to be selected as Vietnamese Communist Party chairman, with Truong Tan Sang staying on as president or similar role to balance Dung’s reformist tendencies. Dung’s leadership will be key as Vietnam implements the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a painful process that will force Vietnam to learn to run and walk at the same time. Dung’s princeling son, Nguyen Thanh Nhgi, will also be elevated to the Central Committee and has a bright path ahead if his father can lead the country into a new era of high economic growth and balanced relations between the US, China and Russia.

Corruption scandals will continue to keep a stranglehold on Indonesian and Malaysian politics. In Indonesia, President Joko Widodo’s efforts to prop up a sagging economy will be hampered by an unstable cabinet and nagging questions relating to 2015’s Freeport corruption scandal. In Malaysia, Prime Minister Najib Razak will continue to face intense public scrutiny over the 1MDB scandal. It is possible that Najib will use a new national security law to muffle Malaysian civil society’s calls for his resignation.

After refreshingly open elections in 2015, 2016 will be a year of political posturing for Myanmar. As Aung San Suu Kyi and her victorious National League for Democracy take power in early 2016, the military will position itself to retain many of its past privileges. Look for Than Shwe and the other generals to create a formal post in the government for Aung San Suu Kyi, who is legally barred from the presidency, in a bid to define and contain her power as head of the NLD. Those expecting radical change from the NLD government will be disappointed – there will be little structural political reform, the NLD’s foreign policy will be largely similar to Thein Sein’s, and the ethnic reconciliation process will still muddle along. However, look for the new ruling party to permanently shut down the Myitsone hydropower project and consider suspending the Salween river’s cascade of dams in order to push along the ethnic peace process.

Like 2015, this year will see a further intensification of the Rohingya refugee crisis. However, with the world’s eyes adjusted to seeing the plight of refugees, there will be more attention paid to the issue and Aung San Suu Kyi will receive pressure from both Western and Muslim-majority countries to solve the problem of Rohingya persecution in Myanmar. Another ethnic group that came to the forefront last year, China’s Uighur population will also stay in the news in 2016. Increased crackdowns in their home Xinjiang province will force more refugees into Southeast Asia, and lead to a handful of Uighur-related terrorist attacks, both foiled and executed, in Thailand and Indonesia.

The regional economy will see decreased growth in 2016 as a result of slowing growth and structural issues in the Chinese economy. Chinese money will still flow south as the One Belt One Road strategy is rolled out and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank officially opens for business. Contrary to some expectations, the AIIB’s first loan recipient will not be Myanmar, but either Laos or Cambodia.

On the other side of the coin, the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership will begin the ratification process in a number of regional countries this year. Our bets on order of approval are Singapore first, followed by Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam. Indonesia will likely commit to the TPP by the end of the year while Thailand’s economic struggles under the military junta will push it closer to joining. Much of the US-ASEAN Sunnylands conference in February will be centered on TPP ratification, along with South China Sea issues and counter-terrorism cooperation, and will serve to solidify relations between the US and the bloc. ASEAN leaders will be looking for assurances of American commitment to the region during the next administration and they will likely receive them. Of course the future of the TPP and the US Rebalance to Asia lies in the fate of the US Presidential elections and our prediction is that America’s first woman president will keep the Rebalance at the forefront of her foreign policy – after all it was her idea.

Last but not least, the Asian Economic Community will be the same on January 1, 2017 as it was at the head of this year – a half-baked dream with little hope of success.

To all of the East by Southeast readers and their families, we wish a you happy new year and much joy and success in 2016!

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Filed under ASEAN, Brunei, Cambodia, China, Economic development, Foreign policy, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Mekong River, Myanmar/Burma, Philippines, Regional Relations, SLIDER, South China Seas, Thailand, USA, Vietnam

Yunnan border zone slated to cost 200 billion yuan

New infrastructure projects, like the Kunming-Singapore Railway, will be passing through southern Yunnan on their way to Southeast Asia.

New infrastructure projects, like the Kunming-Singapore Railway, will be passing through southern Yunnan on their way to Southeast Asia.

Investment and development money continues to pour into southern Yunnan’s Xishuangbanna. Weeks after the largest resort in the province opened near the city of Jinghong, prefectural officials unveiled plans for a new economic zone with an eye-popping price tag.

The Mengla Economic Zone, according to plans approved this summer by the Yunnan Development and Reform Commission, will span 4,500 square kilometers, centered around Mengla County (勐腊县). Initial estimates place the cost of the multi-purpose undertaking at 200 billion yuan (US$31.4 billion). The zone spans 240 as-yet unclear projects reportedly focusing on the sectors of agriculture, education, logistics, processing, tourism and transportation.

The latter of the these is perhaps most important to national planners. Connecting cities in Yunnan to Southeast Asia by rail has long been a goal of the Bridgehead Strategy, which looks to integrate the province’s economy more closely to those of its international neighbors. Mengla County borders Laos and is one key component in plans to build a web of railway lines by 2020 which will further connect Southeast Asia with Kunming.

Progress, however, has been slow on multiple fronts. The Kunming-Singapore Railway — the main trunk line of the planned network — was once expected to open in 2015. However, due to ongoing financial disagreements between China, Laos and Thailand, completion projections have been pushed back at least five years.

In that time, a branch railway along the recently opened Kunming-Hekou line will be extended 500 kilometers south to the border town of Mohan (磨憨) in Mengla County. When finished, the railway will pass from Yuxi through Pu’er, Jinghong and Mohan before linking up with a 44.5 billion yuan (US$7 billion) Chinese-built high-speed line running to Laos’ capital, Vientiane.

The newly announced Mengla Economic Zone appears to be a very expensive kick-starter of sorts. Its launch is not only aimed at furthering Chin’s Bridgehead Strategy, but also seems designed to convince Laos — which is wagering half its annual GDP on the railway project — that Chinese intentions are serious and longstanding.

Regardless of the effects on Laos, the economic zone is another enormous financial shot in the arm for largely rural Xishuangbanna. Less than one month ago, real estate conglomerate Wanda opened a 15 billion yuan (US$2.36 billion) resort and development area of its own in the prefecture. The goal for such a sizable investment, in the words of company chairman Wang Jianlin (王健林), is to “…revolutionize Yunnan’s tourism industry“. One way or another, it looks as if sleepy Xishuangbanna is in for drastic changes in the coming years.

The preceding article was written by Patrick Scally and originally posted on GoKunming. It is republished here, in its entirety, with full permission from the author. 

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Solving Southeast Asia’s drug problem

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Image of the Golden Triangle where Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet.

The Obama administration has once again named Myanmar and Laos to its list of twenty-two countries determined to be major drug trafficking countries or major drug transit countries. The White House memo, issued on Monday, noted that Myanmar “failed demonstrably during the last twelve months to make sufficient or meaningful efforts to adhere to their obligations under international counternarcotics agreements.” The United States, however, did extend Myanmar a National Interest Waiver to promote democracy and avoid reduction of aid to Burma as a result of the designation.

The Golden Triangle, an area formed roughly by the upland frontier areas of Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, and China, was the world’s leading opium producer from the 1960s to the 1980s. But just less than ten years ago, it was moving toward opium free status as deepening economic ties with a rising China brought new investment and governments supported crop substitution programs in the region. Now, opium, methamphetamines, and other drugs from the Golden Triangle are once again flooding regional and global markets.

In just the past two months alone, 26mn methamphetamine tablets were seized in Yangon, Myanmar and 1.5 tons of marijuana packed into coffee shipments from Laos were seized in Cambodia. Earlier this year The New York Times ran a series of exposes on opium production and heroin addiction in Myanmar’s conflict-ridden Shan and Kachin states. The United Nations estimates that Myanmar’s poppy cultivation has tripled since 2006 and takes up almost 150,000 acres.

Despite recent spurts of economic growth in Myanmar and Laos, flagging economic conditions on the countries’ peripheries and civil war in Myanmar are pushing marginal peoples toward the production of opium. Lucrative cash crops like opium won’t make farmers rich, but hired labor on an illegal opium farm in Kachin state will earn $8 per hour compared with $2.50 working on a legal farm.

A new push factor for upland drug production in Laos and Myanmar is the arrival of small-scale agricultural investors from China’s neighboring Yunnan province. Their projects, often set up on lowland concessions granted by national or local governments, utilize less local labor and thus create a landless poor classes that literally ‘head for the hills’ to cultivate opium. Another new addition to the landscape is recently built highways and other infrastructure development projects that link urban centers but often ignore the periphery. Poor road conditions in upland areas cannot facilitate logistical support or encourage investment that could promote legal and productive agricultural activities in upland areas. And once the opium makes its way down narrow trails to the lowland areas, the highway serve as quick conduits for global distribution networks.

Being out of reach from state security and legal institutions – which typically underperform at any rate in Laos and Myanmar – permits opium farmers and trafficking middlemen to operate with impunity. Upland Southeast Asia is not the only place affected. Evidence shows drug use is on the rise in China and within Southeast Asia’s growing urban and rural middle classes. Moreover, crackdown efforts in lowland areas of these countries has only pushed production further into upland areas which are harder to reach.

Efforts to control and stem opiate production in Laos and Myanmar are often focused on identification and eradication. Government agencies locate productive areas and destroy illegal crops. This often forces rural peoples into poverty or drives villagers to new, more remote areas ripe for opium production. The UN and China have introduced crop substitution as a solution in Myanmar and Laos. But this “big state solution” often fails in its implementation because it neglects the needs of upland agriculture and flounders in its long term commitment to solving the problem.

In 2007, China’s crop substitution programs looked to be succeeding in reducing opium production. However, poor investment in infrastructure and low commitment to technical assistance created a situation where alternative cash crops could not compete on a global market and upland farmers were left high and dry.

Investments in coffee and rubber – often seen as more lucrative cash crops – take three to seven years to yield a harvest. This, coupled with falling global food prices and high transportation costs due to lack of infrastructure, discourages alternative investment. As a result, crop substitution investments in sugar, buckwheat, coffee, and rubber have consistently failed or are currently flagging in upland Southeast Asia.

To effectively curb the production of opium and other illegal drugs in upland areas of Myanmar and Laos, expenditure on agricultural extension programs and infrastructure such as paved roads and logistical facilities must increase to attract suitable investment into these areas. Advances in the peace process in Myanmar and resultant spurts of legitimate economic growth in the country’s ethnic autonomous states will do much to curb opium and methamphetamine production. Laos, however, is a different story. Even peace cannot stem opiate production, with its current set of weak institutions dictated by the fiat of a few powerful families with strong ties to China. Counter-narcotic efforts are vital to stop the flow of opium and methamphetamines in Southeast Asia. But they must be paired with viable economic solutions for the upland farmers involved in drug production.

This article was first published here on The Diplomat website on September 17. 

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Kunming-based think tank fighting Myanmar forest loss

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A new project promoting agroforestry as a sustainable alternative to current farming practices in the uplands of Myanmar is underway. Led by the World Agroforestry Centre‘s East and Central Asia regional program, and approved by the country’s Minister of Environmental Conservation and Forestry (MECF), the undertaking aims to reforest mountainous landscapes prone to degradation.

The project will initially be carried out in the Burmese states of Shan and Chin on a relatively small scale of six hectares. When made viable both environmentally and economically, Naypyidaw has pledged to expand the program — and around the capital has already begun to do so — as Myanmar is in dire need of workable solutions addressing its growing forest loss.

At the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), farming practices are seen as part of the problem.Shifting cultivation involves clearing forest for the cultivation of crops. After a cropping period that can be as short as one or two years, the land is fallowed for up to ten, allowing the forest to grow back. Not intrinsically bad, shifting cultivation is increasingly rare due to the shrinking availability of land, as well as current government policies.

Pressed to grow more food, villagers now usually clear forest permanently, often for monoculture plantations of sugarcane or rubber. Allowing no natural regeneration and depriving the landscape of a diversity of trees, this change of land use harms livelihoods and ecosystems.

A promising and healthy alternative, according to ICRAF reports, is the deliberate reintegration of trees that positively interact with crops and livestock on and around farms. “Agroforestry is the ideal solution for uplands,” explains Dr Dietrich Schmidt-Vogt, lead researcher for the ICRAF project. “Agroforestry can drastically reduce the need for expensive chemical fertilizers and noxious pesticides while boosting yields and diversifying income sources.”

Communities involved with the initiative have provided sites on which to demonstrate the new agroforestry methods. The researchers hope to incorporate trees that fertilize the soil — such as Himalayan Alder — and to jointly search with villagers for alternative income sources. This will provide a feedback loop between scientists, non-government organizations and farmers, with the three groups learning and adjusting together. The work is largely funded with a grant by international donor consortium Livelihoods and Food Security Trust Fund.

Dr Peter Mortimer, a soil scientist at ICRAF, speaking of support received from MECF, said, “Having strong backing on all levels is so important for this type of project, and we have a feeling that Myanmar and its people will prove great partners and an example for similar projects elsewhere.” While heavy flooding in Chin State has complicated progress, trees are now ready to be planted and the first cropping cycle will coincide with the start of the next wet season.

This article written by Patrick Scally was originally posted here on the GoKunming website.

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SMEC’ed About the Head

What is it about No that SMEC doesn’t understand?

SMEC, an Australian based services company that morphed out of the Snowy Mountains Engineering Corporation, was recently handed a petition containing 23,7171 signatures opposing a dam that would effectively divide war-shocked Shan state in Myanmar in half.

They are the  public face of a consortium planning a giant dam on the Upper Salween river at Mong Ton in Myanmar.  It’s not the first time they have been told the idea stinks.  Maybe they are heroically taking one for the gang; the disaster prone Three Gorges Corporation,  the very shonky Sino Hydro, the Myanmar Electricity Power  Enterprise,  and state energy monopsony  Thai Electricity Generating Authority (EGAT).  Then there is a UK team of engineers Malcolm Dunstan and Associates, involved in dam building in Myanmar in the past and, because of human right violations on the sites, placed on UK’s Burma Campaign’s ‘Dirty Company’ list. SMEC might well soon be down there with them.

SMEC has been meeting the people of Shan state, seeking agreement for the Mong Ton dam to be built on the upper Salween in Shan State. They have faced serial rejection. Meetings have been cancelled due to local hostility. Old Shan women have risen to their feet, their voices rich and challenging, telling the SMEC representatives that having survived years of war, they refuse to let their ancestral lands be drowned to produce unneeded electricity for China and Thailand.

SMEC’s habit of giving gifts of cloth bags, bottled drinks and snacks to people they interview has as angered local villagers, who view these as bribes. They report SMEC repeatedly pushes the ‘positive’ impacts of the dam, appearing deaf to protests, while attempting to persuade them to sign documents they don’t understand.

On July 22nd, a group of villagers returned the bags they had been given by SMEC surveyors, and instead presented them with anti-dam posters. A Shan joint statement calls SMEC’s assessments process “simply a sham, aimed to rubber-stamp the Mong Ton dam plans, rather than objectively assess (sic)  the project’s actual impacts.”

In April this year the Australian Federal Police raided SMEC’s international’s headquarters in New South Wales ‘as part of an investigation into allegations of foreign bribery – it was unclear if this was associated with the Myanmar project.

‘Many of our highly respected stupas and pagodas, such as Ho Leung temple, will be destroyed.’ said Hkyaw Seng, whose village is close to the construction site. The 700 years old Ho Leung Temple, on the eastern bank of the Salween is famous throughout Shan State, with tens of thousands of pilgrims travelling there every March.

In the Australian context, this might be compared to submerging St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne  to power New Zealand.

Burma Battlers

Along with other ethnic states of Myanmar, Shan state suffered intense warfare for over 20 years and sporadic clashes since. It is the biggest of Myanmar’s seven ethnic states with population of around 8 million people, half of whom are  Shan.

During that long war many abuses were committed by the Burmese Army, include arbitrary execution and detention, torture, looting, rape, forced relocation and forced labour.

Shan and Karen representatives reported to this correspondent that SMEC’s work has been obstructed by political instability, increasing military presence and growing community resistance. In May Burmese Army tanks were photographed in Kunhing, whose renowned ‘thousand islands’ in the Pang tributary will be submerged by the dam reservoir. They fear opposition to the dam will trigger military violence.

Four SMEC officials went to the Wa capital in early July this year, seeking to survey the Wa Special Administrative Region. They were ‘advised’ to return at a later date by leaders of the China-backed United Wa State Army, possibly due to growing political and military tension between UWSA (notoriously linked with cross border drug trade) and Burmese government; tensions that erupted into fighting in Mong Ton township in early June 2015. SMEC is now effectively unable to carry out surveys in a large swathe of Wa-controlled territory along the eastern bank of the Salween above the planned Mong Ton dam.

The US$10 billion (2015 estimate) hydropower dam will flood an area nearly the size of Singapore, virtually bisecting  Shan state and destroying around a hundred communities. You can replace houses but not communities which are organic social structures built on trust mutual support and shared histories. It is the very strength of these communities that enabled their people to endure the hardships of war. Locals report that tanks are returning, as are armed guards. A Chiang Mai lawyer with connections to the Shan, told this correspondent recently ‘local media report that the project has started, and in a conversation we had… a few weeks ago, there is a camp of mostly Chinese engineers doing testing near the site. They said that the river near that area is off limits to all people and that warning shots were fired at a boat that got too close. The contact was not sure who fired the shots.’

The Burma river network (BRN) asserts that large dams are being constructed on all of Burma’s major rivers and tributaries by Chinese, Thai and Indian companies. The dams are causing displacement, militarization, human rights abuses, and irreversible environmental damage – threatening the livelihoods and food security of millions. The power and revenues generated are going to the military regime and neighbouring countries.

Role Play

So what is an Aussie company doing there?

‘It is not SMEC’s role to provide recommendations as to whether the Project should proceed. The findings of the EIA/SIA will be presented to the Government of Myanmar, who will decide (with other sources of information) whether to proceed with the Project.’ (Pro forma response from SMEC).

SMEC’s role has been to complete the Environmental and Social Impact Assessments. The general idea is for both these studies to be submitted to the government to be signed-off (or, as happens too often, paid off) and plans for mitigation put to the villagers and agreed to before work can start. However a local council member in Mong Ton, seconding the lawyer’s report, said that despite the local people’s disapproval, earthworks were already underway along the ridge of the mountain, as was confirmed by Kai Khur Hseng, a spokesperson for the Shan by phone from the Thai-Myanmar border.

‘Well you would expect that,’ said environmental consultant Dr Sean Foley in neighbouring Laos. ‘They borrow lots of money to build the dam and no doubt to pay off officials. The longer they delay, the more interest they have to pay, so it’s in their interest to get moving, and pay the necessary fees to ensure the EIA is agreed to. The ‘soft’ items like compensation to villagers and relocation construction are usually where all the cost savings are made.’

As for the social impacts, it should be obvious, when confronted with a room full of people who are largely farmers and whose land is about to be flooded, wearing ‘No Dams’ headbands, that maybe, just maybe, these people think the social and economic costs are not worth it. Despite SMEC’s claims to hold free and fair consultations the presence of local militias and pro-government representatives in meetings inhibited villagers from asking questions.

A message sent to SMEC’s local senior manager, Michael Holics, which asked how much forest was going to be destroyed, how many tonnes of concrete to be used was met with a pro forma response  (see above), the same response given to questions related to resettlement, land allocation, livelihoods, and fish stocks. Tropical dams are under scrutiny, found to emit as much greenhouse gas as coal fired power plants with similar energy output, while devastating huge areas of land.

SMEC’s job has already been done by International Rivers (IR) and other local groups who have listed the environmental and social factors mitigating against building the dam. Pianporn Deetes of IR told this correspondent that tens of thousands of ethnic people living on the floodplains near the dam site have already been forcibly relocated. ‘All dams planned on the Salween River will greatly disrupt the riverine ecosystem and destroy the livelihoods of peoples living along the river.’

SMEC could hardly avoid the fact that in 2007, the dam consortium was given land on which to build an office, land confiscated from Wan Mai village. In the way of the then-incumbent military junta, landless villagers were forced to attend the ground-breaking ceremony for the dam. Further north, the Mekong, Salween and Yangtze rivers flow in parallel for at least 300 kms, creating a World Heritage listed biodiversity area that is being destroyed by megaprojects like hydropower dams. In short, SMEC whose office centred CSR principles would have this project in Australia booed off the field, seem undeterred.

Sai Khur Hseng reported that wars and forest destruction had taken its toll on mega-fauna like elephants but that  ‘Survivors habitat will be drowned by the dam.’ Myanmar’s laws have not been reformed in keeping with global standards and do not provide for compensation or relocation.

Paul Sein Twa, reported that business cronies of the regime have already been clear-felling formerly dense teak forests around the dam site. Director of the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN), Twa told Mongabay that proposed multiple dams would do irreparable damage to the Salween Basin extending across, China, Myanmar and Thailand. The basin is “home to the world’s last great teak forest, to dry-season islands rich with crops, and to healthy fisheries upon which many people depend. This river is of vast ecological and cultural value, and it is worth preserving for present and future generations.’

Did the Earth Move for You

The Mong Ton dam wall, some 241 meters high, would be one of the highest in the region. The area is very prone to earthquakes and warning has been issued about impending risk of a serious movement of the nearby Sagaing fault after the Nepal ‘adjustment’. The collapse of such a dam would be disastrous.  Scientists have warned of additional  +7 scale adjustments in the next decade and have clearly advised against dam building. A dam this size could itself cause a seismic event, as happened in Sichuan China.

The Himalayan and Tibetan glaciers appear to be melting faster than earlier predicted, offering increased flows in the short-term but ‘dry ice’ in the future.

Twa agreed the dam also poses a threat of catastrophic flooding, should the region’s seismic activity lead to an earthquake-induced dam failure.

Asia is engaged in a orgy of dam building, pushed heavily by China and Thailand, whose urban elites stand to profit mightily from such investments. In this part of the world rivers are integral to life, providing food, transport and irrigation to countless communities.

Myanmar’s government has not publicly addressed villager’s complaints, but have praised the Salween dam projects as benefiting local populations, securing critically-needed electricity for Myanmar and leading to peace. But the opposite appears to be true, with the poor losing hard-won security and military build ups occurring daily. Maybe SMEC’s shareholders should understand the implications of the company’s activities and make their discontent clear.

The author of this article has chosen to publish anonymously.

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Shwe Mann removal a blow to reform in Myanmar

Shwe Mann's removal represents a step backwards for Myanmar's reform process.

Shwe Mann’s purge represents a step backwards for Myanmar’s reform process.

Less than three months before the country’s highly anticipated parliamentary elections, an internal purge of Myanmar’s ruling party has cast doubts on the prospects of reforms in the Southeast Asian state.

On Wednesday evening, security forces surrounded the headquarters of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), preventing politicians from leaving. Not long after, it was announced that Shwe Mann, chairman of the military-backed USDP was stepping down. The Parliament speaker’s ouster has changed Myanmar’s political landscape ahead of November 8 and has thrown the future of the nascent democracy into uncertainty.

Challenging the status quo

Shwe Mann, who was the third highest ranking official in General Than Shwe’s junta, was expected by many to take over the presidency in this year’s election. His ties to the military and his reputation as a reformer with close connections to opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi made him the ideal compromise candidate for a country that is struggling to maintain the pace of political and economic reforms started following the end of military rule in 2011.

It was this image as a reformer that ultimately led to his downfall. Ye Htut, Myanmar’s information minister and President Thein Sein’s spokesman confirmed as much Sunday, saying that Shwe Mann was removed because he challenged the military’s hold on parliamentary power and forged ties with rival party leaders.

Throughout Thein Sein’s tenure, Shwe Mann repeatedly made public overtures to Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). Many in Myanmar expected this year’s parliamentary elections to result in a unity government of the USDP and the NLD, with Shwe Mann as president. Both party leaders expressed a desire to alter the junta-backed 2008 constitution, which currently bars Suu Kyi from becoming president and reserves 25 percent of the parliament’s seats for the military.

Announcing his desire to partner with the opposition leader gained him popularity among the reform-minded Burmese public, but it did not endear him to the military elite. Former junta leader Than Shwe has reportedly changed his mind about the series of reforms he ordered five years ago and ultimately ordered Shwe Mann’s removal in order to re-consolidate the military’s hold on power.

Dim prospects for reform

The imagery of Wednesday evening’s intra-party coup certainly suggests that a return to the atmosphere of pre-reform Myanmar is afoot. Using the country’s security forces betrayed the involvement of the Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, likely carrying the blessings of Than Shwe. Despite his large political ambition, it is doubtful that the encirclement of USDP headquarters by soldiers and military police was needed to remove Shwe Mann from power. Instead, the display of military force was symbolic, serving notice to any would-be political challengers and the Burmese public as a whole that the military is ultimately in control. The bloodless coup’s casualties were only political in nature, but the violent signals it sent will have reminded many of past military purges.  Aung San Suu Kyi may be free from house arrest, newspapers may have cautiously restarted their printing presses, but the junta has not yet given up the reins.

The political landscape leading up to this year’s elections has changed considerably following Shwe Mann’s removal. He was Thein Sein’s primary political rival and with Aung San Suu Kyi sidelined by constitutional provisions, the presidency is Thein Sein’s to lose. Whether or not he will take the opportunity is another matter. The former general has waffled in his plans regarding the presidency, alternately saying that poor health will force him to step down and suggesting that his decision depends on the “the country’s situation, the prevailing circumstances, and wishes of the people.” Thein Sein does not need to immediately decide on his political future, however. Even if he chooses to sit out November’s elections, Thein Sein can still be nominated for the presidency by parliament, according to Myanmar’s 2008 constitution.

While Thein Sein’s presidential ambitions may be unclear, the prospects for liberal reform in Myanmar are unquestionably dim. Shwe Mann’s removal likely signals both a slowdown for political reform and crackdowns on Myanmar’s burgeoning civil society and free media.

Following his ouster, the government gagged media organizations linked to Shwe Mann. The Union Daily newspaper and the weekly Leader journal, both known as mouthpieces for Shwe Mann, were ordered to suspend operations by the Ministry of Information. In addition, Cherry FM, a radio station linked to Shwe Mann’s daughter-in-law, was taken off the air Friday.

Despite seemingly bleak prospects for Myanmar’s reform process, Shwe Mann’s removal could have unexpected consequences if the November elections remain free and fair. Shwe Mann represented reform within the country’s military establishment and offered a middle road between the NLD opposition and the hardliners in the USDP. Many Burmese that I have spoken with in recent years knew that Aung San Suu Kyi’s chances of ascending to the presidency were slim and viewed Shwe Mann as an acceptable alternative. That option is gone now.

By deposing Shwe Mann, the USDP might have pushed millions of moderate voters into the arms of their political opponents. However, that all depends on free and fair elections in November – an unlikely event following Wednesday’s intra-party coup.

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The Salween River is Not for Sale

TAUNGGYI, Shan state, Myanmar

It is billed to become the biggest dam in SE Asia. The Mong Ton dam project on the Salween River will flood a vast area, with a reservoir extending 380 km upstream over an area home to thousands of Shan and other ethnic groups in a region of important biodiversity.

It could well become Myanmar’s most controversial dam project since the Myitsone on the Irrawaddy. (This dam was suspended by President Thein Sein in 2010).

Sinohydro, The Three Gorges and Southern Power grid form a Chinese consortium with a 40 % stake in partnership with EGAT Thailand’s Electricity Authority (40%) and local partners IGE.

Kunhing villagers protest against Mong Ton Dam, April 30, 2015.

Kunhing villagers protest against Mong Ton Dam, April 30, 2015.

Thousands of villagers supported by civil society in the Shan state are angry that their Salween –the last undammed river of size and importance in the region- is being dragged into the nexus of ever expanding hydro-power and big business.

The strength of anti-dam sentiments took the EIA consultants by surprise at a recent public meetings in Shan state conducted by SMEC (The Snowy Mountain Engineering Corporation from Australia).

The Australian consultants have been engaged by the developers to conduct EIA and SIA – Environmental and Social Impact Assessments.

They received a hostile reception from hundreds of Shan people crammed into a small hall many of them sporting “No Dam “bandalas and placards.

The Smec consultants were told the assessment period was too short.The villagers have been told very little by the government and these corporations.

The recent protest against the gigantic Mong Ton dam project on Salween River is only one part of a growing anti- dam movement struggling to protect the culture and livelihoods of millions stretched across three ethnic states in Myanmar -Shan, Karen, and Kayah comprising diverse minority peoples.

Hundreds of kilometers to the south, Kesan – (the Karen Environmental Network) organized a Salween day to mark the global protection of rivers day March 14th 2015, to celebrate the river’s beauty and vital importance to ethnic peoples.

Up north the Mong Ton dam would flood pristine teak forests; the planned Hatgyi dam in Karen state would flood two wildlife north sanctuaries. Cultural and religious heritage sites will be inundated.

Banners defiantly proclaimed on the Thanlwin River/Salween in Myanmar: NO DAMS! THE SALWEEN IS NOT FOR SALE! On International Rivers Day of Protest celebrated on rivers around the world from the Amazon to the Mekong.

Ms Hsa Moo, a Kesan media coordinator addressed a crowd of several hundred Karen villagers. “When the government in Nay Pyidaw looks at the Salween River and other rivers in Burma, they don’t see its beauty: they only see Thai Baht, Chinese Yuan, US dollars and Indian Rupees. For them, the rivers flowing through the lands of our ethnic communities are nothing more than a potential source of revenue. Not revenue for local people, but for the central government:

They want to dam our rivers, sell most of the energy they generate to neighboring countries, and keep the money for themselves.’ She concluded “Our rivers are not for sale.”

Statements from the Naypidaw parliament indicate the government‘s prime concern is not with the potentially disastrous impacts, but with the country’s energy shortages.

In February 2013 the Deputy Minister of Power Myint Zaw told parliament that six hydropower dams had been approved for the Salween River, one of the region’s longest flowing for 2800 kms from the snow-capped mountains of Tibet, through China and Myanmar.

The projects in Shan State include the Kunlon, with a capacity of 1400 megawatts, Naungpha (1000MW), Mann Thaung (200MW) and Mong Ton(aka Tasang dam)   (7110MW). Other dams include Ywarthit (4000MW) in Kayah State and Hatgyi (1360MW) in Karen State.

Professor Maung Maung Aye chief advisor to the MEI –Myanmar Environment Institute speaking in a panel discussion in Yangon commented; “today damming the rivers is the government’s first principle for developing more energy, instead of being the last option for the nation.”.

The NGO Renewable Energy Association of Myanmar (REAM) also strongly criticized the government’s failure to adopt an energy policy that would include investment in solar power, wind power and other clean and green energy solutions that have recently dropped in price, and become far more affordable..

Upstream from Myanmar the Salween( Nujiang) in China had been the target for 13 dams in 2004. However in a dramatic reversal for Chinese hydropower, former premier Wen Jiabao declared a moratorium on dam construction on the River Nujang in response to a strong environmental campaign led by Green Watershed, supported by several Chinese geologists.

The Mong Ton (aka Tasang) dam will be by far the largest on the Salween River in Burma, producing 7,100 megawatts of electricity, 90 percent of which will be exported to China and Thailand.

The massive reservoir will stretch across almost the entire length of Shan State flooding huge areas and deluging hugely important areas of biodiversity and forest. Villagers who attended the recent SMEC –run consultation in early April, held up anti-dam placards and handed out a statement to the Australian staff, raising concerns about how the dam would threaten their livelihoods and trigger renewed armed conflict.

HYDRO- DAMS FUELLING CONFLICT

Nang Wah Nu, a representative from Shan State in Parliament reported last year that preparation work has already begun on monster Mong Ton dam designed to deliver 7000 mw of power, but only 15% for the Myanmar.

The Shan parliamentarian lamented “no information had been provided to residents who fear their homes, rice fields and pagodas will be flooded”. She warned   “Fighting could break out if the government does not discuss the project.”

Indeed fighting has broken out in the proximity of dam projects with more than 50 clashes recorded between armed ethnic groups and the army during the current period of peace talks according to the Burma Rivers Network coalition.

Fresh fighting has erupted in southern Shan State in March 2013, after the army launched an offensive against the Shan State Army-North to force its troops out of bases along the Thanlwin (Salween) located near dam sites in Nona Pha and Mong Tong. This forced the displacement of 2000 villagers in Tangyan township.

A spokesperson for Karen Rivers Watch reported that the army’s border guard force attacked the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army in May in an attempt to drive them away from the Hatgyi dam site. The villagers fled to refugee camps on the Thai border.”

Sai Khur Hseng, director of Sapwawa a Shan environmental network declared: “These conflicts have broken out despite the ceasefires. It is very clear that the Thanlwin (Salween) dams are fuelling war. If President U Thein Sein really wants peace, he should stop the dams immediately,”

The Myanmar government plans to sell electricity produced from the hydropower projects on the basis of agreements with five Chinese companies, one Thai company and three Myanmar companies. The ministry says Myanmar will get 15 percent of the electricity from the projects and the right to buy a further 25%.

These very serious and well- documented allegations have been raised in peace talks with the government.

Karen people protest against the Hat Gyi Dam and other dams on the Salween.

Karen people protest against the Hat Gyi Dam and other dams on the Salween.

THE HYDROPOWER DEBATE: The World Bank versus the World Commission on Dams and the Oxford Study.

In January 2015 the World Bank and its financial arm the IFC-International Finance Corporation organised a conference in Yangon to promote hydropower as an engine for economic growth, and as a solution for dealing with the nation’s energy problems held in Naypidaw.

The event was clearly aimed at tapping the huge influx of foreign investor’s rich eager to grab a stake in exploiting the nation’s rich natural resources.

Although heavily outnumbered by businessmen and bankers, a few ngos were allowed to raise serious challenges to the overwhelming pro-dam spirit of the conference. John Saw Bright a representative of Kesan –(the Karen environmental & social action network )made it clear to the conference , mega-dam projects like the controversial Myitsone dam have given dams a bad reputation in Myanmar.

A representative from Myanmar Peace Support similalrly observed “dams and hydropower do not have a beautiful name in Burma…”

THE WORLD BANK AND HYDROWER

At the Naypidaw conference in January 2015, the World Bank Group tried to counter the negative image of large-scale dams, with the simple mantra of “sustainable hydropower ““a slogan that has come to permeate all international discourse on dams.

Kate Lazarus from the IFC the financial arm of the World Bank commented, “a sustainable hydropower sector will help mitigate environmental and social risks, while realizing Myanmar’s huge energy potential, contributing to economic growth and shared prosperity.”(The Nation newspaper in Thailand)

Karin Finkelston, IFC’s vice president for global partnerships argued that “electricity is fundamental to reducing poverty and improving living standards for Myanmar’s people and hydropower is an important part of Myanmar’s energy future – but it has to be done in an environmentally and socially sustainable way.”

But all this begs the question of what is sustainable and does mitigation work? The World Bank and the IFC neglect to define the limits of sustainability. The test of unsustainability and the grounds for rejecting a dam-project cannot be found anywhere in their literature. It has also never been clarified by the Mekong River Commission.

Rhetoric and assurances do not guarantee that millions of people living on Burma’s great rivers, and their fisheries, farm crops, and their livelihoods, can be adequately protected from destruction, which normally follows in the wake of mega-dam operations.

In fact here the work of fisheries experts and scientists clearly demonstrates that World Bank policy runs counter to the conclusions of recent scientific reports including the World Commission on Dams and subsequent studies.

The most comprehensive study of hydropower dam impacts around the world concluded that most mega-projects had unleashed many problems and that the losses suffered usually outweighed the benefits.

The World Commission on Dams (2000) concluded ´Decentralised, small-scale options (micro hydro, home-scale solar electric systems, and wind and biomass system) based on local renewable sources offer an important near-term, and possibly long-term, potential particularly in rural areas far away from centralised supply networks.”

Renewable Energy Association of Myanmar (REAM), a civil society group, pointed out that most of the population in Burma lives in remote and off-grid areas. If the government and the World Bank Group genuinely aim to bring electricity to the local population, decentralized off-grid solutions are the best option, not large-scale hydropower dams for export.

International Rivers ngo view sustainable hydropower as a formula not for examining all energy options and defining criteria for stopping  a deeply flawed dam from being built, but rather a recipe for building ” better nicer dams” based on unproved technologies of mitigation.

Pai Deetes of International Rivers blogged “It is clear that the myth of “sustainable hydropower”, as it is being sold by the World Bank will simply not be accepted in Burma.

Just recently an Oxford University research study corroborated these conclusions. “The evidence is conclusive: Large dams in a vast majority of cases are not economically viable. Instead of obtaining hoped-for riches, emerging economies risk drowning their fragile economies in debt owing to ill-advised construction of large dams,” they said in a statement attached to the study, which was published on March 10: 2014 in the Energy Policy journal.

“The World Bank‘s claim that hydropower is “clean affordable, and reliable” is clearly contradicted by this study.

Bent Flyvbjerg, principal investigator for the Oxford University dam study, says dams “are not carbon neutral, and they’re not greenhouse neutral”. The vast quantities of concrete required to construct leave an enormous carbon footprint, he says.

Furthermore flooded vegetation under the reservoirs produces methane, a greenhouse gas roughly 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide, he says.

Co-author Bent Flyvbjerg, the founding chair of Major Programme Management at the school, said the findings against mega dams were so conclusive that only “fools” or “liars” would advocate for them.

Kunhing villagers protest against Mong Ton Dam. April 2015.

Kunhing villagers protest against Mong Ton Dam. April 2015.

CONCLUSION

Before the government and civil society consider following the World Bank neo-liberal model of development they should also heed the latest revelations from a global media investigation.

“Dams, power plants and other projects sponsored by the World Bank have pushed millions of people out of their homes or off their lands or threatened their livelihoods” the investigation found

The UK Guardian, the Huffington Post and other media, are currently    publishing a series of these investigation reports from the ICIJ (International Centre of Investigative journalism).

The ICIJ report concluded “The World Bank regularly fails to enforce its own rules protecting people in the path of the projects it bankrolls, with devastating consequences for some of the poorest and most vulnerable people on the planet.”

Many of the poorest and most vulnerable people constantly subject to military harassment, and enforced resettlement are the ethnic peoples of the Salween River.

If the Myanmar government is serious about bringing peace to the ethnic regions and ending civil war in the country, they have to think again about imposing mega-projects on the ethnic states without providing them any benefits or compensation.

Building or not building dams is about far more than foreign investment, selling energy to neighbouring countries and protecting the environment. It is intimately connected with a more equitable sharing of political power and natural resources between the central government and its impoverished ethnic regions.

This article was originally published in the May 14th issue of MIZZIMA Weekly. It is reprinted here, in its entirety, with full permission from its author.

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