The forests of Myanmar are defined by their monetary value and have been part of the military and economic elites’ profits and, in some cases, survival for decades. The entire legal state forestry and timber trade sectors have been systematically riddled with fraud, bribery, corruption and other forms of illegality for at least two decades, undermining any governance reform.
Current laws seem to seek the criminalisation of local people and through all its policies on resource extraction, including timber, the Government is undermining communities’ reliance on resources while at the same time introducing a centralised system of management they are unable to implement, creating even more conflict.
From 1989 to the present day, Myanmar’s past military regimes and its current Government have presented the teak trade regulated by the forestry department and implemented by the state-run Myanmar Timber Enterprise (MTE) as being wholly legal and sustainable, conducted in compliance with the rule of law. This is simply not the case.
A two-year undercover investigation by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) into a near-mythic ‘Burmese teak kingpin’ who conspired with and bribed the most senior military and Government officials in Myanmar has revealed how he was able to establish a secret off-thebooks system of fraudulent trade in the cream of the country’s teak logs. This was run in parallel to, and within, the official legal trade administered by MTE.
Our investigations also took us to the Myanmar-China border where, other than the state of Myanmar itself, China has played the biggest role of any nation in the illegal expropriation of Myanmar teak and other hardwoods.
As the depletion of the forest continues, timber traders are pushing deeper into Myanmar to secure supplies, undermining the rule of law with high-level complicity. Our attention to the international markets for teak in both the European Union and the United States shows that even with regulations in place to prevent illegally sourced timber from entering those markets, traders continue to find ways to get Myanmar teak to multi-millionaire owners of yachts whose manufacturers display an almost ideological obsession with Myanmar teak.
The Government still promotes as legal MTE-authorised trade in timber which is part of a large stockpile that has been held prior to the logging ban, ignoring the decades of corruption and overharvesting that produced it.
In light of this, and with corruption still greasing the wheel of the illegal border trade into China, Myanmar’s people remain reliant on the goodwill of international trade partners in helping enforce forestry and timber trade provisions.
Of all the irregularities encountered in Myanmar’s formal teak sector, EIA’s findings illustrate how Myanmar teak sold through formal channels is as corrupt and illegal as any blatantly smuggled across the border into China.
Myanmar cannot reform this multilayered, complex but highly organised international timber trade by itself and it is crucial that the past years of gross corruption and deceit are acknowledged and addressed.
For a natural resource so beloved and culturally important to Myanmar and its people as teak, allowing its nearextinction would be the biggest crime of all.
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