On World Environment Day, Myanmar, which is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate change, seems committed to go down a damaging, fossil fuel-dependent development path over sustainable, locally-led ecological governance that values and protects the environment and people. This is illustrated by the death of a man in police custody protesting a cement and coal-fired power plant. There remains hope, however, and the example set by local communities in rural Karen areas demonstrates that an ecological disaster is not inevitable.
Construction of the Alpha Cement factory and accompanying coal fired power plant near Aung Tha Pyay Village, Patheingyi Township, Mandalay Region, is a $200 million project of a Chinese company, Myint Investment. It has been met with a series of protests by the affected community due to the adverse health effects that it will have on the villagers, and the environmental damage to the local area. The most recent protest in May 2019, turned violent as the police fired rubber bullets, injuring 20 people while making four arrests.
It has since emerged that one man who was in police custody, Tun Myint Win, died, despite being previously in good health. Cuts, bruises, and other lacerations were found on his body by his family, and they were forced to sign a document in which they promised not to “start any disturbances,” a resident of the village told Radio Free Asia. This is yet another example of a destructive form of development being forced upon local communities in which resistance is met with state coercion, even if it means death.
Yet it does not have to be this way. At the ‘Kaw Customary Land Seminar,’ held on 29-30 May, 2019, Karen representatives from communities across the region reasserted their commitment to the ‘Kaw’ land management system. A ‘Kaw’ is an area which is governed using customary land, administration and dispute settlement practices. According to the statement released after the seminar, “These practices are based on the conservation of land, forest, water, and other natural resources, and emerge from a combination of traditional value systems and traditional/customary law.” Such practices have been used for generations, ensuring that the natural environment is passed onto future generations intact.
As the statement expresses, by recognizing systems such as the Kaw, this allows for “collective participation in political decision-making,” and are thus very real examples of how a federal system of governance can be articulated in a peace process that is stuck. International actors such as the World Bank have come to Myanmar with lofty rhetoric such as “reducing vulnerabilities, and empowering poor rural communities to participate in the economy and the governance of the country,” yet it is grassroots communities that are actually doing this, and not pursuing destructive industrialization plans such as the Alpha Cement factory which the Myanmar government sees as part of a viable development model.
The youth who held a rally on World Environment Day in Yangon calling for the Myanmar government to address the “climate emergency” understand the need for Myanmar to not go down a path of environmental destruction. There are alternatives to mainstream development, as evidenced by the Kaw Customary Land Seminar, that not only preserve Myanmar’s natural riches, but can contribute towards a more democratic, inclusive, and peaceful society. Arresting and then beating to death community members who are resisting factories powered by coal fired power plants shows which path Myanmar has chosen to go down. International investors must not be complicit by investing in such enterprises. However, with the rapidly developing green technology, combined with traditional knowledge that has preserved the rivers, forests and mountains for many generations, it is not impossible to visualize an alternative, cleaner, more peaceful development trajectory if the Myanmar government has the political will and vision for future generations.
 One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.
By Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights
By ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights
By Burma Campaign UK
By Burma Campaign UK
By Chin Human Rights Organization
By Fortify Rights
By Human Rights Watch
By Human Rights Foundation of Monland
By World Kachin Congress
By Article 19
Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”