For the Few and Not the Many?

December 8th, 2019  •  Author:   Progressive Voice  •  8 minute read
Featured image

“Development is not a substitute for political reform. Attempts to force through development projects without local buy-in, through meaningful consultation and political reform that gives more local control, risks entrenching political conflict and fuelling the civil war.”

Karen Peace Support Network

With the international community focussed on the moves towards international accountability, it is important not to overlook the profound changes that economic liberalization has had in Myanmar[1] in the past few years. This liberalization has catalyzed a flood of exploitative investment and harmful development projects that prioritize profit above any other concerns. The source of investment may change, but the concerns of local communities remain consistent – loss of livelihoods, land confiscations, lack of consultation or consent, environmental destruction, and a loss of identity, culture and tradition, especially among non-Bamar ethnic communities.

One recent example is the proposed expansion of industrial pearl farming in the Myeik Archipelago – a joint venture of Myanmar and Japanese companies. Home to ethnic Salon/Moken, or sea gypsies, such an expansion would destroy their livelihoods, as the expansion is in the area which includes their traditional fishing grounds.

In Hpa-an, Karen State, high levels of chlorine and phosphate due to the operations of a cement factory and a coal fired power plant has caused fish to die off and local villagers’ drinking water to become murky. The plant, which is run by the Myanmar military company, the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Company Limited (UMEHL) – which the International Independent Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar called to be sanctioned – switched to coal to power in the past year and is thus viewed as the cause of the latest environmental damage. This was conducted, despite local opposition.

In Shan State, the problems caused by the Tigyit Coal Mine, the largest coal mine in Myanmar, well documented over several years by local civil society organizations such as Myanmar Alliance for Transparency and Accountability (MATA) and the Pa-Oh Youth Organization (PYO), seem destined to continue after the Government decided that the mine could continue for a further three years. Despite temporary suspension of operations in 2014, the mine has displaced villagers, contaminated drinking water and vital farmland, and caused health problems for local villagers including skin diseases. When the plant became fully operational again after its suspension in 2018, local community organizations expressed their dismay, “Now, instead of solving these problems, the authorities are planning to restart the plant, despite the fact the project is clearly a failure, due to poor management, bad decision making, and poor technology.” Thus, the decision in August to extend the mine’s operations exemplifies the lack of consideration that the Government has for rural populations, particularly those in ethnic areas, in their thirst for profit from filthy industries at the expense of the wellbeing of local communities.

Cognizant of destructive development projects, the Karen Peace Support Network (KPSN) – a network of ethnic Karen community-based organizations – stated their opposition to a new World Bank-led project. The project’s objective “is to improve access to basic infrastructure, services, and economic opportunities for vulnerable communities in selected conflict affected areas of Myanmar in a conflict-sensitive manner.” The overarching goal, however, is to integrate each and every corner of Myanmar into global markets. For the Myanmar government, the benefit is the  extension of its control into previously inaccessible, conflict-affected areas, with capital the weapon with the furthest reach. However, Karen communities, represented through the KPSN are fully aware of this, pointing out how the project is controlled by, and managed through the Myanmar central government, currently experiencing status as a human rights pariah, thus lacking conflict sensitivity and human rights due diligence, “This World Bank project is designed and controlled by only one party to the conflict – Naypyidaw – in order to expand its unitary structures into ethnic-governed areas.”

The cases outlined above are not going to be resolved without action to protect local communities and the natural environment. Myanmar, the ‘last economic frontier’ for the west, an economic priority for Japan and a vital cog in China’s ‘One Belt One Road’ machine will only see more of the type of unscrupulous, harmful and exploitative investment for quick profit of the like seen in the Myeik Archipelago, Hpa-an and Tigyit, disregarding and neglecting the effects on people and the environment. Added to the vulnerability of the country to the unmerciful tsunami of irresponsible investment are the far-reaching tentacles that the Myanmar Military has in the many sectors of the economy including mining, construction, tourism, manufacturing, agriculture, land development and others. Through the military’s two main conglomerates – UMHEL mentioned above, and the Myanmar Economic Cooperation – the army finances and sustains its campaigns of terror against ethnic and religious minorities including the Rohingya, Kachin, Shan, Rakhine and many others. Doing business in Myanmar, especially in terms of natural resources and energy projects, inevitably results in partnership and/or cooperation with the Myanmar military and complicity in the crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide that it commits.

Turbo charged capitalism is having widespread and extremely damaging impacts on social, environmental and human rights situation and exacerbating conflict in Myanmar, regardless of where the investment is coming from. Yet the country is simply not prepared to ensure protections are in place for those vulnerable to the displacement, exploitation of natural resources, cultural damage, environmental destruction and other impacts of capitalism on speed. Added to this mix is the Myanmar military’s control over major parts of the economy and it is a recipe for further disaster. Unless the Government dramatically changes course and enacts policies that promote a non-militarized economy under a federal democratic governance system, and prioritize people over a model of economic growth that is currently benefiting the few at the expense of the many, the long-term effects will be profound and potentially irreparable.

Lastly, as the KPSN statement articulates, “Development is not a substitute for political reform. Attempts to force through development projects without local buy-in, through meaningful consultation and political reform that gives more local control, risks entrenching political conflict and fuelling the civil war.” Especially in this most critical time in which serious international crimes such as crimes against humanity and war crimes are being committed by the Myanmar military on an ongoing basis, and with the civilian government led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi unable and/or unwilling to act, the responsibility falls in the hands of the international community. In this context especially, international financial institutions such as the World Bank must suspend any potentially harmful projects currently in the pipeline and the international business community must divest from the military companies, cut financial ties with military-owned businesses, take responsibility for the harmful impacts already affecting communities and disclose to the public the information of their decisions to take a stand on human rights and humanity. Public disclosure of human rights due diligence policies doesn’t prove anything unless actions are taken. Myanmar people deserve nothing less.


[1] 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.

Resources from the past week


Statements and Press Releases

ျမန္မာႏိုင္ငံ အေရွ႕ပိုင္းတြင္ ကမာၻ႔ဘဏ္၏ ေဒၚလာသန္း ၂၅၀ စီမံကိန္း စီစဥ္မႈသည္ ပဋိပကၡမ်ားကို ပိုမိုဆိုး႐ြားေစလိမ့္မည္

By Karen Peace Support Network, 50 Civil Society Organizations

World Bank’s Planned $250 Million Eastern Burma Project Will Fuel Conflict

By Karen Peace Support Network, 50 Civil Society Organizations

Rohingya Action Ireland To Join at Mass Rohingya Solidary Rally at International Court of Justice, The Hague

By Rohingya Action Ireland

တနသာၤရီဌာေနတိုင္းရင္းသားမ်ား စည္းလံုးညီညြတ္ေရးအဖြဲ႔၏ သေဘာထား ထုတ္ျပန္ခ်က္

By Tanintharyi Indigenous People Solidarity

Statement on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women: “Access to Justice, End Impunity”

By Women’s League of Burma

ႏိုင္ငံတကာ အမ်ိဳးသမီးမ်ားအေပၚ အၾကမ္းဖက္မႈ ပေပ်ာက္ေရးေန႔ အထိမ္းအမွတ္ ထုတ္ျပန္ေၾကညာခ်က္

By Women’s League of Burma



ျမန္မာျပည္ အာဏာရွင္တို႔လက္ထက္ စနစ္တက် ႏွိပ္စက္ညႇဥ္းပန္းမႈမ်ားကို အသုံးျပဳပုံႏွင့္ ႏိုင္ငံေရးအက်ဥ္းသားမ်ား၏ အေတြ႕အႀကဳံမ်ား

By Assistance Association for Political Prisoners

The Systematic Use of Torture by Totalitarian Regimes in Burma & the Experiences of Political Prisoners

By Assistance Association for Political Prisoners

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.”