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The Shifting Political Economy of Natural Resource Governance in Myanmar’s Tanintharyi Region Following the February 2021 Military Coup

December 15th, 2022  •  Author:   Independent Research Network  •  5 minute read
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Executive Summary

Myanmar is home to substantial resource wealth, including expansive tracts of old growth forest, enormous jade and gemstone deposits, gold, coal, tin, rare earths, amber, oil, and natural gas. Natural resources and their governance have farreaching implications for Myanmar’s economy and politics, from the shaping of long-standing conflicts to the livelihoods of over 45 million people.

The 2021 military coup has had seismic impacts across Myanmar’s social, economic and political landscape, upturning progress of the previous administration and (re)igniting conflict across the country between the military, ethnic resistance organisations and a growing number of local defence forces. The following report interrogates the impacts of the 2021 military coup and subsequent national revolution on the governance of natural resources in Tanintharyi Region in Myanmar’s far south.

Tanintharyi Region is emblematic of natural resource conflicts across Myanmar. The region holds enormous resource wealth, including one of the largest expanses of contiguous rain forest in Southeast Asia, a sizable portion of the region’s tin belt, large gold deposits, coal, and large gas fields. The region is held under a tenuous
arrangement of mixed administration between the Karen National Union MerguiTavoy District (KNU-MTD) and Myanmar government, and has had over seven decades of conflict and ceasefire politics.

Following the 2012 ceasefire during a period of democratisation and liberalisation, natural resource exploitation expanded significantly. Oil palm concessions significantly expanded to an area of over 1.9 million acres (768,902 Hectares), large-scale mining operations commenced, and expansive industrial and energy infrastructure projects were planned. This period of rapacious resource extraction had far-reaching impacts, including dispossession of communities from their lands, deforestation and environmental degradation. At the same time, a growing civic space amidst the decreased instances of armed conflict enabled communities to forge and strengthen their own land management systems through which they could assert claims over forested territories.

As is the case throughout the country, the 2021 military coup transformed life throughout Tanintharyi Region. The civic space that had emerged through the past ten years of liberalisation collapsed, a new set of armed actors and parallel administrative bodies emerged, and the region has again become the site of active civil war. Natural resources make up a key component of these changing dynamics, simultaneously representing revenues for armed actors, and the lands and livelihoods of indigenous and local communities.

Following the coup, resource exploitation has proliferated across the region. While some large-scale operations have withdrawn from the region, small and medium-scale mining projects, often operated by SAC and KNU-MTD affiliated companies have grown in number across the region. This increase has been driven by a) a growing conflict economy in which both the SAC and the KNU-MTD seek resources for defense spending; b) a collapse of regulations and civic space that allows for unrestricted exploitation; c) growing poverty that forces workers to mine pits; and d) rising tin and gold prices. Further, mutual interests in revenue generation between the SAC and KNU-MTD have resulted in limited clashes and conflict.

Resources in Tanintharyi Region, most notably timber, tin and gold, are taxed by both the SAC and the KNU-MTD. Via ports in Myeik and over the border, timber and tin make their way to Malaysia, Thailand and China. While it is unclear where resources end up in global commodity chains, it has been estimated that the SAC has sold over $190 million of timber, including $31 million to countries with active sanctions on timber imports.

The impact of proliferating resource exploitation amidst collapsing governance practices and a narrowing civic space to engage with Tanintharyi Region’s natural resource governance has been disastrous. Community members complain that public water ways are being polluted, and in many cases are no longer potable, and that agricultural lands in villages where mining has commenced have been transformed into desolate, barren hillsides, described by one interviewee as a ‘moonscape’.

Escalating conflict and increasing authoritarian control throughout the region have created an increasingly difficult environment for local environmental defenders to operate. Community members and community-based organizations that had previously taken a central role in local natural resource governance are fearful of reprisals from authorities. As a result, community members often refrain from conducting forest management activities, and find it difficult to complain or confront companies or authorities operating in their villages. Similarly, civil society organizations that had supported community organizations to manage and assert control over their territories have also faced extreme challenges, and in many cases have been forced underground. This increasingly hostile environment for environmental defenders has enabled companies and armed actors to exploit natural resources with impunity, often causing significant and irreparable environmental damage.

Natural resource governance following the military coup and subsequent resistance in Tanintharyi Region, reflects larger trends across the country. The (re)ignition of conflict in the region between the SAC, newly established People’s Defense Forces and Local Defense Forces (PDF/LDFs) and to a lesser extent the KNUMTD has created a growing demand for resources for arms and military supplies, leading to a rapid expansion of mining and logging operations. The expansion of mining operations during this period of instability has caused significant adverse
environmental impacts, such as deforestation, pollution of waterways, and erosion of agricultural lands. Reports from Kachin and Sagaing have shown similar catastrophic impacts, as SAC, militias and ethnic revolutionary organisations (EROs) expand resource extraction efforts, and farmers and displaced persons enter into mining livelihoods.

Natural resources play a central role in shaping Myanmar’s political economy. While agricultural lands, forests, streams, and rivers in resource rich areas comprise the livelihoods, food security and source of cultural production for over 70% of the country’s population, they represent sites of substantial revenue generation. central importance of natural resource and environmental politics to Myanmar’s post-coup landscape, it has received relatively little attention from both domestic and international actors to date. This report aims to address this gap by providing a
detailed account of natural resource management and exploitation related issues in Tanintharyi Region.

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