Myanmar’s coup d’état let large-scale projects invade more people and environment – NUG’s Deputy Minister for Electricity and Energy indicated that Myanmar may be the first country having climate crisis migrants, Karen civil society stated that Hat Gyi dam in preparation to move forward, Chinese labors enter the areas despite COVID-19, Myanmar soldiers forced displaced labors building roads while academics cited that the country is facing 2C crisis and must be solved by 4R.
On 26 September from 9.30 to 11.30 AM, the Spirit Education Movement (SEM), the Mekong Butterfly together with the Extraterritorial Obligation Watch Coalition (ETOs Watch Coalition) have jointly organized a panel discussion on “A Reverse Development Process in Myanmar with the Post-Coup Mega-Development Projects: Natural Resources and Environmental Impact Trends” as a part of the Mekong-ASEAN Environmental Week 2021 (MAEW2021) activities in order to analyze the post-coup impacts of mega-development projects on people, society and environment in the past, present and future.
Worawan Sukaroek from the ETOs Watch Coalition started the panel with the situations of Myanmar’s coup d’état, overview of investors’ reaction and environment. Since the coup happened in February and toppled the elected government, the Myanmar Army was condemned from around the world. Most foreign investors in Myanmar dissented, investments as a result have begun to slow down. Uncertainty emerged both in Myanmar and around the globe. People rose up in widespread protests using civil disobedience movement to resist military’s control of power. The resistance or the pro-democracy side has widely mobilized and expressed opposition. The United Nations (UN) has taken measures to supervise military interests, several countries have also carried out economic sanctions against the Myanmar Army and its allies.
Maw Htun Aung, the NUG’s Deputy Minister for Electricity and Energy, emphasized the background of the coup that the current situation in Myanmar is not as all seen in the media because when the Tatmadaw tried to transfer power, it did not only mean dominating the elected government, but also a complete overthrow of democracy. That is the reason why the people rose up and extensively counteracted like never before. It was not just a need of the elected government to be back, they also tore up the 2008 constitution written by the military.
After the coup d’état, businessmen, middle-class and youths grew up with hip-hop culture have played a huge role and been at the forefront of this anti-coup revolution. That is to say, this revolution was no longer led by the elite, but the commoners.
In the economic aspects, it was announced by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) that they do not focus on growth as the more Gross Domestic Product (GDP) grows, the more environment is destroyed. The ADB stated that Myanmar’s GDP is expected to more than 18% drop. Myanmar’s currency has lost more than 50% of its value and it is difficult for the Myanmar’s economy to recover.
Although there have been coups in many areas around the world, the impact is not as enormous and broad as happened in Myanmar now. Its economy is going to collapse soon, COVID 3rd wave will additionally cause a large number of fatalities.
Current people suppressing methods are so severe and unacceptable for the business sector. Public health system is also collapsing, people do not go to hospital for the treatment due to doctor shortages. Moreover, many of volunteer doctors helping people in this COVID-19 situation were arrested, people consequently have to take care of and help themselves.
Despite the fact that Myanmar has opened the country since 2012 with measures to welcome foreign investments and had more of economic and industrial development projects, its environmental protection laws and regulations were still weak. Environmental impacts have been increasing after the coup, the government tried to focus on building mega infrastructure projects such as dams. Earlier during the National League for Democracy (NLD) government, there were public hearings regarding large-scale projects. But there is no consultation on the projects that will have environmental impacts these days. These kinds of project have been hastened through the government’s unilateral decision making.
The constitution gave the military great administrative and judicial powers. When the military consolidated power, they amended and ignored the existing laws which were enacted during the democratic government as well as paid no attention to the people’s hardship.
Maw Htun Aung added that Myanmar became a member of the Myanmar Extractive Industries and Transparency Initiatives (MEITI) so that the public can access to information about companies that will invest in various extractive industries. This process, however, ended after the coup, the MEITI’s procedures were discarded.
In relation to natural resources and environmental impacts, this coup d’état has affected both mineral and forest resources in different ethnic mountainous areas. The abolition of the military government’s environmental measures is therefore of high concern since people could not know whether they will attract more Thai and Chinese investors into the extractive industries or not.
The Deputy Minister for Electricity and Energy said that “Every single coup was associated with mega projects as they controlled these things in their hands, such as a gas pipeline project delivering gas into Thailand”. In the past, the military’s existence as a government certainly had massive impact on various projects, for example, large dam projects planned to be built on several rivers. They wanted to create a free trade area trying to attract foreign investments and then neglecting the environmental and social impact preventive measures.
However, “such unstable and radical situation has made the investors very hesitant because if they invested in this condition of currency depreciation, they will not gain money at the same value as expected”, predicted the Deputy Minister for Electricity and Energy.
In addition, Maw Htun Aung also informed that after the coup, scrutiny by people sector of activities under the government’s mega projects disappeared, destructive industrial projects have grown a lot. Illegal loggings have increased along with a huge number of illegal mining and mineral transporting. The public themselves could not restrain and inspect anything at all.
The NUG’s Deputy Minister for Electricity and Energy also commented that conflict conditions, armed clashes, pandemic, lacking of income and foods, including very terrible climate crisis in Myanmar right now would possibly make “Myanmar the first country having migrants due to climate crisis” in the future.
Saw Tha Poe from Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN) mentioned the situation and the progress of development projects in different parts of Myanmar. In Karen State, the Myanmar Army launched airstrikes in several spots, there were clashes using weapons against ethnic army as well as local people. As a result, there are now approximately 7,000-8,000 displaced persons who have to leave the area. Furthermore, the Tatmadaw tried to boost the economy, they were after the coup unable to control the country’s economy as the people refused. In order to stimulate the economy and earn money, the Hat Gyi dam for example will continue since it is in the plans of both Myanmar and Chinese investors. The generated electricity will be domestically used because the national income is now low, investors as well as financial institutions are trying to avoid and stop funding the military. There is still a lot of fighting in the area, more than 8,000 persons were displaced. Soldiers took control of such part where there is no humanitarian organization working in. however, foods and fundamental public utilities were shared through voluntary agencies who have tried to deliver things and different kinds of help. A road entering into the Hat Gyi dam construction site was built, the Myanmar Army also forced the displaced persons to be labors building this road. It is obvious that the coup d’état let the projects that local people have always objected and disagreed rapidly developed and moved forward in a state of fear and without any investigation.
In Kachin State, after the coup, we have been working closely with people sector, they wanted to use the resources within their areas by conducting small mining and mineral panning projects. Civil society in Myanmar has attempted to monitor various development projects, but it is risky to be attacked by the soldiers and paramilitary forces. This is a very challenging situation.
In Shan State areas, a combined-cycle power plant using cement was built and had impacts on people’s health as well as surrounding water sources. The power plant has been contaminated with toxic substances which greatly affected the community. The CSOs could not, after the coup, follow up in the areas where China had invested. As these projects were linked to Chinese investors and we did not have enough resources, we were therefore unable to track down their information. There was a plan to build 5 dams on the Salween River, the Hat Gyi dam is one of them. This project has already been approved, but not yet been implemented at the present. Nonetheless, the local community and CSOs have seen a lot of Chinese labors entering the area, they were expected to wait for the project execution. Moreover, a new bridge was built in such area as part of a special economic zone connected to China.
As for Thai border, the Yuam River diversion project is still very controversial in Thailand, but the communities in Karen State who will be affected do not have any information regarding the impacts they would face yet.
Saw Tha Poe also said that, before the coup, people in Karen State have jointly established the Salween Peace Park as a mutual management of protected areas among ethnic groups. They have planned to develop this space and have determined the structure for safeguarding it together. Goals of this space do not focus on developing large-scale economy, but on providing social welfare, education as well as security in life under the sustainable development concept. It is certain that we do not agree with large-sized investments, but the small developments or projects will be fine. We also would like to see an alternative development project that technology gets along with energy because we have enough natural resources to sustain our lives right now.
The KESAN’s activist worriedly mentioned about the very worrisome future of the Salween Peace Park as the Myanmar Army has transformed it into an absolute chaotic park. It now becomes a space of war and massive suppression by the Tatmadaw along with mega projects threatening the natural resources and environment as well as local people’s security.
Assoc. Prof. Dr. Naruemon Thapchumpon from the Institute of Asian Studies, Chulalongkorn University referred to Myanmar’s ruling system that it used to be a hybrid regime state. But after seizing power from the elected government, Myanmar has become a fully centralized authoritarian state.
Assoc. Prof. Dr. Naruemon proposed to consider 3 elements that have made Myanmar a centralized authoritarian state as today. Firstly, considering the management of various trust networks to see how it affects the politics, we found that these groups have their power and space. Secondly, they wanted to maintain the inequality, although most of the natural resources are in these ethnic areas, there will also be inequality between various ethnic groups as their methods of earning income are different. Thirdly, it could be seen that the centralized power has already existed, the coup yet made the military’s power boundless. These are problems that hinder the development of democracy.
Back to 2010 – 2021, Myanmar has changed its country development adopting a policy of welcoming foreign investment. It can be seen that there were a process of urban development and a rapid expansion of media network, these factors however have been controlled by the military’s centralized power. The industrial and economic growth rates are higher, media freedom has also risen. But, of course, negative impacts tremendously happened after the implementation of large-scale projects as they affected natural resources and environment as well as people in the surrounding areas.
After the coup d’état, these projects had more severe effects. There has been a talk about the new industrial development since the NLD government. Both formal and informal investors came in using this opportunity to invest, especially the informal ones which were very worrisome in the condition that the public could not examine anything.
Although the conflict has caused a recession, it is believed that the military will try to restore the economy in the future. The public and the CSOs would however possibly halt the formal investments, the informal ones are more worrisome. It therefore can be said that foreign investments have been the backbone during the past ten years.
After the coup, we saw that the group controlling both economic and social policies who at first announced only one year entry into power and then extended to two years. A state of emergency has been repeatedly proclaimed and the people do not have any rights.
Many of the resistance have been arrested as well as the NLD leaders, this will create more conflicts. There is no reliable process because the longer the state of emergency extends, the more clashes happen.
In July, armed clashes did not only occur in ethnic states, but also in different regions where Myanmar people live such as Sagaing. Armed clashes have directly affected people resulting in a large number of displaced persons. It can be seen that shelters and evacuation centers have been increasingly established on Myanmar, Thailand and Bangladesh borders. This will continue to increase and there will be many more people escaping persecution caused by armed violence migrate to other countries.
“Thai government must provide humanitarian assistance by setting up more shelters because there will be a large number of people fleeing from Myanmar, this is inevitable”.
The Deputy Director for Research Affairs of the Institute of Asian Studies commented on the ASEAN that if considering the policies of Thailand and ASEAN, it can be seen that Thailand has not changed its immigration supporting policy. In the future, however, helping centers must be set up on the Myanmar side for dealing with these situations.
As for Myanmar labors working in Thailand, sending money back home is now difficult due to banking and financial system failures. They are unable to transfer money through formal channel. In addition, contacting the government agencies for document processing has become more difficult for Myanmar workers, frequently no documents were issued at all.
Even after the coup d’etat more than seven months ago, ASEAN has done nothing concrete other than holding meetings. If we look at the consensus that has come out, it can be seen that ASEAN cannot tell anyone or any side to stop using violence. The constructive discussions themselves did not arise. The five consensus turned out to allow the Myanmar military to continue using violence for a longer period of time. Although ASEAN has appointed a foreign minister of Brunei, as the Chair of ASEAN, to be ASEAN special envoy in the case of Myanmar. However, no progress has been made to improve the situation in Myanmar.
“ASEAN said it would provide humanitarian assistance to Myanmar people through the ASEAN Humanitarian Aid Coordination Center or the AHA Center but didn’t see any action taking place. There is only help coming from civil society organizations.”
Assoc. Prof. Narumon predicts the development trend in Myanmar that there will be development projects such as dam projects. After the coup, it will destroy the natural resources and environment of the community in the project area and these projects will become a tool for earning money for the Myanmar military rather than creating wealth for the people.
“Some dams on the Salween River are very sad because Thai companies have invested in them. After the coup, these projects pose a huge threat to the people because the soldiers can’t check anything at all.”
After this, people will see more insecurity in people’s lives. It can be seen that armed clashes are ongoing. Public health systems collapse, especially in the handling of COVID-19. and the people’s ability to access natural resources and basic rights is a problem. These will be lost. The conflict between communities may be reduced. But the conflict between ethnic states and the military will escalate. Myanmar will go back to being the poorest country in ASEAN. People must strive to find a way to survive. And there would definitely be smuggling and human trafficking.
The Chulalongkorn university scholar added that Myanmar is currently facing a 2C crisis, where the first C is “Conflict”, or conflicts that occur both politically and armed, and the second C is “Climate Change” or the crisis of landscape and weather change. In Myanmar, the main cause is the creation of large-scale development projects that will destroy resources and the environment in ethnic states and regions due to a lack of public scrutiny and irresponsibility from unofficial business sectors. After this, the 3R principle must be used in revisions. The first R is “Redefine” or redefine development that considering who can take benefits from development? Development must not focus on GDP growth that doesn’t benefit the people at all. The second is Reexamine, there needs to be a re-exploration of whether the future plans of the Democratic Party are feasible, and how The third R is “Reevaluate”, which is a new assessment or measure, which in the past used the wrong economic development indicators Myanmar may need to use new indicators to assess future developments. The fourth R, which is “Return”, is required to bring Myanmar back to normal. In the current situation, it is very unlikely that all parties, both civil society in Myanmar and elsewhere, and ASEAN themselves will have to explore their new role.