Burma Link | August 16, 2018

In the spirit of August 9, the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, Burma Link presents you with this feature interview with Ting Oo, Executive Director of Arakan Rivers Network (ARN) focusing on development projects and environmental issues. In Burma, competition for natural resources and control of territory has often fueled internal tensions and sparked armed confrontations. Recent political developments, particularly the National League for Democracy (NLD)-led Government coming to power in April 2016, have prompted renewed international interest and investment inflow in resource-rich ethnic areas. In Arakan, a coastal state with a diverse and rich natural environment, local communities have become increasingly concerned for their livelihoods and the sustainability of the environment as more and more development projects are initiated. Furthermore, business and lucrative opportunities have made the region a key political and economic asset for the Burma Army. Besides the large-scale humanitarian crisis that began in August 2017 and mostly impacted the self-identified Rohingya Muslim minority in Arakan, Burma Army also continues to secure territory and assert its presence in ethnic Arakan dominated areas in the state, ensuing in civilian oppression, human rights abuses and internal conflict. This interview is focused on development projects and environmental issues and the experience of the Arakan nationality.

In this interview, Ting Oo provides us with his insight on development, environmental exploitation and militarization in Arakan today. Ting Oo stresses the need for local ownership and for political solutions to solve the natural resource management prior to initiating mega-projects in ethnic areas. The ARN was founded in July 2009 by the All Arakan Students’ and Youths’ Congress (AASYC) as an emergency response to calls to sustain the use of water resources and monitor development projects susceptible of affecting the livelihoods of waterside dwellers. Over the years, ARN has broadened its monitoring efforts to encompass all ongoing and future development projects in Arakan State. Today, the organization strives to promote grassroot ownership of natural resources, local inclusiveness in decision-making processes, technology transfer from corporations to local people, and sustainable development in Arakan State.

Editor’s note: All place names are written according to the Arakanese pronunciation.

An overview of development projects in Arakan: “Northern part of Arakan is financed by the Indian government whereas the Southern part of Arakan is financed and controlled by the Chinese government”

Geopolitically, we can divide into two major parts when it comes to so-called development projects in Arakan. One part is in the Northern part in Arakan [which] is financed by the Indian government, and the Southern part of Arakan is financed and controlled by the Chinese government. Under these development projects, the so-called development projects, in the Northern part we have the India-financed Kaladan project, and in Southern, in Kyauk Phru there is the Shwe gas pipeline project, which is the selling of natural gas to China, from the offshore of Kyauk Phru since 2014. And, many reports already we have produced, on the experience of land confiscation, during the pipeline project construction and so that is the, before the gas started selling in 2014.

During the construction of the pipeline there have been numerous land confiscations, [they were] forcibly confiscated and nobody could argue, nobody could even go against it because during that time it was the SPDC military regime. Still, many farmers lost their lands along the pipeline, in Southern part of Arakan. Not only in Arakan but also in other states, which goes through Magway and other central Burma through to China. So in Arakan, many farmers have lost their ancestral lands, but they didn’t get the proper compensation. They got some, but it was not fair. Still the land dispute has been ongoing in the townships like Kyauk Phru and Ann. Still Arakanese farmers are demanding fair compensation for the loses of their farmlands due to the Sino-China pipeline construction project.

Local farmers protesting against the Chinese company CNCP in Kyauk Phru in December 2016, demanding the CNPC to get out from the state as the CNPC confiscated their farmlands during the construction of Sino-China Gas Pipeline for the Shwe Gas Project, and the farmers did not get proper compensation for their land losses. (Photo: Kyauk Phyu Rural Development Association (KRDA))

There is also a deep seaport project, called the Maday deep seaport, also in the Kyauk Phru township, on an island called Maday Island. The deep sea-port project is also financed by the Chinese government, so that is aimed to facilitate and store the oil, crude oil, from African and central Asian countries, Middle East countries. They will pipe the oil with the pipeline. With the pipeline project, not only the gas pipeline, also the oil pipeline, it is a parallel pipeline. So for that project, the people in that deep sea-port, in that area, the local fishermen were restricted, they cannot fish where they have been fishing for many years, [their] ancestral areas, traditional land areas, traditional fishing areas, they cannot fish. They have restrictions on fishing, because many international ships, large ships, are coming into the port and the people, the local fishermen, have to go away. They cannot fish where they fished before, it impacts their livelihoods. There hadmass protests by the fishermen, the people, in that island, demanded the Chinese government and the government of Burma, to give them [compensation], to facilitate, for their livelihoods.

Another major concerns of Arakanese people is the controversial Chinese financed Kyauk Phyu Special Economic Zone. The Burmese government and Chinese government want the project to be started as early as possible. In Kyauk Phru, the most [important] concern is now the potential loss of lands by the community for the proposed Special Economic Zone.  On the other hand, the state has no proper protection law for the local community, regarding with this Special Economic Zone law. So people are more concerned about the loss of their farmland.

In the Northern part, the Indian government is already implementing the Kaladan project also known as Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transportation Project. The port has already been built in Site-tway [Sittwe], with Indian finance, because in that project, the ships from Kolkata, the big ships and the small ships from Site-tway will go to Chin State, Paletwa, through the Kaladan river. It will connect to the land-locked Indian state of Mizoram, through road from Paletwa , Chin state The Paletwa land port has already been completed, the construction of Site-tway port has been also completed. For the ship, small ship cargo, the Indian government already handed over to the Burma port authority. So I think that this project will begin soon, even though the full road construction has not been completed.

The Site-tway sea port, which is part of the Indian financed Kaladan Project situated at the harbor of Site-tway, the capital city of Arakan state. The construction of the port has already been completed. (Photo: ARN)

Arakan Rivers Network: “We are committed to giving awareness”

Not currently, but a few years before, ARN has done a lot of research and produced many reports regarding the projects, especially about the Kaladan project. We monitor and we produce pamphlets and leaflets giving awareness on environmental issues, on right to ownership and local ownership issues, and on the threats to the river and the ecosystem. We are committed to giving awareness, to educate the ‘grassroot’ people, this should be ongoing. We have done some trainings and workshops regarding rights, land rights, including indigenous rights, which all include the protection of the environment. We have to have participation in any decision-making in the area, we have to include their concerns and accept their consent in every project.

We call for FPIC [Free, Prior and Informed Consent], in line with the United Nations Declarations on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. We need immediate land rights. The projects are coming. People, they don’t know about the law, even the existing law. Even though we do not like the existing land law, the Burmese land law, as projects are happening, they should at least know something about the existing law so that they could demand their rights, they could demand fair compensation. We provided training to the locals, and ToT, Training of Trainers, so that they could give more training to others in localities. We published reports and distributed them to the local people so that they could know and come to [learn].

No self-determination on natural resources: “We don’t have the self-governance, self-management rights, under these projects”

Overall, all the development projects, if we see the experience that is happening now, the local people have no decision-making power. The local people are not in the decision-making, local people cannot control and do not have the rights to own, do not have the rights to manage all of these projects. All of these projects were made by the central government, decided by the central government. So what happens, is people lose their livelihoods, people are concerned about potential loss of lands. Now the proposed SEZ, Special Economic Zone, in Kyauk Phru, has been coming, so the government already has a plan, they have demarcated the land, where the special economic zone will be. So now, the local people are concerned about the land, land acquisition, land confiscations, they are concerned. Some people have, it’s customary, they don’t have the legal paper, legal document, of the ownership of land. So the government says, “If you don’t have the document, you will not get any compensation”. And that land will be used for the zone, so many people are still concerned. On the other hand, you don’t have the proper law yet, the government has the special economic zone law, but that law will not protect the locals.

Overall, if we summarize, our people still don’t have the self-determination on this natural resource issue. So that means we don’t have the self-governance, self-management rights. This is linked to the political issue. So, unless these political issues are solved, these projects should not go ahead. This is not only our demand, but also other ethnic states, also demanding like this. So now they are saying ‘transition’, that ‘transition’ is ongoing, that peace talks have been ongoing with the ethnic armed organization conference. But the natural resource issue decision, if we also see the recent 21st Century Panglong Conference – third session, there is no result, no outcome regarding the management of natural resources in the respective ethnic states. So this problem will be going on.

Fishermen protesting in Kyauk Phru, where China dominants all the projects, against the Chinese company CNPC and the Burma Government. The government has restricted the movement of fishing boats on the river due to the large Chinese oil tankers operating on the river. These restrictions have impacted the local fishermen’s livelihoods. (Photos: Kyauk Phyu Rural Development Association (KRDA))

Raising local awareness: “Their concerns, their demands, their consent, should be heard and should not be neglected”

In regards to socio-environmental justice, our vision is that every Arakanese people should benefit, people should have decision-making, ownership. Local ownership is the main [thing]. They should participate in all the decision-making areas and projects. Their concerns, their demands, their consent, should be heard and should not be neglected. Their voice should not be ignored. From that area, whichever development project is done, they should benefit the local people, they should be prioritized. They should be educated, they should know, there should be more awareness of the people regarding the protection of their environment, of their resources, for sustainability and sustainable development, for [future] generations.

Now, we are seeing that people are arising, in regards to their rights. In 2016, there was a mass community gathering, a long march demonstration was held in concerning natural resources rights in Arakan organized by a CBO network called Arakan Natural Resource and Environmental Network (ANREN). Thousands of people participated in that long march demonstrations where people from all the townships of the state. But because of the weakness of the Burma’s 2008 Constitution no significant policy has been changed by the government. The article (37/a) of the Burma’s 2008 constitution says that “ The Union is the ultimate owner of all lands and all natural resources above and below the ground, above and beneath the water and in the atmosphere in the union.” Which means the native people from the member states of the union do not have right to own any kinds of natural resources and land in their state. The state (union) can confiscate your land or resources any time if they want in accordance with the article (37/a) of the 2008 constitution. This article (37/a ) should be removed and a clause giving the land and resources ownership rights to the people from the member states of the federal union should be replaced.

However, the long march in 2016 at least, could give a message and information to Arakanese people that our natural resources rights are being neglected by the successive Burmese governments. Since it was a long march protest starting from the Arakanese capital Sittway and ended in Kyauk Phru where the Shwe Gas project and deep seaport and proposed Special Economic Zones (SEZ) existing. We were really glad to see that people are becoming aware of their rights. It was a long march, with the whole of our people. We know, we already know that it will not work because everything is controlled by the 2008 Constitution, so it will not work. But somehow, we are happy that our people are now becoming aware day after day. We’ll be continuing our efforts on giving local awareness and mobilizing our people regarding the rights of natural resources and conservation of environmental in Arakan.

There are more research works to be done relating with the preservations and sustainability of the environment and ecosystem in Arakan state. For that we tried to engage with the Arakan state government. On 15th June, 2017,  ARN sent a request letter to U Nyi Pu, the chief minister of the state to have a meeting appointment with the concerned ministries to discuss about the details information regarding with the ongoing Hydropower dam projects and other development projects implementing in Arakan state but till to date, the state government office did not respond anything relating to the letter.

Ting Oo pictured on the banks of the Salween River during a campaign to stop all the proposed mega-hydropower dams on the Salween River in Karen and Shan states, on the occasion of the International Day of Action for Rivers in March 14, 2014. The event was organized by Burma Rivers Network (BRN), in which the ARN is a member organization. (Photo: ARN)

Reflecting on the political and legal institutions of Burma: “In democracy, when the people ask something from the government, they [should respond]”

The government is not saying ‘Federal’. They are saying the ‘Union Government’, they are not saying the ‘Federal Government’, they are saying ‘Union’. In Burmese, they are saying “Pyi-Htaung-Su”, which refers the ‘Federal’. But in English, they are saying ‘Union’. But the ethnic people, the ethnic nationalities, want a ‘Federal’ Government. They want to see the Federal Government. If there is no genuine Federal Government, if there is no ownership rights for the state government in terms of natural resources and land, if there’s no self-determination of ethnic people in their state, these projects will not benefit the people of the state. These projects will only benefit the foreign investors.

They are saying that they are a democratic government, an elected government. A [democratically] elected government should not do that. In democracy, when the people ask something from the government, they [should respond]. They are not responding now.

The development projects should not go ahead, unless there is political settlement, including article 37/a of the 2008 constitution. The political settlement can be made thru the union peace conference also known as 21stCentury Panglong Conference under NCA channel. If we see the scenario of the recent third session 21stCentury Panglong conference, there is no political hope for the ethnic people. The scope of the framework of political dialogue is very limited. The self-determination of the ethnic people and state constitution issues are out of the discussion in the conference.

What Arakanese people are demanding is the right to own and manage their own natural resources in the state. Unless the constitution gives the rights to own and management power to the people from the concerned state these proposed projects should be stopped. Not only in Arakan state but also the ongoing  mega-development projects; dams, logging, mining and other extracted industrial projects in other ethnic states and regions in mainland Burma. The civil society organizations (CSOs) of the country are calling for a moratorium from extracting the natural resources for a certain period of time unless and until there is political settlement is made between the Burmese government and ethnic armed organizations (EAOs).

Message to the Burma Government and Burma Army: “All the activists have sent so many messages”

All the activists have sent so many messages [to the government], have given so many recommendations, in every report. But those are not heard, in practice, they are not implemented. But still, we want to urge the NLD government, not to implement the proposed mega-projects, so-called ‘development’ projects, unless and until a political solution and settlement is made through the 21st Century Panglong Conference – Union Peace Conference or meaningful inclusive peace and political negotiations. Other small and medium scale projects could be done, where those projects will not cause large-scale negative impacts of the local environment and social livelihoods. [We want to tell the Burma Army] to stop militarization and the offensives in the ethnic areas.

We have been receiving many complaints from the local people in Rathedaung township , farmers cannot go to their hills to cultivate their land and the forest, because of the militarization in the northern Arakanese townships like Rathedaung, Budhidaung and Kyauk Taw.  They [Burma Army] took over the hills and they [villagers] cannot go for the farming. [We want the Burma Army] to stop the militarization and to give the confiscated lands back to the local indigenous people.

Message to the international community: “If they [persist with their development plans], they should adhere to international norms”

We urge the Chinese and Indian government to respect the local concerns; not to invest during this conflict period, as the political settlement has not been achieved yet; and to suspend [planned mega-projects], not to invest in mega projects.

Unless Burma turns to a genuine peaceful country, these development projects will not last long. Anytime any conflict happens, these projects may be destroyed in the conflict. That’s why the international investors and companies should wait until the political settlement is made at the federal and state level in Burma.

Whenever they do any project or business, should respect international norms and standards including the conduction of social impact assessments, health impact assessments, and environmental impact assessments before implementing any development projects in Arakan and Burma. If they [persist with their development plans], they should adhere to international norms.