Natural resource exploitation plays a very important role in Myanmar ethnic conflict spectrum like in all the other conflict-ridden societies, so much so it is even likened to “blood teak” or “blood jade” similar to the nefarious “blood diamond” caption of Africa, where seven African countries have endured brutal civil conflicts fueled by diamonds.
In 2015, Jay Benson penned a piece titled, “Blood Teak: How Myanmar’s Natural Resources Fuel Ethnic Conflicts,” with the main thrust of argument that “valuable extractive resources provide incentives for the formation of non-state armed groups and extend the duration of existing conflicts by providing a relatively easy source of income that groups can use to purchase military equipment and recruit fighters.”
And while “blood teak” is an ad hoc label used, it is clear that all natural resources such as jade, various types of precious stones, gold, gas, oil, timber, hydro-electric power extraction to illicit drugs production and trafficking among others are generally included under the said heading.
Lately regarding the important role of natural resource-induced conflict, two schools of thought have emerged regarding extraction of natural resources in Burma or Myanmar. One is the notion that “control and competition of natural resources as the main cause of armed ethnic conflict” and go even further to portray as a means to an end by the some opinion-makers in the West. The intention seems to be to belittle or paint the ethnic nationalities’ struggle for rights of self-determination in a bad light, while trying to promote the military-to-military engagement with Myanmar, hoping to contain China’s influence on the country. But thank God this has now been largely rolled back, due to the crime against humanity committed on the Rohingya population by the country’s security apparatus in Rakhine State.
The other one is a newly coined notion called “natural resource federalism”, where justified or acceptable allocation of the natural resources between the national and sub-national stakeholders is advanced as a way to resolve the conflict.
Lately, the idea of justified allocation in the face of competition to control the natural resources, two episodes come out into the limelight, which are only the tip of the ice berg of the whole problematic.
Competition to control natural resources
One is the armed engagement between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Military or Tatmadaw in Tanai region, Kachin State, when Naw Bu, a Kachin official said that the Military maintained the mining in gold and amber rich area is illegal and is determined to cut the revenue of the KIA which has been collecting taxes from the transaction from thousands of miners and traders involved in the trade. The Tatmadaw Defense Office Headquarters on January 28 confirmed with an announcement stating that it has to militarily clear out the KIA bases in the area to halt the illegal extraction of natural resources, which belongs to the government.
Another one is the Karen National Union’s (KNU) four-point statement of February 1, which has demanded negotiations with the Union government over plans to resume building a two-lane highway between the Thai border and the Dawei Special Economic Zone in Tanintharyi Region.
The KNU in its statement said that the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) that it signed in October 2015 stipulated that the government “must negotiate” with signatories over the implementation of socio-economic development projects. Accordingly, the KNU said that if work resumed on the highway, it would cut through pristine forests and rural communities under its control.
The first point said that “in order to implement the project”, comprehensive environmental and social impact statements (ESIA) must be conducted in accordance with the laws of Myanmar, the Land and Forestry Policy of the KNU, and international standards.
It also said negotiations with the KNU and other stakeholders must be held in advance to ensure sustainable development for local communities and revenue sharing between the Union and state or regional governments. Communities must have the right to participate in the negotiations, it said.
The positions of the adversaries, the Tatmadaw and the Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs), not to mention the ethnic population that have to bear the brunt of the negative impacts from such extraction undertakings, are poles apart. While the Tatmadaw sees that it is illegal for extracting the country’s resources, the EAOs maintain that it is their rights to make use of it as they see fit.
In an interview conducted by SHAN, on 19 January 2015, Khu Oo Reh leader of the Karenni National Progressive Party when asked what their position regarding the extraction of natural resources replied: “Thein Sein government has no legitimacy to claim sole ownership on that. EAOs also are representatives and the owners of their respective homelands or states and have every right to the usage and extraction for the benefit of their people, including the protection of their peoples and territories from Burmese military occupation.”
Meanwhile, on 14 February, the MPs of Amyotha Hluttaw debated the depleting environmental resources in Myanmar at the Amyotha Hluttaw, and urged the Union government to provide protection to the country’s natural resources, which was passed by 92 votes to 82, with four abstentions, according to Myanmar Digital News on 15 February.
Natural resource federalism
Another school of thought advocated a remedial “natural resource federalism” term because of Myanmar’s aspirations to establish a federal union. It represents the range of options available to policy-makers to give greater responsibilities to sub-national institutions, in a report titled “Natural Resource Federalism: Considerations for Myanmar”, published by Natural Resource Governance Institute, in January 2018.
It suggested or identified four-trend, drawing primarily on case studies from the Asia-Pacific region, through deconcentration, decentralization (devolution) and finally (achieving natural resource) federalism.
- First, it is common that one level of government legislates or sets regulations while another level implements, monitors and enforces those laws or regulations. For instance, environmental legal frameworks are typically determined by the national government but provide for sub-national input in implementation, either by giving sub-national governments a formal role in granting environmental approvals or by mandating consultation.
- Second, many countries share responsibilities in certain areas. For instance, consent for companies to begin onshore oil, gas or mineral production commonly provides for both national and sub-national involvement.
- Third, some responsibilities are more commonly allocated to sub-national governments. Environmental monitoring, occupational safety and health monitoring, and licensing of artisanal and small-scale activities are often sub-national duties.
- Fourth, some responsibilities are more commonly allocated to national governments. Setting tax and royalty rates, collecting major revenue streams, and negotiating large- and medium-sized contracts with companies are more commonly national jurisdiction.
In short the report presents the different natural resource governance responsibilities that could be allocated to sub-national institutions, whether in a federal or decentralized unitary state. Further, it offers policy-makers a framework for thinking through which responsibilities could be allocated to national vs. sub-national governments and which should be managed jointly. The authors of the report also seek to set out the opportunities and risks associated with different models.
In a September 2017 report of Ethnic Nationalities Affairs Center, “Natural Resources of Myanmar (Burma)”, somewhat more sub-national friendly findings, after extensive field survey, to resolve the unjustified allocation of the resources proposed measures on ownership, management, revenue sharing and social and environmental impacts.
It suggested that the ownership and management be placed under the State or Region of the native people involved and revenue sharing to be 70% for the State or Region and 30% for the Union government. Further, it said safeguard mechanisms must be in place, where extraction undertakings are concerned, to prevent negative social and environmental impacts.
Political and economic grievances
The 1957 historical record about political and economic grievances situation, written by U Htun Myint (a civilian representative who signed the historical Panglong Agreement in 1947) in his “Shanland’s grievances” (Shan Pyi Ai Nint Nar Jet Myar), has still haven’t change after six decades.
U Htun Myint explained the economic grievance by supplying various data that while Shan State had generated a large amount of income for the country, it only received a fraction of it back in return from the Union government under the heading of “State Subsidies”.
He complained bitterly in his report, stressing: “Subsidies, as the name implies, do not mean liabilities or bounden duties, but donations according to the prevailing goodwill of the Central Government. Even the name itself is overbearing and self-complimentary.”
And concerning the political grievance, the Bamar-dominated Burma Proper also known as “Ministerial Burma”, before it was diversified into 7 Divisions in 1974 by Burma Socialist Programme Party Constitution and lately changed into Regions by the Military-drafted 2008 Constitution, had not only usurped the central powers of the government by Bamar-majority politicians but also the political rights of the non-Bamar territories and peoples.
The notion that the war for the control of natural resources is the key to ethnic conflict narrative and an end to itself holds no water as the ethnic resistance started because of the lack of rights to self-determination, equality and democracy and not out of greed to enrich a particular group as promoted.
The Shan resistance used to call opium the “necessary evil” and no doubt the extraction of other natural resources like jade, precious stones and other minerals are definitely also seen in this light to make use of in order to survive and defend their turfs.
As for the natural resource federalism, while this could help resolve the allocation to be more acceptable and correct the economic grievance, it is resolving political grievance that is key to settle the problems that encompass, identity , rights of self-determination, democracy and equality within the mold of a federalism.
In sum, the notion of competition for natural resources as an explanation for the ethnic conflict and a means to an end to itself doesn’t hold water, as the structured demand for political power-sharing and justified resources-sharing are rooted core aspirations among the EAOs and ethnic political parties all along.
As for the recommended natural resource federalism, it could create an impetus to usher in a genuine federal union setup acceptable to all stakeholders, but it is more crucial to achieve a political settlement or power-sharing first in order to effectively implement the natural resource federalism. In other words, the horse should be before the cart and not the other way around.