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Breaking the Silence

Vendors, Burma (

Vendors, Burma (Donna Cymek/Flickr)

C. Poverty and Environmental Degradation in Burma

Since 1962, the country's economy has been totally controlled by the military regime, now called the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). Because of their economic mismanagement, particularly in the last decade, there has been a high rate of inflation, causing prices of consumer goods to skyrocket, which has directly affected the general public. All the state policies imposed are for the regime's own political survival, and are heavily associated with human rights abuses such as forced labour, forced relocation and land confiscation. To keep tight control of the nation, the SPDC has built up the military, and to date the size of the army is more than 400,000.(4) By exploiting the country's natural resources through its so-called open door trade policy, and stealing agricultural produce through its agricultural policies, the SPDC has earned foreign income to spend on weapons, the armed forces and military intelligence. Overspending on military expenditure has nearly depleted the state revenue. (5) Increasing numbers of development projects implemented in the past decade by the regime have primarily benefited only the military and have resulted in environmental degradation and the further impoverishment of the peoples of Burma.

1. Civil war and anti-insurgency policies
Civil war between the military and the ethnic nationalities has been continuing for more than half a century. Campaigns of systematic village evacuation and strategic forced relocation to cut support for armed resistance groups have been launched by the regime to cut support for armed resistance groups. Large portions of Burma's population, who live in rural and remote areas, especially in the areas of armed conflicts, have been affected. These anti-insurgency campaigns have been intensified since 1988 throughout the country. One of the most extensive campaigns of forced relocation took place in Central Shan State in 1996, which pushed a population of over 300,000 Shans from over 1,400 villages in an area of 7,000 square miles out of their land. (6) Having lost their livelihood, people forcibly relocated have moved to where they can survive.

A Shan woman in her mid 30, who arrived in Thailand from central Shan State in January 2002 talked about her experience of forced relocation,

'It was five years ago when our village Na Yoak was ordered to move. The whole family including my mother aged 60 had to walk to a village called Ton Hong in Keng Tong District. It took us all day. In Ton Hong village we stayed at the back yard of my husband's relative where my mother died not long after. Her legs and arms swelled badly before she died.'

Apart from impoverishing local populations, forced relocation means that they are no longer able to practice traditional methods of preserving the environment. A Shan woman in her late 30s who fled to Thailand from Murng Paw, Muse Township in northern Shan State, in 2001, talks about how her community protected the forest:

"We have systematic and traditional way of preserving the environment descended from our ancestors that communities follow and practice. We have defined certain trees for the use of firewood only and people only cut them. This has nothing to do with government programs. We had practiced this preservation program for our whole life as far as I remember and until 1986 -- the time the Burmese army came into our area." (7)

Now, areas of forced relocation in Central Shan State, such as Keng Tong, are rapidly becoming deforested due to logging by companies close to the military.

2.Unregulated Open door' trade policy
To encourage foreign investment and trade predominantly in natural resources located in ethnic states, the so-called open door trade policy was introduced in 1988. Concessions have been sold for logging, mining, gas and fishing, which are now causing severe environmental degradation in Burma.

Logging: Granting of logging concessions to the army, investors and the cease-fire groups is the main factor causing extensive deforestation in Burma.(8) For the last thirteen years, forests all over Burma have been heavily logged, especially in the areas bordering Thailand and China. Concessions granted to Thai logging firms have left the Shan, Karenni and Karen States with no significant forests, and in Kachin State, the area on the east side of the Nmai Ka River down to Sinbo and Bhamo has been clear-cut. (9)

The interviewee from northern Shan State describes her land and how logging has destroyed the forest in the area. (10)

"Our place was rich with different kinds of hard wood, and our land used to produce plenty of oil crops such as peanut, sesame and sunflower. Our hills used to look so green with trees, but now they look empty because the army ordered villagers to cut down the trees for them." She reveals that the army used forced labour for the logging business:

"Every village in the township took turns to cut trees for the army. The village had to give one person per household to the army to work for two weeks at a time. The villagers never got paid for anything we had to do for the army and their militia groups. Besides, we had to go and work for them with our own expense. We had to cut the trees and then carry the logs to the designated areas -- to the main road or to the army post. We also had to clear the way to carry the logs to get to the road. Those who had bullock carts used their carts to carry the logs while those who did not had to carry it by hand. The army picked them up on the trucks and sent them to China."

She mentions the change of weather due to deforestation caused by logging:

"The weather in our area used to be quite cold. In winter water even turned to ice... so cold that we had to make bonfires to get warm in winter, but now it's very hot, as the thick forests we used to have are gone."

In addition to logging, charcoal production mostly organized by the army for fuel mainly used in Burma has resulted in the rapid depletion of forests. Recently, even the state-run Myanmar Timber Enterprise MTE announced it was short of teak (11) for export, the second largest source of official state income. (12)