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Breaking the Silence

Vendors, Burma (

Vendors, Burma (Donna Cymek/Flickr)

Mining: Since Burma's mining legislation was changed to allow foreign ventures or individuals up to 100% shares in mining projects in 1988, there have been 62 mining corporations operating in Burma. (13) These mining concessions are another major factor leading to deforestation because the trees are clear-cut in mining areas for hard infrastructure. (14) Not only are the forests being exploited, but the invasive mining practices are wreaking havoc on rivers and surrounding areas. Although the regulations for mining were updated in 1994 and a mining law was passed in 1994, up-to-date attempts to equitably promote, protect, democratise and make safer the overall mining environment in Burma have not been seriously been made.

Since the early 1990s, ruby-mining in Loi Hseng, in Muang Shu in Central Shan State, has seriously affected local communities. A 2000 report on mining in Burma reveals how local people have been impoverished and the environment destroyed in Muang Hsu (15):

"Lands and homes were confiscated. The army took control of farm paddies, and then sectioned them into plots and sold them off for excavation. Farmers became landless and jobless."

"Forests were depleted at an alarming rate as larger plots were cleared for excavation. Mine tailings created during the washing process of gem extraction were dumped directly into the Nam Ngaa River that past through the district, blackening the water."

Gas: In 1990 and 1991, concessions to develop the existing natural gas deposits off Burma's coast to Thailand were given to multi-national investors including Premier Oil, Total and Unocal. This involved delivery of gas through two giant pipelines across Tennassarim Division, Southern Burma to Kanchanaburi in Thailand. The construction of the pipelines has had serious environmental impacts on the ecosystem, forest and wildlife in this part of Burma and has involved extreme human rights violation committed by the SPDC. (16)

Since 1996, charges of human rights abuses including torture, rape and summary execution around the Yadana gas pipeline have been brought against Unocal in a US court case. The plaintiffs are ethnic Mon and Karen villagers who lived near the pipeline. From the beginning of the projects, the oil companies have not acknowledged the associated human rights abuses. Ironically, they have been 'spin doctoring' their public image through holding a series of human rights trainings under SPDC-supervised conditions and with selected participants.

3. Exploitative Agricultural Policies

The SPDC claims that as a base for all-round development of other sectors in the economy, it is paying particular attention to the agricultural sector. Its agricultural policies are aimed to increase the export of rice, its main official source of foreign income (17), and to contribute to food supply both domestically and regionally. It has also claimed that it has laid down five strategic measures: rice quotas, the double paddy system, land reclamation, irrigation and provision of credit to promote agricultural productivity. (18) In reality, the SPDC has not allocated sufficient state budget for the agriculture-related expenditures. For example, in the 1998-99 fiscal year, the SPDC spent more than two times the combined expenditure on agriculture and forestry on the military. (19) Moreover, all measures carried out under the agricultural policies have involved the regime's common practices of forced labour, forced relocation, land confiscation and extortion, and are thus only exacerbating the already serious problems of poverty and environmental destruction. (20)

Rice quota: Farmers are forced to sell rice to the SPDC based not on the amount planted or harvested, but on the amount of land that they own. If they cannot sell the required amount, they face confiscation of their land or expulsion.

The following quote by a Shan woman of 29, who arrived in Thailand on 26 January 2002 with her family due to forced relocation, explains her experience of the rice quota system:

"We had to sell rice to the SPDC troops whether or not we got enough rice from our farm. We had to sell ten times more rice to the SPDC troops than what we had to give away to the resistance armed group. And also we had to sell the rice very cheaply. The selling price was five times lower than the local price."

Another Shan woman of 38, who came from Kung Hing, central Shan State talks about the burden that the rice quota puts on to people, making them poorer (21):

"The government demanded a larger quota from the monsoon paddy. And those farmers who could not produce enough to meet the quota had to buy the rice from others and give it to the government. Before I had my own land and livestock, but later I had to sell my property in order to meet their demands."

Double Paddy System: To create more rice to be exported, in 1994, the SPDC launched the Double Paddy System, under which farmers are forced to produce two crops of rice a year. The system robs the soil of nutrients it needs and farmers face decreased land productivity. Farmers need fertilizers, pesticides and machinery to cope with the technical complications of the added crop. Often, farmers are not able to afford them. Consequently, they lose their land because their unproductive land, officially designated for double-cropping, is reassigned to a more able household. (22) Using chemicals like fertilizers and pesticides without access to proper information on how to use them safely has been dangerous not only to the environment, but also to the people.