Towards Democracy and Reconciliation (Part 2: Sustainable Development)

As mentioned in our last update, Burma/Myanmar scholars came together last week for a day-long workshop, “Towards Democracy and Reconciliation: Challenges Facing Myanmar’s Incoming Government.” This post is the second of series that will summarize each of the four panels featured during the day’s events. Our previous post covered our first panel on “Politics and Governance,” while summaries of the remaining two panels, on “Societal Interventions” and “Displacement, Ethnicity and Peace” will follow this post.

How will Myanmar pursue growth and development while negotiating the challenges that come with international investment, resource management, and conflicts over land? This was the question posed to participants of the second panel on Sustainable Development. The first speaker, Independent Consultant Rowan Ryrie, noted that, following the election, expectations remain high in situations related to development, with both local communities and international investors eager to see a new NLD-led government meet their needs. Both sides, however, cannot be pleased in every case— as evidenced by her analysis of conflicts around the Thilawa Special Economic Zone. Regulations related to Environmental and Social Impact Assessments (key components of properly carried out projects) have either just been put in place or are still not yet on the books, making oversight by activists and local communities a time-intensive process.

Ryrie noted that, despite the persistence of serious environmental concerns related to large-scale development projects, these alone would likely not be sufficient to halt a project. Thus, she sought to highlight the importance of considering environmental impacts within social contexts and to laud the ways in which activism in Myanmar includes broad community involvement, in contrast with other places in the region. She advocated for the incoming government to not simply be reactive or automatically accede to projects that have already been agreed, suggesting that there might be opportunities to review agreements negotiated under previous governments that would provide little to no benefits for the Myanmar people.

Oxford DPhil candidate Julian Kirchherr also spoke to the necessity of balancing the needs of local communities with those of investors and others associated with development efforts, specifically in the energy sector. Kirchherr cited estimates that the anticipated speed of Myanmar’s future growth is likely to leave the country with an “unprecedented” energy demand of 14.5 gigawatts by 2030, a level that the country is not even close to being able to meet. If the growing energy demands of increasingly connected populations are to be accommodated, the incoming government will have to seriously consider whether large-scale hydro will be part of the solution.

In exploring this issue, Kirchherr also compared large hydropower with other potential sources of renewable energy, arguing that Myanmar’s solar potential is still largely unknown and that small hydro—often the proposed solution from those opposed to large-scale projects—might be even more environmentally and socially destructive if carried out on the scale necessary to meet the country’s energy needs. He also highlighted the fact that, while in some cases local communities, activists, developers, and authorities have found ways to work together, in most cases opposition to projects has resulted in “energy deadlock.”

Reshmi Banerjee, who we have recently featured on Tea Circle and who is a new Visiting Scholar at the Asian Studies Centre at St Antony’s, built on the previous two presentations, providing a historical and legal framework for the sorts of land conflicts and compromises described above. Banerjee describes land as a critical resource, not just in cases of conflict such as those we see today in Myanmar, but also as embedded in a number of other crosscutting challenges facing the newly-formed government. Crucially, land is not merely a livelihood concern but is also unavoidably connected to identity; as a result, we must recognize the socially-embedded nature of the various institutions designed to resolve land conflicts.

Banerjee’s presentation including numerous examples of contradictions between various laws in Myanmar dealing with land that have allowed those with sufficient resources and knowledge to exploit things like proliferating land classification categories and varying lease periods. In this way, some of the laws that are intended to reduce disputes over land have actually created or exacerbated conflict. Her presentation also touched on issues related to land, such as concerns over the legal and economic standing of women and questions about what resources will be afforded to returning displaced populations.

Unsurprisingly, the discussion period for this panel was very animated. One audience member called for greater attention not simply to those populations immediately and materially affected by large-scale dams, but to the broader cultural effects. The entire Kachin people viewed the Myitsone confluence as a sacred and representative site; damaging it was a direct affront to their identity. Another commenter built on this by noting the inherent weaknesses of a national policy conversation on a subject such as energy. Urban populations consuming more power and with more political influence would see no problems with siting dams in far-away ethnic communities where they would never feel the effects themselves. Myanmar’s weak political institutions have no way to protect against this NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard) attitude. Other audience members questioned some of Kirchherr’s projections on the pace of development and argued that analysis should not simply accept this as a normative good, but should recognize the potentially harmful effects of such rapid development in a political context with deep and persistent democratic deficits.