Authors: Art Blundell and Khin Saw Htay
For the first time, the Myanmar Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (MEITI) has opened the books to share information with the public on revenue Myanmar’s government collects from harvesting timber. Last month, the MEITI released two reports juxtaposing statistics on production and tax payments from government ministries’ ledgers with corresponding figures reported by the state-owned Myanma Timber Enterprise (MTE) and forestry companies.
The reports are an important step toward improved transparency and accountability in Myanmar’s forest sector because they shine a light on irregularities that may point toward mismanagement or illegal activities. Unclear legal frameworks and weak enforcement in Myanmar’s forestry sector – a remnant of decades of military rule – have created an environment ripe for illegal logging and illicit trade, and mismanagement of natural resources.
The role of forests in Myanmar’s transition to democracy cannot be overemphasized. Money from illegal logging helped to fuel Myanmar’s decades-long civil war. Smuggling of illegally harvested timber to countries like Chinahas led to the loss of millions of dollars each year in government revenue. Corruption also fuels continued violence and prolongs armed conflict, especially in the heavily forested states that are home to most of Myanmar’s ethnic minorities.
The MEITI is committed to sharing its results at the state level—especially in Myanmar’s forest-rich regions. Myanmar’s citizens have the right to understand how their forests are being managed for the public good.
The EITI framework was launched globally in 2003 with a focus on oil, gas, and mining, given that these lucrative sectors are often key drivers of corruption in resource-rich countries. Myanmar is one of only a few countries (following Liberia’s lead) to add forestry to its EITI reporting, thanks to advocacy from civil society.
Myanmar’s newest MEITI reports are a commendable step by the government toward transparency. But producing a report like this is not easy. The reporting highlights numerous disparities and irregularities in government record-keeping. This is not unusual for a first EITI report. It is also a major objective of the EITI: transparency leads to meaningful discussion about necessary reforms, while regular reporting creates an accountability mechanism to demonstrate progress. MEITI is now preparing their next report covering fiscal years 2016-2017 and 2017-2018.
The MEITI is already driving progress. Myanmar’s Ministry of Planning and Finance (MoPF) has announced it will close the so-called “other accounts” maintained by State-owned Economic Enterprises, like the MTE, that have kept more than half their profits separate from the government’s central budget. Data in the MEITI report suggest that MTEretained74% of its $1 billion profits from fiscal years 2014-2015and2015-2016 in these other accounts–significantly more than the 55% that is permissible.
Myanmar’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation (MoNREC) now holds important data that can be used to investigate and resolve irregularities uncovered by the MEITI reporting. For instance, the Forestry Department’s data on production does not match the data provided by the MTE, and it is substantially more than the Annual Allowable Cut (a government-determined sustainable level of harvest). Likewise, the MTE indicated that more teak was sold than its total reported supply. The source of the additional volume of teak logs is unexplained.
Reforms should help MoNREC address these irregularities. Current reporting is obviously insufficient to capture reality. With the help of a workshop that followed the MEITI launch, stakeholders are working with MoNREC to develop appropriate reforms for MTE and the Forestry Department, and to improve forestry sector governance in general.
Opacity hurts the country in more ways than one. Illegal logging, corruption, and smuggling siphon off revenues meant for programs serving the public. Illegalities also threaten forests – and the communities that rely on forests for their livelihoods – and they drive off credible investment, leaving a gap often filled by investors with less regard for environmental and social regulations.
It is important to note that the MEITI reports cover only the period from April 2014 through March 2016, prior to Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD Party coming into power. The current administration has committed to fairer distribution of benefits from Myanmar’s natural resources among its citizens, yet systematic barriers remain. Endorsing the recommendations from the MEITI report and implementing a roadmap for reform would signal the NLD’s commitment to good forest governance. Meanwhile, companies should do their part to comply with the law and accurately report production, sales, and other data in an accessible manner that allows for independent monitoring.
Myanmar’s forest resources hold great promise for the country’s people, its economy, and the government budget, if managed responsibly. The MEITI has a clear role in charting that path forward and in helping Myanmar manage its natural resources based on the principles of good governance.
A crumbling Thai monarchy and the people’s longing for democracy
As a nation, Thailand has escaped colonial subjugation. But, in the past one year, the Asian kingdom faces an unprecedented political crisis at home. Both the monarchy’s legitimacy and the military-linked government’s power are questioned by a legion of dissenting youth. How did things turn out this way? Here, I analyse.
At the centre of the city of Bangkok lies the Democracy Monument. It commemorates the historic Siamese Revolution of 1932 which led to the establishment of a constitutional monarchy in what was then the Kingdom of Siam, by its military ruler, Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram who saw the monument as the central point of what he envisioned as a new Bangkok, Westernized and democratized in outlook.
But, people’s direct rule in the city and the Thai nation at large is still a distant dream for many, particularly the dissenting youth. The monarchy still has an influential role in Thai society, culture, and politics.
The Southeast Asian nation of Thailand, previously Siam, is ruled by the royal House of Chakri for the past three centuries. However, since the last 88 years, following the Siamese Revolution of 1932, it has been a constitutional monarchy, with king as a nominal head of state and the prime minister as the head of government. But, the country has a history of coups soon after this transition, making the military an influential player in its domestic politics.
So, what is happening in that country since early 2020? Why are the youth and the students protesting against the ruling establishment consisting of the king and the prime minister? What lies ahead?
People demands power transition
Protests began in March, this year, but it lost momentum due to the raging pandemic before starting again in July. Tensions escalated in mid-October when tens of thousands of young protesters took to the streets, mostly in Bangkok but also in other parts of Thailand.
The demonstrators demanded the resignation of General-turned-PM Prayuth Chan-ocha, a new and reformed democratic constitution, a reformed monarchy, more transparency in the government, and an end to the harassment of democracy activists. Police have responded with water cannons and by arresting protesters. The government has also issued an emergency decree prohibiting gatherings to curb the protests.
A section of the protesters went further with a list of ‘10 demands’ of intended reforms. They say, they do not seek to end the monarchy, rather reform it from within. But, on the other hand, there are pro-monarchy conservative royalists who support the government led by the military-aligned prime minister.
The protesters even tried to directly communicate with the king by the symbolic act of posting letters as an expression of their discontent with the establishment. The police have arrested hundreds of protesters so far. But, the unrest in Thailand has only intensified and spread to larger sections of the population.
Origins of the crisis
The origins of the current political stand-off began in the aftermath of the long-awaited March 2019 elections that brought five years of military junta rule to an end. Since a 2014 coup toppled the elected government of former PM Yingluck Shinawatra the kingdom has been reeling under junta rule that installed then General Prayuth Chan-ocha as Prime Minister.
But, after last year’s election, Prayuth resigned from the army, so he could run for Prime Minister’s office again as a civilian. He was supported by military-backed political parties and the election results were disputed by the Opposition parties, as he returned back to power as PM. But, his continuation indicated that Thai military remains a strong force in Thailand’s political scene, even though a civilian rule exists in paper.
In the disputed election, most Thai youths who are now at the forefront of protests supported the third largest party, the Future Forward Party. But, in February 2020, a court order ruled that the party should be disbanded. Young Thais, angry at the ruling, protested soon after. Then came the pandemic-induced lockdowns that restricted protests before it re-emerged in July.
A note on Thai monarchy
Thailand arguably has one of the world’s strictest lese-majeste rules that are aimed at curtailing public behaviour classifiable as criminal offences against the dignity of the reigning monarch and prohibits insults to the royal family. However, the Thai monarchy entered a period of transition after the death of former king Bhumibol Adulyadej, the father of the present king Maha Vajiralongkorn, in 2016 who reigned for long seven decades.
Adulyadej was largely seen as a unifying force in the Thai nation that has endured years of political turmoil, unlike his pompous and extravagant son who had spent much of his time in Germany since ascending to throne. While his people fiercely protested, the king stayed away from all that commotion in a foreign land away from home enjoying luxury quarantine in the Bavarian Alps with public money.
Thai protesters had earlier sought the German government to look into whether he had conducted state business while on German soil, such as the signing of royal commands and the annual expenditure act that would be unbecoming considering the behaviour expected from their king.
Moving against the flow
The latest protests by the youths and students raise justifiable questions on the legitimacy of the regal power in Thai ruling establishment. They intensely hope and raise their voices for a transition to full democracy, creating a sensitive backdrop to the grievances raised against the military-backed government, on the other side.
Meanwhile, PM Prayuth has repeatedly rejected the protesters’ demands to step down. With the looming pandemic affecting normalcy of life and the Thai government planning to extend the nation-wide state of emergency until mid-January next year, there is no foreseeable reprieve for the demands raised by protesters soon enough.
Expectations from ASEAN Summit meetings
The ASEAN summit meetings starting from November 12-15 will address issues which have challenged the Southeast Asian region this year, and much of the initial work has been discussed under the Vietnam chairmanship during the summit meetings. In fact, one of the critical areas which we discussed during ASEAN preparatory meetings and also during the subsequent East Asian Summit will be related to maintaining peace and also addressing the peaceful resolution of disputes, particularly in South China Sea, outlining the need for compliant to the UNCLOS, abiding by the principles of international law.
It is acknowledged that the different aspects related to regional security, trade and investment, addressing challenges related to the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4th IR), developing mandate and consensus with regard to the ASEAN community vision, and also developing common consensus on environment protection, marine debris, river water pollution and transboundary haze. One of the important milestones that ASEAN has achieved in the last two decades has been expanding its external relations with countries such as Canada, Chile, EU and many other countries which contribute to the development and foreign direct investment in this region. These existing partnerships need to be complemented with new partners which can accelerate economic development and growth prospects.
It is acknowledged that the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) has been challenged in the past but new countries such as Cuba, Colombia, and South Africa have signed the treaty. The TAC has been discussed as an important element of maintaining regional peace and stability, and there is need for strengthening this process so that new entrants can be accommodated. The important aspect which have been really outlined last year has been with regard to the ASEAN and the Indo-Pacific concept. Therefore, there will be discussions that how complementarities could be explored between the organisation and the geopolitical concept. As in the ASEAN outlook towards Indo-Pacific it has been outlined that the cooperation can be explored in the terms of maritime connectivity, security, promoting sustainable development, and outlining new avenues for economic operation.
The issue of new membership in ASEAN might also be discussed. In the past few years countries such as Timor-Leste have been seeking to consider for their entry into the ASEAN but Timor need to fulfil certain basic criteria which can be discussed during these ASEAN meetings.
For ASEAN, the vital issue will be to engage the new US administration under the democrats and maintain their attention that US has been given to this region particularly in terms of SCS and also supplying military hardware to many of the countries which are facing tensions with China. Given the fact that Indonesia and Vietnam have been elected as a non-permanent member of the UN it is possible that the dialogue partners and these two countries would outline important areas which can be addressed at the highest level.
One of the areas that the ASEAN can explore can be undertaking extensive corporative arrangement with the United Nations as many countries within Southeast Asia are representing their cases to the UN and its associate agencies, synergy between the two organisations is foreseen. The ASEAN also needs to work on the emergency response and assessment team which includes rehabilitation and repatriation of displaced persons across this region in the wake of COVID-19.
Refugees has been a major bone of contention among Southeast Asian nations. In this regard it is pertinent that the ASEAN will seek indulgence of countries such as Myanmar and also address problems with regard to rehabilitation of the Rohingya refugees.
The safety with regard to the South China Sea and maintaining freedom of navigation and overflight would be critical for the regional maritime trade and commerce as well as civil aviation. The 2002 Declaration of the Code of Conduct of parties in the SCS has not been valued by dialogue partners such as China. Therefore, it is critical that the Code of Conduct (COC)should be discussed during the meetings with the dialogue partners. It is acknowledged that the mutual trust between the claimant parties has been on the downslide and the deficit in mutual trust has disturbed the peace and tranquillity in SCS.
The developments with regard to Korean peninsula and the dialogue with the US have given a hope that the Korean peninsula might seek peace and as two Southeast Asian countries (Singapore and Vietnam)were involved in the dialogue process between US and North Korea. The possibility of continuing the process under nee US administration might be discussed on the side-lines. This year has been harmed southeast Asian economies because of pandemics and floods, and therefore a consensus is required with regard to medicine, standard protocols and also into ASEAN cooperation among member countries.
One of the important initiatives that has been taken by the Vietnam was the ASEAN defence ministers meeting in February 2020, in which it was noted that coronavirus disease has been making a major impact in the regional security and stability, and there was a need for acknowledging it as a public health emergency. The chairman statement with regard to ASEAN collective response was acknowledged. It was stated that there should be a strong collaboration in terms of military medicine, and collaboration through a network of chemical, biological and radiological specialists across the southeast Asian countries. Another initiative which have been taken during the meeting has been to enhance practical cooperation among the defence establishments so as to address this pandemic and bring about best practices as well as engaging the ASEAN Centre for military medicine in undertaking research related to this. This meeting proclaimed that there is a need for exploring new initiatives and ways to contact fake news which might increase public anxiety and also hinder any collaborative activities within ASEAN.
With regard to theASEAN mandate it was critical that the impact of the COVID-19 on labour and employment need to be addressed so that the right of the migrant workers as well as developing progressive labour practices could be undertaken for enhancing competitiveness within the organisation as well as promoting safety and health protocols within the region.
The ASEAN has been addressing has been promotion of human resource development as well as developing networks for technical education and skills development. While the organisation has been preparing for promoting the fourth industry revolution and therefore it has become important to utilise technology for better inclusive and sustainable growth which can provide regular employment and growth opportunities among the labour across the region. Many of the countries in Southeast Asia have been large concentration of small and medium enterprises and are providing employment opportunities. Consequently, it has been found that there is a need for developing better labour practices as well as protecting the rights of the labour.
As discussed earlier one of the important meetings which was being held in April 2020 was to seek affirmation from the 15 countries participating in the RCEP programme to accelerate their efforts in actualising this regionwide free trade area, and Vietnam has been insistent that India should be invited to partake in the negotiations once again.
In one of the statements made by the ASEAN chairman in June 2020 it was acknowledged that public health emergencies and the need to control the pandemic would be important for promoting resilience societies and healthy workforce. Importantly, since many of these ASEAN nations are export dependent economies, it will be critical that the resilience supply chain and a captive market is promoted in a big way. The dialogue between the health sector professionals as well as promoting technical exchanges related to big data, telemedicine and surveillance of the diseases need to be taken on in the forthcoming ASEAN meetings. It would be prudent that the ASEAN response fund and supporting economic recovery programme at regional level would help many nations through cross sectoral collaboration as well as mitigating the impact of this pandemic.
While it is acknowledged that the ASEAN community meeting would highlight the midterm review of the ASEAN community blueprints for the year 2025, it would also be critical that issues such as gender sensitivity, women in parliament, promoting ASEAN youth and also in the ASEAN Parliamentary assembly would be areas where Vietnam would like to take the lead. As the mandate for this year’s ASEAN meeting is “cohesive and responsive ASEAN” and therefore stress will always be there with regard to solidarity and centrality of this organisation.
The year 2020 would be a judicious milestone to look out into the future plan of action and how the organisation as a whole could work with regard to medical supplies, equipment, addressing public health emergencies and developing research and vaccine development program within the region itself. In the past the organisation has worked remarkably with regard to addressing environmental concerns, non-traditional security issues, and also taking security initiatives at the regional level.
Initiatives related to ASEAN integration among the mainland Southeast Asia countries would be a priority so that economic complementarities and division of labour as well as better production facilities should be developed across Southeast Asia. In terms of the connectivity within the organisation, the discussion would be related to infrastructure projects, supply chain resilience, building people to people connectivity and also promoting higher education linkages between the dialogue partners and the ASEAN member nations.
One of the important elements which have been often discussed within the organisation has been developing the smart cities network, incorporating capacity building initiatives, developing repository of knowledge, and sharing best practices so that sustainable development as well as better resource management within the cities could be done. Dialogue related to the ASEAN community, aspects related to political security and cultural issues will be taken up as usual but it will be also critical that the associated organisations such as East Asia Summit, ASEAN Regional Forum and other associate organisations would be discussing international developments. It is expected that South China Sea and building consensus on single draft a letter to code of conduct would be a priority under UNCLOS provisions.
One cannot deny the fact that even though majority of the ASEAN meetings throughout the year have been done in cyber and online mode but the agreements and the understanding that have been developed through ASEAN meetings would require concerted effort and sincerity on the part of member countries and the ASEAN Chairman to bring it to a logical conclusion. The ASEAN chairman Vietnam has waved the magic wand and the outcome would be interesting to watch.
Myanmar’s democratic experiment on a murky path
Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) claims victory in the November 8 election, the second freely-contested poll since Myanmar broke away from complete military dictatorship in 2011. But, the military-aligned Opposition party refuses to concede. As it turns out, the country’s democracy stares at a gloomy prospect.
The Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar, with its 37 million eligible voters including 5 million first-timers, went to polls on November 8 in its second free and openly contested elections since the former British colony came out of military dictatorship in 2011. But, the army still yields considerable influence in the ruling establishment.
Incumbent State Counselor (equivalent to the role of a prime minister), the75-year-old Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD)claims to have won the election held in earlier this week to retain power.
But, the military-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) in the Opposition refused to accept the results terming it as ‘unfair’ and called for a fresh vote, adding up to the political turmoil in presumably Asia’s newest democratic experiment.
Suu Kyi is still the country’s most popular politician, the youngest daughter of Aung San, father of the modern nation of Myanmar. And her party, the NLD, has a strong nation-wide presence, particularly among the majority ethnic Bamars, who makes up 70% of the country’s population.
In its first free election held in 2015, the NLD had won a landslide victory improving the prospects for institutionalization of democracy in the predominantly Buddhist state. However, whichever party wins, it has to share power with the military for which 25 % of non-elected parliamentary seats are constitutionally reserved for, and additionally three key ministries in the government.
In total, 87 parties competed in the 2020 election. Many were ethnic parties, and most of the other parties were founded by Suu Kyi’s former aides who broke away from her later. Historically, the military has resisted attempts aimed at reforms that would reduce its power. It was in 1962 Myanmar fell to a military dictatorship that would remain in power for the next five decades.
Suu Kyi returned to then Burma in 1988 after completing her studies abroad. Witnessing the abuses of the military junta, she led the calls for the country’s democratization. In the aftermath of the pro-democracy protests, she formed the NLD as a political platform to discuss democracy and human rights.
Even though the NLD contested and won the elections held in 1990 the military refused to accept the results and prevented a civilian government from forming. Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest by the military in the next year.
She continued her struggle and went on to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. She was held in house arrest for almost two decades with intervals in between. Elections were held again in 2010. The military junta was officially dissolved in 2011, and a nominally civilian government was installed, ending nearly five decades of military rule.
Four years later, in Myanmar’s first free and openly contested election in 2015, the NLD won a landslide victory, a sign of Suu Kyi’s popularity among the masses. Burmese people respectfully called her ‘Amay Suu’ (Mother Suu) or simply ‘the Lady’.
The renewed political system paved the path for an economic recovery and development, reaffirming that an inclusive democracy can deliver prosperity. But, the government’s treatment of ethnic minorities, curtailment of press freedom, and looming intolerance to the ethnic insurgencies attracted criticisms from around the world.
In 2017, a black stain clouded the Suu Kyi government’s image as it approved a military crackdown on the 1.1 million-strong Rohingya Muslim ethnic minority belonging to the Rakhine state on Myanmar’s western coast, accusing them of militancy, and led to at least 750,000 of them fleeing to nearby Bangladesh, India, and elsewhere, eventually leading to a refugee crisis and many internally displaced too.
Deprived of citizenship or statehood, the Rohingyas are widely seen in Myanmar as illegal ‘Bengalis’ even though they have lived in the predominantly-Buddhist country for generations. The Rohingyas were subjected to ‘clearance operations’ by the military including arson, rape and extra-judicial killings. The United Nations consider them as the most persecuted minority in the world.
Since 2015, the Suu Kyi administration has arrested scores of students, artists and farmers, simply for expressing their political views in the past five years. Her democratic ideals gradually disappeared,owing to the military’s continuing influence on her decisional autonomy as the head of government and possibly her continued political leadership itself.
Year 2019 saw the former Peace Nobel laureate nose-diving from a champion of democracy and human rights icon to genocide denier when she defended the crackdown on Rohingya militia while appearing on behalf of the Burmese government at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands, denying all charges of genocide and ethnic cleansing against her government and the military.
Western-led organisations such as the European Union and the United Nations had expressed their disappointment with the Lady’s changed behaviour that contradicted the very ideals she previously stood for during her struggle against the junta-rule in the 1990s and 2000s. Similar concerns have been expressed by a handful of other organisations and countries the West, as well.
Following the 2020 election, the EU commended the high voter turnout and peaceful polls but also called for the full inclusion of all ethnic, religious and minority groups of the country, hinting atthe Rohingya crisis.
With Buddhist ultra-nationalism thriving with hate and fear mongering monks dominating public discourse with an opaque power sharing arrangement between the civilian and military ruling classes, Myanmar’s internal democracy and social cohesion between the majority and the minorities lie on a murky path.
With the Lady effectively playing second fiddle to the military, Myanmar stares at a gloomy future. Rising Chinese economic interest in the Bay of Bengal littoral state could also prove detrimental to the democratic project’s long-term prospects and the region’s stability.
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