Current Situation of Indigenous Peoples and Natural Resources in Myanmar

by Myo Ko Ko, Myanmar, ELP 2014
Written on July 21, 2014.

Myanmar, officially the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, is a sovereign state in Southeast Asia bordered by Laos, Thailand, China, Bangladesh and India. One third of the country’s total perimeter of 1,930 kilometers (1,200 miles) forms an uninterrupted coastline along the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. Myanmar’s population of over 60 million makes it the world’s 24th most populous country and at 676,578 square kilometers (261,228 square miles), it is the world’s 40th largest country and the second largest in Southeast Asia.

Myanmar’s diversity encompasses over 100 different ethnic groups. The country is divided into seven mainly Burman-dominated divisions and seven ethnic states. While the majority of Burmans consider themselves to be indigenous, it is the marginalized indigenous groups referred to as “ethnic nationalities,” including the Shan, Karen, Rakhine, Karenni, Chin, Kachin and Mon, that are commonly considered to be indigenous.

Myanmar is home to a wealth of biodiversity, including large forests and unique animal species. Many local communities in Myanmar are critically dependent on these forest resources for their survival, but have been excluded from decisions concerning the protected areas they depend on. This situation is slowly changing.

On the other hand, a major share of Myanmar’s natural resources is located in the ethnic areas inhabited by ethnic and indigenous peoples. Ethnic and indigenous peoples reportedly comprise 30 to 40% of the population and live on 60% of the available land. In many cases they depend on natural resources for their traditional livelihoods and maintain their natural resources in a sustainable way according to their indigenous knowledge and customary laws. The recent opening of Myanmar to foreign investors and the reforms to attract private sector investments in the agribusiness and natural resource extraction sectors presents a major challenge for the livelihoods of indigenous communities. In particular, during the process of rapid economic integration of Myanmar’s borderlands into the global economic system, indigenous people’s practices of customary laws and use of local common natural assets are mostly disregarded. Indigenous peoples are increasingly driven off their common land and further marginalized. Traditional practices are further eroded due to development intervention over which they have little control.

Myanmar is heavily dependent on natural resources and for decades the military governments exploited natural resources with almost complete disregard of the socio-economic impact on the local population. Concessions were granted to unethical international partners to extract timber, jade and mineral resources without even basic transparency of earnings. Due to this poor record, the Revenue Watch Institute ranked Myanmar as having the worst resource governance among 58 countries studied.

Resource rich ethnic states have been targeted for predatory resource extraction, which has served to perpetuate the animosity towards successive military governments. While the latest 2010 estimate puts the national poverty headcount at 26%, rates are far higher among many of the minority groups. It is noteworthy that three out of the four poorest areas are ethnic minority states. The incidence of poverty in Chin State alone is almost three times the national average. This suggests a vicious cycle whereby conflict holds back development and under-development in itself feeds a sense of relative deprivation.