YANGON — It is “paramount” that ceasefire and peace negotiations in Myanmar directly address the governance of natural resources that are the backbone of the economy, warns a new report by non-profit organisation Forest Trends.
Natural resources, including timber, gems, oil and gas, and hydropower, generate billions of dollars each year and are inextricably linked to Myanmar’s history of armed conflict, the report says.
“Parties to the conflict have fought (and in many cases, still fight) over the right to control and benefit from these valuable resources…” it says.
“But instead of resource exploitation driving violence and armed political conflict, natural resources governance reform holds promise for improved prospects for peace – but only if reform addresses these drivers of conflict.”
“Natural resource governance reform and the peace process in Myanmar,” was released on October 16. Forest Trends, a Washington-based organisation established in 1988, says the report is a baseline study for efforts to promote equitable and accountable management of natural resources for peacebuilding.
“It is deeply concerning that Myanmar’s peace process is not yet addressing the governance of natural resources in a meaningful way,” said Mr Kevin Woods, senior policy analyst at Forest Trends and author of the 72-page report.
“Resource governance decentralization framed within political federalism could help reboot the country’s peace process. It is the best way to ensure sustainable peace – and to rebuild levels of trust between ethnic stakeholders and the [Union government] in peace building,” he said.
“Land and resource ownership and governance decentralization within federal structures anchor the central demands of ethnic civil society stakeholders and ethnic armed organizations, but these demands are so far at odds with the 2008 Constitution and Union laws and polices,” the report says.
“The future Union Accord peace principles do not yet contain principles specific to natural resources and clauses specific to land mostly serve to further centralize unitary state control.”
The report says these discrepancies relate to unequal structures and processes of decision making within the national peace process, “where Myanmar’s military representatives hamper meaningful discussion and the adoption of peace principles that would decentralize ownership over land and natural resources in support of political federalism”.
It says global environmental good governance mechanisms could help support decentralisation of natural resource governance and peacebuilding, “but only if they address and account for the underlying causes of armed conflict and clarify questions over who has which ownership, benefit, and management rights, among other political governance matters”.
The interim arrangements under the peace process offer an important opportunity to commit more political will and build capacity to implement natural resource good governance reform, during the period between the signing of bilateral ceasefires and the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement and the finalisation of a comprehensive political settlement, it says.
“Such reform would be necessary to lay that critical foundation for peace, leading to sustainable and equitable economic growth in the country,” said Ms Kerstin Canby, director of Forest Trends forest policy, trade and finance programme.
“Meeting ethnic stakeholders’ demands would help to alleviate the drivers of conflict. Local and regional ‘constituencies for change’ can be a significant lever of pressure for resource federalism, both within the formal peace process structures and outside of it,” Canby said.
The report notes the increase in fighting since the 1990s between the Tatmadaw, ethnic armed groups, and paramilitaries, for control over natural resources and the revenues they generate, and in the suffering caused to ethnic communities from violence, loss of livelihoods, human rights abuses, and forced displacement.
It says that, globally, most peace agreements have failed because of poor resources governance that has been the root cause of armed conflict.
“Economic growth based on natural resources will fail in the long-term if peace cannot be sustained,” it warns.
The peace process was yet to include much discussion of issues related to the ownership and governance of natural resources and the sharing of their benefits, partly because of Tatmadaw efforts to block discussion of reform options, says the report.
Only five of the 15 existing bilateral ceasefires in Myanmar address natural resources, only two clauses in the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement mention issues related to land and natural resources, and the future Union Accord principles have only twelve points that address land and environment.
“But many of the land principles promote further state centralization, thereby retarding federalist aims,” it says.
The report highlights the competing positions over natural resources governance among stakeholders in the stalled peace process.
“EAOs are fighting for self-determination and political federalism, an important component of which is the right to own, benefit from, and govern land and natural resources,” it says.
“The government, on the other hand, is working to formalize land and natural resource rents and further direct revenues to the Union government, and simultaneously away from EAOs, as part of further building the state in the country’s ethnic resource-rich frontier. The Tatmadaw, which holds the most power in deciding how the peace process negotiations proceed and what topics are discussed, continues to derail pathways towards resource federalism.”
It cautions that revenue sharing alone will not achieve the long-term goals of sustained peace and could even undermine debates and pathways to resolving these issues.
“Regardless, robust institutions are needed to ensure revenue goes to the public good in a transparent and accountable manner. No matter what political structure emerges in Myanmar, there are steps to be taken now that can help alleviate grievances over land and resource ownership and how they are to be managed and benefits distributed,” it says.
The report expresses concern that the decentralisation of rights and responsibilities can lead to parallel decentralisation of corruption and new destabilising power dynamics.
“Calls for natural resources to be governed by subnational and local government officials may help meet ethnic political demands and steer the country towards a federalist structure, but this does not itself guarantee peace,” it says.
“New destabilizing entries of subnational crony elites into the resource fray could generate more grievances and renewed political demands,” it warns.
“Regional and local government institutions should therefore be supported and strengthened now, before any new political system is introduced, to ensure that reforms better deliver peace dividends. By building management capacity, regional and local institutions and authorities can better equip themselves for a more successful transition to good governance and decentralization of power under a federal system.”
Canby said the national peace process “must explore options to address ethnic demands for land and resource governance federal decentralization. Natural resource governance reforms can support these aims. Without them, peace will be elusive, with resources and their benefits squandered away from corruption and thus lost to the citizens of Myanmar, and local populations increasingly marginalized from their lands and resource-based livelihoods.”