Mission of Burma

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Published on December 12th, 2011  |  Discuss This Article  

Shwedagon Pagoda

Jack Hurd is the director of the Asia-Pacific Forest Program for The Nature Conservancy.

When I arrived in Bangkok in 1988, freshly armed with a bachelor’s degree in economics and what my parents felt was a misguided notion that I might find employment in Southeast Asia, I didn’t know anything about Burma. However, almost immediately, two events sparked my curiosity.

In August of that year, the military government in Burma launched an aggressive crackdown on students and workers demonstrating in the capital city of Rangoon for greater political freedom and enhanced economic opportunity. Over the following months, thousands of people streamed to the border with Thailand seeking safety from the long arm of an oppressive regime, providing new energy to a civil war that had been waged by ethnic minorities since 1948.

Then, in November, massive flooding in southern Thailand put an end to logging the country’s natural forests. Thai businessmen and their enablers in the military began to seek out timber in neighboring countries, and truckloads of ancient Teak trees crossed the border from Burma at unprecedented rates, leaving in their wake a deteriorating natural environment and worsening civil conflict.

While there were plenty of other things going on in the region at this time, the stories that emerged along the Thai-Burma border — both tragic and hopeful — seemed to dominate the news cycle for years. The social, political, economic and environmental dimensions of these issues hooked me as I embarked on a career in sustainable forestry.

Over the following 20-plus years, I read extensively about the country and its culture, its politics and its people, its natural resources and its historical record. I visited the capital on several occasions, traveled around the country a bit and joined Burma-focused events in Bangkok, Washington D.C. and Seattle.

While my engagement with Burmese affairs waxed and waned, a single question remained in my mind, and in the minds of countless others in the region and around the world: when will events conspire to let the country reassert its natural position in the heart of Asia? Interestingly, that time may be now.

The last year has seen rapid changes taking place across the country. Elections were held in 2010 and, while widely condemned as a sham, they signaled willingness on the part of the generals who ruled the country to trade in their khaki uniforms for business suits. First, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was released from the house arrest she had endured on and off since 1989, and her political party, the National League for Democracy, indicated a willingness to re-engage in the political process, having boycotted the 2010 elections.

Not long ago, construction on the massive and massively controversial Myitsone Dam in the northern state of Kachin — which was being built by Chinese-backed firms in order to provide electricity to that country’s Yunnan Province — was suspended in the wake of significant national and international protest.

Additionally, a series of high-ranking officials from Europe and North America visited the country to hold talks with the new leaders. That group included Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the highest-ranked U.S. official to visit in more than 50 years.

And finally, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) — a 10-country club to which Myanmar (as Burma is now known) belonged but was not universally welcomed — expressed its support for Myanmar to assume the association’s rotating presidency in 2014. These are all significant developments that pave the way for greater engagement with international businesses, UN Specialized Agencies, international financial institutions like the World Bank, and NGOs.

Significant international attention for Myanmar has been a long time coming, and it remains unclear if this is yet another false summit. But, if outside support for Myanmar is prolonged, it could reshape the future for a long-suffering people, a stagnant economy and the country’s abundant natural resources. More about that soon.

(Image: Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Burma. Source: WikiMedia Commons.)

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