Rising Cases of Malnutrition Amongst Burmese Refugees Cause For Concern

Just last month the Washington Post reported that cases of malnutrition amongst Rohingya Muslims in many Burmese Refugee camps were, sadly on the rise Many citizens who have been forced to flee are having to live on the most scant and meagre rations imaginable – for some families bags of rice, chick peas and the occasional piece of fish were all they had to sustain them.

It is no surprise therefore, to learn that vitamin deficiencies are on the increase, with aid workers reporting a sharp increase in the numbers of children presenting with malnutrition. It’s estimated that between March and June cases doubled and this has been put down to the fact that many people have suffered worse than ever interruptions to supplies of food, clean drinking water and other necessary supplies.

In people who are already suffering from a multitude of other health concerns, vitamin deficiencies are yet another problem to deal with and at the present time it is not yet known how these issues can be dealt with quickly.

Some residents of the camps have tried to make the best of their lot, by setting up makeshift homes near rivers so they can supplement their other rations with a little fresh fish – however, this is in limited supply and is not immediately accessible to everyone. Fresh fish is one of the best sources of Vitamin D and can go a long way to help refugees who are suffering with their health. Some people have also taken to trying to plant donated seeds, in order to try and grow their own food while they are held. Whilst again, this is a good way forward, the food will not be immediately available and they must wait for plants to grow in order to harvest.

It’s clear that this situation is one that will not be easily resolved in the foreseeable future, for now, all many can do is watch and wait.

Addicted to the Drug Trade

Not too long ago, the British motoring-entertainment television series, Top Gear, had a two part special where the three main presenters drove across Burma to the border of Thailand. It wasn’t a particularly politically insightful view of Myanmar, but then again, Top Gear is a car show and does not pretend to be an in-depth analysis of the culture and challenges faced by the locals. What this particular Burma special of Top Gear does represent, however, is one of the occasional moments where the West pays some attention to Myanmar. These three presenters of Top Gear praised the beauty of the nation, commented on the oddness of the empty new capital, made nervous mentions of the violent conflicts in the region, and naturally, made many references to the Golden Triangle and drugs.

The Golden Triangle

The sad fact is that this outsider’s view of Burma as one of the world’s major sources of illegal drugs is not far from the truth. According to the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, Myanmar continues to be “a major source of opium and exporter of heroin”, and is apparently only second to Afghanistan in this illegal industry. The farming of opium and the export of heroin in particular is a huge industry in Myanmar, although the local drugs trade has also been recently diversifying into the production of methamphetamines. Over the last few years, there have been ongoing efforts to try to control the drugs industry, a process made very problematic by the large area that needs to be policed, the difficulty of controlling the drugs trade in territories where there is ongoing conflict, and the fact that illegal drugs are shipped out to so many different borders.

The Addicts

As difficult an issue as the control of the drug trade is in Myanmar, looking at the problem only from this international perspective is an outsider’s view, and forgets the local human element. The fact of the matter is that the drug trade is killing locals. You cannot be one of the world’s biggest sources of illegal drugs without having addicts in your own nation, and drug addiction is an increasingly costly and socially destructive issue in Burma. On top of that, the increase of heroin addicts has meant an increase of HIV transmitted through improper use of needles. It is not enough to fight the juggernaut of the drug trade in Myanmar, there also needs to be continued support for local communities so that they can help rehabilitate and treat those who suffering from addiction, particularly since it is often the young and the poor who fall prey to heroin.

Looking to the Future

That said, the drugs trade is incredibly difficult to dislodge. According to the last South East Asia Survey of Opium, it is estimated that some 190, 000 households in Myanmar are involved with the cultivation of opium, and very often the drug trade is a source of income for some of the poorest homes in the nation. As the political scientist Tom Kramer has put it bluntly: “The root cause is poverty. Access to health, education – if this is not addressed, you will not solve the problem”. No matter how well funded any policing operations might become, it is deeply unrealistic to expect to sweep aside this industry without giving Burma the chance to set up less damaging replacement industries that will allow workers to make enough money to survive.

The political reality is that the drugs trade can only be minimized when local businesses are set up that provides economic alternatives to the lucrative drug trade. If other nations are serious about reducing the production of drugs in Burma, then they have to become serious about supporting the development of local industries that have the longevity and competitiveness to replace the drug industry. This is not the same thing as bringing in foreign capital to set up business that will benefit international markets alone. Instead, investment needs to be used in direct co-operation with local communities to ensure that the economy is designed, directed, and developed by locals. Any system that ignores local needs is nothing more than a thinly-veiled attempt to grab cheap labor or resources by international corporations for their own profit, rather than for any real long-term benefit for the nation. Assisting Burma in building up their own local industries with an eye to long-term growth and stability is quite simply the best way to help the nation move away from this debilitating dependence on the drug economy.

It will be a long and difficult road, but ultimately, it is down to the international community to work with Myanmar to help them find their own solutions in order to break the nation’s addiction to the illegal drug trade.

Ethnic Minorities Unhappy with Peace Plan

Ethnic minority groups and their political leaders have begun to criticise the Norwegian-led peace plan for its lack of openness and transparency. The seriousness of the allegations against the plan was highlighted in a Democratic Voice of Burma article on Thursday, October 11. It led to the direct intervention of the Norwegian ambassador and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Naturally, the Norwegian ambassador who is leading the process has disagreed with this stance and has stated categorically that peace is the lasting objective of the plan.

When contacted by the Irrawaddy, Kjetil Elsebutangen stated that no one involved in the fund, either on the international front, from the national government or the ethnic minorities involved had asked for the fund to be suspended. He did, however, note that the Karen National Union or KNU were voicing concerns. He also noted the KNU will  be given time to have internal discussions before new developments and activities were initiated.

Founding of the Peace Plan

The aid plan known as the “peace fund” was launched in early 2012 by a group of nations and institutions including Norway, Australia, the United Nations, Great Britain, the European Union and the World Bank. It is known officially as the Myanmar Peace Support Initiative or MPSI. The Norwegian embassy has outlined the objectives as building confidence through ceasefire agreements, increase aid activities in affected areas, positive interactions between different groups and increase capacity building in terms of civil societies, communities and local government. The theatre for the majority of the organization’s work will be on the Thai-Burmese border where the majority of ethnic groups are clustered.

Cease Fires Announced

This news comes on the back of six-point peace plan announced last month. In September 100 ethnic minority leaders met in the Thai city of Chiang Mai to discuss with the government and other parties how to implement peace and enshrine the rights of ethnic minorities. A statement read out at the meeting said that those attending “do not believe that the peace plans from the government can implement peace in the country. Therefore, we formulated our own proposal which can build real peace.”

Development of the six point plan may have helped to bring up dissatisfaction with the MPSI project. The six points were to 1) host a meeting including all civil groups and ethnic armed groups, 2) an international community monitored meeting between government and ethnic armed groups, 3) referenda in each of the ethnic minority states to ratify any agreements made in dialogues, 4) a peace meeting for all ethnic groups, 5) tripartite discussions between the government, ethnic groups and democracy activists and 6) implementation of any ratified agreements made.

Peace and Openness Before Development

The evident worry for ethnic minority political leaders is that the group of western countries involved in the plan and the national government are using the peace plan as a means to develop the areas of land controlled or lived in by the ethnic minorities. This is to say that the peace is less important than the monetary benefits of development and business protection. For these people, this is an intolerable situation and one that actually jeopardises the long term peace that they are striving for.

It does raise the question, once again, of whether lasting peace and security for all Burmese, regardless of their ethnicity is being put forward as the top objective. From the beginning of the MPSI project, the Karen and Shan communities have been worried that the opinions, feelings and needs of all the displaced ethnic minority groups within Burma and those who have spilled over the borders will not be taken into account by the initiative.

Naturally, the mission is developing on the ground and events unfold. At the beginning of October, Arne Jan Flolo stated that documents would begin to be translated into all languages. While this is a good start, it is only a start. Key dialogue needs to occur that brings all the groups together, puts them on a common ground with the government and allows for some kind of intellectual and spiritual agreement on human rights, democracy, self-representation and peace before development begins. It is almost a case of making carts before you have horses or indeed, cars without petrol.

Ethical Investment is the Key to Long Term Success

Many people believe in the philosophy that money makes the world go round, and whilst this is certainly true to some extent, we all need to be very conscious about the impact that investing money into a country can have. Many large companies and investors look at countries such as Burma and they see development opportunity, untapped resources, cheap labor costs and low overheads. Whilst this may seem like a great set of credentials from a business perspective, the impact that large development projects can have on communities and ecosystems can be absolutely devastating.

International Investment Issues

There has been lots of debate within Burma in recent months about how best to move forward with the president’s office pushing for a new bill to encourage foreign investment into the economy. Whilst there are many obvious positive effects of international investment into one of the regions poorest economies, what needs to be included in these plans is a real and enforceable protection for local businesses, communities, and habitats. Historically, one of the major issues with international investment projects is that they are purely profit driven, and this can be extremely dangerous for the long term sustainability of a country.

There have been many previous examples across the world, where multinationals have agreed contracts to conduct mining, drilling, quarrying, logging, and chemical manufacturing (among other things), and have paid what seemed like very handsome amounts of money to do this. The problem is the social, economic, and environmental impact of these activities in the specific locations where these projects commence.

Putting the People First

One thing which is seems very low down on the agenda when governments make deals with huge foreign corporations is the negative long term impact that could be caused. For starters, the distribution of money and resources is often completely awry; small indigenous communities are often worst affected by activities, and are the least likely to receive adequate compensation for their loss of land, natural resources and disruption to their lives. In effect deals are made between the state and companies and the financial rewards seldom reach those most affected by the activities. This is not true in all cases, but is something that needs to be protected against in the future.

Evaluating the Cost of Development on the Environment

One thing which is absolutely vital for the long term prosperity of Burma and its people is that checks are put in place right now to balance the positive effects of inward investment with the negative effects of environmental and social devastation. Whilst international investors may be appearing to offer a good price for operating in the country, the long term effects should always be considered over up-front monetary rewards. Burma is extremely resource rich, and there are lots of opportunities for extraction of materials in order to raise funds for the economy, however if this is not managed correctly, the vast untouched natural regions could be destroyed with large amounts of the profits leaving the country without improving living conditions, health care or employment levels. Future Burmese generations should not have to inherit a land which has been ravaged by foreign investors.

Hope on the Horizon

With all that said, there are lots of positive initiatives occurring in Burma, where many businesses are going green and opting to invest in schemes which are both environmentally sustainable and are valuable for the local communities which are affected. Green initiatives and fair trade schemes are on the increase, and this is great news for all involved. It seems as if the Burmese president is looking at these issues with a fresh sense of perspective and is planning to lay out a framework for development which seeks to place economic prosperity and environmental conservation on a level par. Burma has a huge expanse of natural forestry regions, and if this is looked after in the right manner could become one of the most important natural areas in Asia. Destroying it for immediate financial gains would be a true disaster for the environment and for future generations. We can only hope that future development and investment in Burma is managed correctly and is conducted by those with a real interest in creating a positive future for the country and its people.