Although the human rights abuses carried out by Myanmar's military are widely known, the harm done to the country's environment is frequently neglected. Since assuming direct power in 1988, the military junta has been conducting an unrelenting assault on Myanmar's flora and fauna.
Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, has been called the last frontier of biodiversity in Asia. But many species are now endangered as a result of pipeline and dam projects, and of mining and logging policies carried out by the Burmese military. And the junta's environmental practices have significantly harmed the health and quality of life of the Burmese people, particularly women and children. . The military keeps a tight rein on information, banning public discussion of environmental issues and punishing those who try to question its policies because the regime's own survival rests on the exploitation of the country's natural resources. The generals have allowed massive logging and the construction of gas pipelines and other development projects that have caused serious damage to the environment. Teak forests that have provided livelihoods for many ethnic minorities are being rapidly destroyed by Thai loggers, causing floods and landslides, and threatening the survival of endangered animal species.
.Uncontrolled fishing by Thai companies to whom the junta gave fishery concessions has led to the impoverishment of the people from whole villages who depend on this activity as their only sustenance.
.The worsening economic situation of affected families lowers Burmese children's health and nutrition rates, which are already among the lowest in Asia. More than one million children are malnourished, 9 percent to 12 percent of them severely so. . The current most significant cause of environmental destruction is the Yadana natural gas pipeline. In Myanmar, the pipeline cuts through rich ecosystems, disrupting the natural habitat of rare animals. In Thailand, the pipeline goes through an important rainforest, threatening the survival of endangered wild elephants. . In addition to the environmental damage, the construction of the pipeline has been linked to human rights abuses. On Monday, lawyers for Unocal, which is building the pipeline, announced that an agreement in principle had been reached to compensate 14 anonymous villagers who sued the California-based company in U.S. state and federal courts, claiming it should be held liable for enforced labor, murder and rape by the Burmese military during the pipeline's construction. Unocal has denied that abuses occurred.
.What can be done to alleviate the serious attacks on the environment by the Burmese military? All sectors of society, particularly ethnic minority groups, should be brought into a broad discussion of environmental issues as a preliminary step to developing safeguards for environmental protection. International assistance should be provided to indigenous grass roots organizations, which have been working intensely for the protection of the environment. . At the same time, an agreement should be sought between the government and environmental organizations on a set of priority actions to be implemented together, such as detailed environmental assessments that take into consideration the views of the affected communities.
.The outcome of Myanmar's environmental problems, however, depends on its military rulers. As Yuki Akimoto, an attorney with Earth Rights International, has said, "Until those who are exploiting Myanmar's environment begin to prioritize ecological protection and respect for human rights, the future of the country's natural and human resources will be grim."
César Chelala is the author of Impact of the Environment on Childrens Health, a publication of the Pan American Health Organization.
© 2004 IHT