More than 1,000 activists from 17 townships in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state demanded the right to control the impoverished region’s natural resources — most notably oil and gas — during a protest in Kyaukphyu township on Tuesday, an event organizer said.
The Arakan Natural Resources and Environmental Network (ANREN), an alliance of roughly 30 Rakhine civil society and environmental rights groups that has organized other demonstrations and marches over control of the region’s natural resources, led protests on both Monday and Tuesday.
ANREN leader Kyaw Zeya Kyaw, who is a member of the organization’s People’s Resource Network, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that people staged the demonstration — now a biennial event since 2016 — calling for Rakhine state, and not the central government, to control its own resources.
The participants chanted slogans in support of Rakhine state’s rights over its land and natural resources and over the right to decide which development projects should be pursued in the region.
On Nov. 25, ANREN sent an open letter to President Win Myint calling for the halting of all development projects in Rakhine state, including the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone (SEZ) and the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project, until the country’s constitution can be amended.
The charter, drafted in 2008 by a former military junta that ruled the country, gives the central government ownership of all natural resources
The charter’s Article 37 specifies that the state owns all lands and natural resources above and below both ground and water, and states that the government can enact necessary laws to supervise the extraction and utilization of these state-owned resources.
ANREN also asked the president to suspend the development of offshore reserves in two blocks of a gas well until the country’s leaders are able to sign a nationwide peace agreement in which all ethnic armies and Myanmar forces would agree to stop fighting.
Excluded from benefits
Rakhine residents have long complained about the alleged exploitation of their land and natural resources and the uneven division of spoils from large-scale projects that have yielded little or no benefit to poor communities in need of infrastructure, health care, and education.
Kyaukphyu is home to a 4,000-acre SEZ that has a natural deep-sea harbor and abundant oil, natural gas, and marine resources as well as land for industrial development. Local residents have complained about the lack of benefits from the U.S. $2.5 billion Shwe pipeline project and deep-water port, which transports oil and natural gas from the country’s offshore reserves overland to China.
Rakhine residents have also decried the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project, a transportation corridor for shipping cargo from India's eastern ports to Sittwe seaport in Rakhine state and then on to northeast India via river and highway routes through Myanmar.
They say they have been kept in the dark about the project and excluded from its potential benefits, while activists have called attention to its negative impacts on the environment and on local livelihoods.
The exploitation and control of land and other natural resources, such as copper, jade, and amber mines, in peripheral minority-inhabited areas of Myanmar has fueled some of the country’s internal conflicts between ethnic armed groups and the national military.
ANREN staged the first protest in late November 2016, in which more than 100 activists marched from Rakhine’s capital Sittwe to Kyaukphyu, demanding that the central government give the state the right to decide and manage its own land and natural resources.
In the run-up to the protest, the group collected roughly 300,000 signatures on a petition calling for Rakhine state’s full control of its land and natural resources. The organization then delivered it to State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi’s office, the national parliament, and then-president Htin Kyaw.
At a press conference about the petition in September 2016, Oo Hla Saw, a lawmaker from the Arakan National Party who represents Rakhine state's Mrauk-U township in Myanmar’s lower house of parliament, said that Myanmar’s “civil war is a resource war,” the Myanmar Times reported.
The letter that ANREN sent to Win Myint on Tuesday noted that the central government has continued to ignore the demands of the Rakhine people.
Reported by Min Thein Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.