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Across Arakan State there are many different types of terrain and diverse ecosystems. From the mountainous forests of the Arakan Roma to the estuaries of the Kaladan and Laymro rivers, a wealth of flora and fauna unique to the region can be found. Sadly, in recent years many species have been threatened by the government's commercial exploitation of Arakan State's valuable natural resources.
The most significant damage has been inflicted on the rivers, especially the Laymro and Kaladan. These rivers are home to thousands of species of fish, many of which have never been studied. The point at which the estuaries of the Kaladan and Laymro converge is surrounded by one of the world's most fertile plains; this area covers approximately 3,640 square kilometres from upper Kyauktaw Township to Sitetway, and is ideal for rice production. Over 85 % of Arakan State's cultivated farmland is located along the valleys of these rivers.
In recent years, a number of projects have been planned to commercially exploit Arakan's waterways. These projects will bring in revenue for the government, while devastating the environment and directly precipitating major human rights violations. The most notable of these projects are the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Facility, the Laymro hydropower dam and Shwe Gas and Oil Pipelines to China.
If these projects go ahead, extreme environmental damage will almost certainly occur, as the military government has historically practiced a policy of complete disregard for ecosystems, biodiversity and the migratory paths of important species. Even the smallest change to delicate ecosystems such as these can cause a long series of unpredictable changes, forcing villagers to adapt their lifestyles impossibly quickly, causing starvation and disease among those unable to adapt. We expect to see the following:
Destruction of mangrove forests and shrimp farms along the Arakan coast and in the river estuary
Extermination of numerous marine species, many of which are essential sources of food for locals, throughout the Kaladan River systemWidespread deforestation to make way for river modification and the Paletwa of Chin State – Mizoram highway
Blocking the access of fish species to the ocean and to spawning grounds, leading to the depletion of fish stocks and eventually extinction
Degrading natural habitats by altering river currents and decreasing oxygen levels, encouraging superfluous weed and algae growth
Causing trees and plant life to rot in the newly-made reservoir, releasing massive amounts of greenhouse gases
Flooding – Due to bad planning, similar projects in the past have led to the destruction of thousands of homes during the rainy season
Less famously, Arakan is home to a number of ancient hardwood forests, most of which are located in the Arakan Roma mountain range. These forests are home to many endangered species such as elephants, tigers, rhinoceroses, hornbills and various species of giant turtle – the latter two of which are close to extinction.
Over the years, the Burmese military regime has sold logging concessions for these areas to foreign countries and businesses, which has had a series of environmental impacts on the region. Encroachment on forests has disrupted the habitats, and thus the lives, of many wild animals, a number of which are considered to be endangered species internationally. The rapid change of terrain has triggered damaging knock-on effects in rural areas. In the absence of forests, floods have occurred more frequently, destroying crops and possessions, and in the worst cases forcing people to leave their farms and homes. In other areas logging has had the opposite effect, provoking long droughts.
In addition to the lack of participation, the mismanagement of Burma's economy, and human security concerns, there are significant environmental concerns with the proposed oil and gas pipelines to China.
Sea-based sources of pollution by oil spills from tanker traffic, and from oil exploration and production, threaten the healthy and largely intact ecosystem of the Arakan coast and living marine resources and habitats in the Bay of Bengal. Approximately 400 million live in the Bay's catchment area, many subsisting at or below the poverty level. The coastal and offshore waters of the region support numerous fisheries of great socio-economic importance to the countries bordering the Bay and provide for direct employment of over two million fishermen.
There are several environmental dangers involved in the commercial production and transport of natural gas including the leakage of chemicals used in the drilling process as well as potential gas blowouts. Once they reach the seabed, drilling wastes that include volatile organic compounds rob the water and bottom sediments of oxygen and as a result kill large proportions of life on the ocean floor, including shellfish beds. Toxic brine generated in the exploration process is also often dumped on or offshore.
Mangrove forests provide a vital natural protection against cyclones, storm surges, and tidal waves. The world has become painfully aware of the dangers of mangrove destruction after the 2004 Asian Tsunami and Burma's cyclones Nargis in 2008 and Giri in 2010. The Arakan (Rakhine) mangroves, a subset of the Myanmar Coastal Mangroves, are important for coastal protection in an area that frequently suffers from monsoon storms. They are also recognised for their biodiversity. The area, until recently 60,000 square acres in size, has already been devastated by the establishment of shrimp farms, harvesting of firewood, and infrastructure development for oil exploration in the onshore Block M. The pipeline construction cutting through the mangroves will cause further destruction and make the people of Arakan State more vulnerable to damage from cyclones and storm surges. The development of an oil terminal in Kyaukphru that includes oil tanker traffic and oil storage facilities also put the mangroves and local marine life and wildlife at risk if there are any spills or improper discharge of waste.
Arakan's coastal mangroves are part of the biologically diverse Arakan wetlands, one of the last wintering grounds of the critically endangered spoon-billed sandpipers. An international research team performing one of the first surveys of the Arakan coast in 2008 found 84 of the unique birds as well as several other globally threatened species, including Indian Skimmers and Sarus Cranes. The team noted that the coastal zones are currently largely healthy ecosystems. This all may change soon, however, as this area is slated to support an oil terminal and storage facility, central processing platform, onshore gas terminal, and the beginning of the trans-national pipelines. 442,000 barrels of oil will be off-loaded at the coastal port per day. A spokeswoman from BirdLife International noted that in order to save the spoon-billed sandpiper from extinction we need to identify and conserve not only its breeding sites, but its migration stopover sites, and wintering grounds too. This may never happen, as a critical habitat for an unknown number of species may be ruined before it has been adequately studied.
Since 1988, the number of infantry battalions based in the Western Command, an area that includes Arakan State and Paletwa Township of Chin State, has increased from 3 to 43 battalions as of 2006. Furthermore, there are ten specialized battalions (such as engineering and communications), three tactical command centres, and three navy bases. The Western Commander, headquartered in the town of Ann in Arakan State, controls many of the lucrative businesses in the state as permission is needed for any licensing and procedures.
As in other areas of Burma, the arrival of more troops or battalions in Arakan State has also brought increased forced labour and land confiscation to make way for barracks, outposts, and other military infrastructure. Extortion and violence against ethnic nationalities' and women have also increased. As a result, there has been no freedom of movement, assembly, speech, press, etc.
Forced land confiscation without any compensation is commonplace in Arakan, especially where development projects are being implemented by the Burmese government and foreign corporations. There are currently many development projects happening in Arakan State such as the Shwe Gas Project, Kaladan Project, and several hydropower projects, which have led to land confiscation and forced relocation. As long as the expansion of the military in ethnic states of Burma continues, land will be forcibly confiscated with little or no compensation being given to the owners. The land confiscated is used to house barracks, outposts and training sites for the troops. Furthermore, considerable areas of land are confiscated for farming and gardening in order to supplement rations and generate additional income for the troops.
The State policy of increasing troop deployments has caused many ethnic villagers to flee, abandoning their land and property in the process. Even those who remain are often forced to abandon traditional customary land practices, as they are forced to grow crops or use techniques unsuitable for the land under cultivation.
As one of the least developed states throughout Burma, communication and transportation are major obstacles in Arakan State. Due to a lack of infrastructure and strict regulations on information transfer by the government, many Arakanese remain isolated from other areas of Burma and the outside world.
Communication devices, like mobiles and hand phones, are very costly for most people in Burma. Arakanese, particularly youth, tend to use the internet for their method of communication, especially when contacting those overseas, as well as for other opportunities, such as furthering their education and employment. Although the internet is generally accessible, local authorities often impose restrictions on internet cafes in Arakan State to prevent users from sending information and photographs of local life and political activities inside the country. Similar to other states in Burma, communication in the rural areas of Arakan State is worse than in the cities, as infrastructure is not as developed.
For the majority of Arakan's population, rivers are the primary means of transport due to the poor conditions of roads; therefore, waterways frequently serve as a lifeline for rural people to get access to essential goods and markets. In Arakan state, boats travel up and down the rivers selling and trading fire wood, bamboo as building material, and fish and farming products such as rice, fruits and vegetables. In addition to transportation, these waterways provide irrigation, potable water, and fish stocks, supporting millions of livelihoods all over Arakan State.
Throughout Arakan State's modern history, numerous development projects have been undertaken to support the military and bring in revenue for the regime. No opportunity to participate in, criticize, or oppose these projects has been available to local people, most of whom barely know the meaning of democracy because they have been denied it their entire lives. Despite a raft of sanctions imposed by the developed world, projects such as these have become more common than ever in recent years as the regime has been able to attract investment from its energy-hungry developing neighbours, who have been willing to ignore the government's appalling record on human rights and economic management.
The most typical negative consequences of such development projects include forced labour, land confiscation, forced relocation and increased militarisation. An influx of military personnel to secure project sites, construction materials, and facilities leads directly to an increase in a wide range of abuses, such as unofficial "taxes", violence, extortion, and rape. Furthermore, the lack of military accountability means that all of these crimes can be committed by soldiers with near impunity. The regime also has a reputation for implementing such developments with total disregard for the natural environment and archaeological or cultural sites, many of which are invaluable to Arakanese cultural heritage and identity.
Below is a brief overview of a number of current projects and some of their negative impacts.
• Gas and Oil
Since 1988 the export of gas and oil has become a key source of revenue for Burma's military junta. A 1998 report by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) stated that the gas and oil was in fact the country's biggest legitimate earner, surpassed only by its flourishing narcotics trade. By their nature, gas and oil developments require sprawling facilities which occupy a lot of land, and can cause massive problems for citizens even in the world's fairest countries; in Burma, ruled by one of the world's most irresponsible and least accountable governments, the ever-growing oil and gas industry in Arakan State has devastated many people's lives.
• Shwe Gas Project
Natural gas extracted from the massive Shwe gas reserves off the coast of Arakan State is to be piped overland across Burma and into Southern China. In a project backed by firms from South Korea, India and China, the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) are building almost 4,000 km of gas and oil pipeline from the Arakan coast, across Burma, to Yunnan in southern China.
The Shwe Gas Project will have a series of devastating effects in areas already stricken with poverty and constant oppression by the military. It will bring in an estimated $30 billion USD for the government over the next 30 years, most of which will be spent further entrenching the government's military stronghold on the country.
Many people have already been forcibly relocated from their homes to make space for the project sites, while others have been subjected to forced labour under slave-like conditions on project sites or military installations for the battalions providing security to the project. Even in the most affected areas very few civilians are informed of the development despite the irrevocable damage it will have on their lives. The few that have learned of these plans and their consequences, and attempted to question or oppose the project have been routinely harassed and imprisoned for speaking out.
Further, significant damage is being done to the natural eco-systems on which villagers depend for their livelihoods, and to cultural and historical sites. As with all development projects in Burma, without a democratic government in place, local people have no say in what happens to their resources, lands, and livelihoods. Military expansion has become a common feature of Burma's political landscape in recent decades; this expansion has been funded with revenue earned by exporting energy from areas in which civilians experience extreme gas and electricity shortages, in total neglect of their needs.
• Oil Developments
The Indian firms Essar and the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) have begun drilling for oil in Arakan State's Ponnagywan and Sitetway townships, on land confiscated without compensation from the locals. Losses of thousands of acres of land have been reported by locals, who were given no warning prior to their evictions. There had also been reports from local sources of villagers being forced to work on the facilities without pay.
Seismic surveying has begun in several other inland and offshore blocks in Arakan, as foreign companies, mostly from China, South Korea, and India explore for still more deposits of gas and oil. Wherever more fossil fuel reserves are found, increased militarization and further abuses will inevitably follow. The AHRDO has begun investigation into these developments and will have more details soon.
• River Developments
In recent years, a number of projects have been planned to exploit Arakan's rivers. These projects will bring in more revenue for the country's ruling military junta while devastating the natural environment, severely damaging local livelihoods and contributing to human rights abuses. Among these projects are the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Facility and the Laymro hydroelectric dam. Between them, these projects have the potential to devastate the lives of millions of civilians who have no power to approve or reject such developments in a country without democracy.
• Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Facility
On April 2nd 2008 the Indian government signed an agreement with the Burmese military junta for the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Facility. The project will connect the eastern Indian seaport of Kolkata with Sitetway (Sittwe) port in Arakan State by sea; it will then link Sitetway to the land-locked region of Mizoram in north-eastern India via river and road transport. The project is divided into three phases, the first and second of which began in November 2010.
Phase 1 – The port at Sitetway will be redeveloped to accommodate larger vessels and an increased shipping volume. This will entail dredging the approach channel and the port area (~562,000 cubic metres of material) to facilitate 6000 ton ships, as well as constructing two jetties and extensive loading and storage facilities that will significantly expand Sitetway's current size and capacity. The larger 219 x 15m port jetty will be capable of handling 20,000 ton ocean freighters, and a 54 x 15m inland waterway terminal (IWT) jetty will cater to the smaller vessels that will use the river. At present, Sitetway's port consists of a 78 x 15m jetty and is appropriate for vessels of 2000-3000 tons.
Phase 2 – Dredging 158 km of the Kaladan River between Sitetway and Paletwa in Chin State. Another IWT terminal will be built at Paletwa for transferring cargo from river to road transport.
Phase 3 – Construction of a 129 km highway between Paletwa and the Mizoram border. Initial surveys and feasibility studies for the road were carried out by Indian authorities, concluding that "large-sized experienced construction firms of repute" would have to be hired to successfully implement the project. However in June 2009 it was decided that the highway construction would "be executed by Myanmar government departmentally".
According to the April 2008 Framework Agreement, the Indian government will bear the estimated $120 million USD cost and administer the project through the state-run Inland Water Authority of India (IWAI). The Government of the Union of Myanmar will provide for free all required land, environmental permission, and security, including security for all personnel and technicians. The project is expected to be complete by December 2013.
All three stages of this development will dramatically alter fragile natural eco-systems in areas where people are totally reliant on them. Along with the Laymro hydroelectric dam, and similar developments on other rivers in Arakan State, these foreign-backed government enterprises will further degrade the already ravaged homelands of the people of Arakan and Chin States. The AHRDO currently has ongoing activities to spread awareness of these river developments.
• Hydropower projects
The Burmese military regime has made plans for four hydropower developments in Arakan State; construction has already begun on three. If expectations are met, an estimated 691 megawatts of electricity will be produced and either exported to neighbouring countries or used by the Burmese military.
The large majority of this power will come from a proposed hydroelectric dam on the Laymro River. The dam will be built by a local company, Shwe Taung Ltd. and is expected to produce approximately 500 MW of power. Negotiations are still incomplete, but the Bangladesh government looks set to sign a deal with Shwe Taung Ltd. for any surplus electricity. Judging from previous projects, it is almost certain that any electricity produced and not exported will be used solely to power military infrastructure and for other projects in the region such as the Shwe Gas Pipeline.
The remaining 191 MW of power will come from three other hydropower developments: Sai Dun (70 MW), Tha Htay Chaung (111 MW) and Ann Chaung (10 MW). All three projects are currently under construction and are expected to be operational within the next few years.
People living or working along the river have been subjected to forced labour, land confiscation, compulsory and uncompensated relocation, torture and rape. If the Hydroelectric projects go ahead, these abuses will continue and become increasingly severe.
• Kyaukphru Deep-Sea Port and Economic Zone
The Burmese government is beginning to implement plans to construct a deep-sea port and economic zone with investment from Chinese corporations at the city of Kyaukphru on Ramree Island, off the coast of Arakan State. Under the agreement with China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), the project will include a large-scale crude oil unloading wharf and terminal at Kyaukphru port, along with oil storage and transportation facilities. On January 7, 2011, CNPC signed an agreement with Qingdao Port (Group) Co. Ltd. to build and operate the oil wharf. The facility will receive oil tankers arriving with Chinese-purchased oil shipments from Africa and the Middle East and will send the oil from the Kyaukphru deep-sea port to China's southern Yunnan Province via the China-Burma oil pipeline, which is currently under construction. China is planning to also construct a major railroad line to link Yunnan Province's capital of Kunming with the deep-sea port and special industrial economic zone. The rail line is expected to be completed in 2015 and will provide China's land-locked southwestern region with a trade outlet to markets in South and Southeast Asia, via Burma's ports.
A disregard for human rights related to Burmese-Chinese managed development projects on Ramree Island has already been documented, and it is expected that implementation of the Kyaukphru port project will be characterized by the same disregard for local stakeholders. During 2004-2005, the Sichuan Petroleum Geophysical Company, a subdivision of CNPC, conducted seismic surveys on Ramree Island as a part of oil exploration efforts on the island. The surveying, also known as test mining, was conducted on the property of landowners without their permission. The survey work left large holes in fields, destroyed crops, and left fields infertile, and no compensation for damage was provided to local farmers. As a result of the military government and project workers' disregard for local residents, in April 2007, frustrated local villagers who could no longer tolerate project-related abuses broke into a drilling site of the China National Offshore Oil Company on the island and destroyed oil-drilling equipment. Unfortunately, this example provides another case of the discontent and negative consequences that irresponsible development projects in Burma hold for both development companies conducting the projects and especially for the local residents affected by them.
• Sitetway - Ann- Minbu (central Burma) Railway
In February 2009, work began on the construction of a new railway line connecting the capital of Arakan State, Sitetway, to Ann, the headquarters of the Burmese military's Western Command, via six townships in Arakan State. Before work began, a large amount of land was unlawfully confiscated from civilians, and more confiscations have occurred since. There have also been many reports of the construction companies involved, most of which are connected with powerful military figures, not paying their workers. So far, the citizens of more than six villages have been forced to relocate, without any assistance or compensation from the authorities.
Construction of railroad in Mrauk-U began on November 7, 2010 and has already resulted in damage to ancient temples and pagodas in Myauk-U, a historic town in Arakan State that was built by the Arakan King Marm Saw Mon in 1404 A.D. Reports by local archaeologists indicate that there has been damage to the ancient city walls of Thabin Thae, Mungala Manaung, and Kyauk, pagodas on Thazuntan Mountain and the Praysoegree Pagoda, moats at Nga Kray AI and Rae Hla, the Prince Dam-Gate, and the Rae Hla and A-myint Taung fortresses. Reports also indicate that local residents were forced by the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) to destroy the palace of Arakan King Marm Saw Mon in order to construct a jatropha plantation. Residents have protested the railroad project and appealed to local authorities to stop construction. However, the project has continued without a response from the government.
Improved transportation is highly desired by many locals, since the roads in Arakan State are in such poor condition; therefore, in principle this project could improve their lives. However, with so few opportunities for business in Arakan, and indeed government policies that undermine rather than support markets and individual entrepreneurship, analysts believe that the railway will be used primarily by the military to maintain a stronger hold on the region. It has also been rumoured that proposals have been mooted for the construction of a new airport in Arakan State.
At this stage, information on these developments is limited but AHRDO is conducting an ongoing investigation into the situation and hopes to provide more information soon.
"A good education system is necessary for the long-term development of a country and we all are responsible to work for the improvement of the education system." (Source: Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, speech given on National Day, November 2002).
The healthcare system in Arakan State and throughout Burma is very poor. The military government spends anywhere from 0.5% to 3% of the country's GDP on health care, consistently ranking among the lowest in the world. Although healthcare is nominally free, in reality, patients have to pay for medicine and treatment, even in public clinics and hospitals. Public hospitals lack many of the basic facilities and equipment. In general, the healthcare infrastructure outside of Yangon and Mandalay is extremely poor but is especially worse in remote areas like Arakan State. The entire Arakan State has fewer hospital beds than the Yangon General Hospital. The following is a summary of the public health care system in the state.
No. of Hospitals
No. of Beds
General hospitals with specialist services
The health situation in rural areas of Arakan State is poor. Medicine is difficult to access and malnutrition from food shortages remains a problem. Some villagers including new born babies die of treatable diseases and maternal death during childbirth is common due to a lack of proper clinics and medicine.
Arakan State also suffers from high levels of illiteracy among children, as well as adults. Most of the village tracts have at least one primary school (class 1 to 4); although school attendance in remote areas is lower due to distance and lack of communication during the rainy season. Widespread poverty keeps many children from attending school as they are compelled to financially support their families, especially during the winter and summer seasons when students assist their families on their farms. Public education exists among higher level schools, middle school (grades 5 to 8) and high schools (grades 9 to 10), as well as self-supported schools, where students' families and villagers have to pay the teachers in cash and in crops.
Education levels are also worsened by the lack of teachers and teaching facilities in rural areas and the poor quality of teaching. Many teachers choose not to work in rural areas due to a lack of facilities and poor communication and transportation in the area. Teachers receive a negligible salary, compelling them to increase their income through other means.
There is only one university in Sitetway, the capital of Arakan State, and two colleges: Government Technological College (GTI) and Computer College. The only option for students from Arakan State is to study at Sitetway University, unless they are admitted to Rangoon University or another institution.
Education in Burma has been severely impacted by more than four decades of military rule. The military regime views potentially politically active university and high school students as one of the biggest threats to their grip on power, so all-non military education is treated as expendable. The regime has a fear of student movements, given the history of student movement in the past people's uprisings and as a result, the regime often shuts down the schools and limits the freedom of education. All civilian schools and universities throughout Burma suffer from a lack of resources and qualified educators, a problem found in many developing countries; however, unique to Burma is the fact that the ruling government actively tries to thwart universal and advanced higher education.
Due to the deteriorating levels of education available at government schools, students and parents are increasingly turning to other educational options when these are available. In Arakan State, a large number of students are reportedly leaving government schools to enroll in schools run by Buddhist monasteries. Many people in this area believe that monastic education is better quality and less expensive than education at state-run schools. There were approximately 500 students enrolled in just one monastery in Sitetway, the capital of Arakan State.
Only a small percentage of people in Arakan State who passed high school are able to pursue their higher education; although, the majority of students are unable to continue onto higher education for economic reasons. In order to support their families, many students have to quit schools to take jobs that do not require a high education level, sometimes migrating to other countries where there are more employment opportunities. Other students cannot attend universities because they have fled their homes or been imprisoned for political activities.
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