Over the past two years, tourists have been landing on Myanmar’s shores, eager to catch a glimpse of the scenic and cultural wonders in a country, long under the pall of a military regime, now freer.
Take Myanmar’s Myiek Archipelago. This appears to offer tourist bonanza waiting to be tapped. There are about 800 islands, many of which are uninhabited and others home to ethnic Moken or Sea Gypsies. The islands have rock pinnacles, coral fringes and lush vegetation, seemingly postcard perfect. Dolphins drop by for a look and the diving is said to be superb. So, with a potential resource like this, should Myanmar be looking to Thailand as an example and thinking they can mimic the tourist draw of the Koh Phi Phi islands?
Myanmar would be wise to take care. The Thai island popularized in Alex Garland’s “The Beach” and the movie is now over-developed. The beaches are overcrowded and noisy, the water is polluted and the mistreated local monkeys do bite. While there are laws in Thailand to promote better development in popular tourist areas, influential locals or outside businesspeople can often circumvent them. So, the money rolls in but there are big costs to the environment and big questions about who benefits the most.
As the potential for tourism in Myanmar rises dramatically, and unless the country wants haphazard and possibly unsustainable tourism, now is the time to improve infrastructure and make sure doing that doesn’t destroy the very environment its meant to promote, nor the livelihoods and culture of the inhabitants in such areas.
It is not a moment too soon, as sources close to major tourism businesses already speak of an ongoing boom since late in 2010. Visitor arrival numbers are at around 1 million per year and rising. A large percentage of arrivals – despite their tourist visas – have actually come to do business or check out business opportunities. But the number of tourists are said to have doubled over the last year, and at times it is difficult to find a hotel room.
There is recognition that significant structural hurdles lie ahead. As Yan Win, vice chairman of the Myanmar Tourism Board is recorded as pointing out, since the tourist numbers picked up in 2011, there are limits in terms of hotels and vehicles for transportation, not enough tourist guides, and a lack of basic infrastructure to accommodate the growing influx of visitors being welcomed to the country.
Doing things right
Myanmar needs all that and more. Even if more hotels get built and more roads get paved, other sectors of the economy will have to be ungraded. For example, most tourists get a little anxious about carrying buckets of cash around, and the fact that these should be completely unblemished US $100 notes add an extra burden. Wider credit card acceptance, plus ATMs becoming more prevalent and accessible to overseas visitors, will help.
But planners will need to tap very seriously into what is called “responsible tourism” so that building the nfrastructure doesn’t run amok and benefit t he few.
The term received its current definition in the form of a declaration issued at a side event to the 2002 World Conference on Sustainable Development held in Cape Town, South Africa. The declaration held that the responsible tourism is that which:
“…minimizes negative economic, environmental, and social impacts; generates greater economic benefits for local people and enhances the well-being of host communities, improves working conditions and access to the industry; involves local people in decisions that affect their lives and life chances; makes positive contributions to the conservation of natural and cultural heritage, to the maintenance of the world’s diversity; provides more enjoyable experiences for tourists through more meaningful connections with local people, and a greater understanding of local cultural, social and environmental issues; provides access for physically challenged people; and is culturally sensitive, engenders respect between tourists and hosts, and builds local pride and confidence.”
Since the 2010 general elections and the ensuing political thaw, there are those in Myanmar across the political spectrum, and in other walks of life who have taken notice of the need to promote tourism responsibly.
Business and development conferences have grown popular, and tourism is one subject receiving attention. In September 2011, Dr. Andrea Valentin, a tourism expert and founder of Tourist Transparency, went to Myanmar and gave a series of gave a series of workshops on responsible tourism as well as on how to address both positive and negative impacts in Burma. She spoke to representatives from the government’s Ministry of Tourism in Bagan, and gave a workshop to members of the National League for Democracy at their headquarters in Yangon.
Income and sustainability
This was followed by the First International Conference on Responsible Tourism in Myanmar, held at the International Convention Centre in Naypyitaw in February 2012. Two organizations sponsored the event. The first, Germany’s Hanns Seidel Foundation, emphasizes that its work in Myanmar involves activities that concentrate on capacity building in the context of a transition towards a social and ecological market economy, especially in the context of a development of a private sector. The other sponsor was the International Center for Responsible Tourism (ICRT), an NGO registered in the UK.
Workshops comprised the first two days. Twenty-two government ministries attended the one targeted at the public sector, while the Myanmar Tourist Board, a newly formed agency with offices in Yangon’s Trader’s Hotel, hosted a private sector workshop that brought together hotel owners, tour guides and other involved in the sector. Dr. Valentin and Harold Goodwin, Professor of Responsible Tourism Management at Leeds Metropolitan University in the UK and founder of the ICRT, were the keynote speakers. Other conferences have followed.
Exchange of ideas
Conferences of this nature are generally recognized as a good way to exchange ideas and offer solutions for the challenges facing Myanmar as it opens the doors to tourists, yet, at the same time, seeks to develop the sector sustainably.
Government players, such as Yan Win of the Myanmar Tourism Board, recognize the need for speed and the dearth of information when it comes to operating sustainably.
Win Oo Tan, the general manager of the Aureum Resort & Spa in Inle, recognizes that Myanmar had a lot of catching up to do. Many other countries in the world have been trying to implement the principles of responsible tourism for some time, he says, adding that Myanmar has a lot of catching up to do. He says that tourism development should provide equal opportunities and not just make people at the top prosperous.
Such high sounding words need translating down to the local level and they also need practical applications that, in essence, should maximize the benefits of increase tourism while minimizing the negative.
How this is handled is opened to debate. Khin Zaw, honorary advisor to the Union of Myanmar Travel Association has argued for a top-down approach, one in which the adverse impacts are minimized. He says this is the domain of the government, with the “The government will have to define ‘do’s and don’ts’,” he says. “This should not just involve the private sectors and small organizations but ministries also need to be involved.
Responsible tourism is not just for the rich. Local people need to borrow money so they can build guesthouses. I want them to obtain the benefits of expanded tourism. That’s why it is called responsible tourism.”
Smaller operators in the business have struggled at times to deal with an imperfect legal framework prone to corruption and abuses by the powerful. For example, in 2010 one guesthouse operator in Rakhine State complained of the need to pay excessive and repeated fees for licensing, especially for one that allowed him to receive foreign guests, the need to pay indirect bribes and also that the relatives of generals seemed to have little problem in building what kinds of hotels they wanted and where they wanted.
Emblematic of the failure to minimize negatives impacts, at many levels, were the choices made by the previous military government to “develop” the country’s premier attraction, the Bagan Archaeological Zone. Some 5,000 villagers were compelled to move away from the zone to an area with inadequate housing, so as to make the area more attractive to paying tourists. A golf course was opened in September 1995. Restoration work has been done poorly – the term ‘archaeological blitzkrieg has been voiced – using modern materials such as bathroom tiles and poured concrete. Amidst the pagodas the government constructed a 65-metre observation tower, severely impairing the visual integrity of the site according to UNESCO.
Need for planning
Critics complain about the military regime’s poor planning that favored friends of those in power. “Myanmar did not have effective tourism sector planning because our system was completely centralized in the past. So, both government officials and influential businessmen did as they liked,” says Dr. Nwai Aye Aye Wai, a director of Emerald Sea Resort in Ngwe Saung beach. He calls for cooperation between the government and the private sector to improve the situation.
Plans are underway to improve infrastructure and improve facilities, particularly with the SEA Games coming up at the end of the year, the country chairing ASEAN in 2014, and the general drive to bring in further democratic and economic reforms.
New roads, airports, hotels and the recent changes to visa policy will not guarantee, for example, that those islands in the Myeik Archipelago manage to keep their local environment and culture reasonably intact as the guesthouses go up and the banana pancake breakfasts get served.
Myanmar can learn from Koh Phi Phi or the degradation of Pattaya with its all too obvious sex trade. Despite Myanmar’s push for foreign currency, these examples of “Paradise Lost” should not serve as models to emulate.
Myanmar’s Shwe gas aids China’s bargaining with Russia
The controversial Myanmar-to-China gas pipeline may be enabling authorities in Beijing to stall on a multi-billion dollar Russian gas supply agreement while they try to bargain with Moscow for a cheaper price.
After eight years of wrangling, primarily over the price of hundreds of billions of cubic metres of gas to be supplied by Russian state-owned Gazprom, Moscow and Beijing moved close to a full agreement earlier this year. But in June it unravelled again, with China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) demanding that the gas price be linked with the so-called Henry Hub index – named after a gas pipeline system in the United States used for gas futures contracts on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
However, Gazprom refuses to accept pricing for its gas being linked to the index because it would be less than the price it wants. At the same time, Beijing knows that Russia is becoming increasingly dependent on energy exports and needs new markets.
Beijing’s sudden stall on a firm gas deal with Moscow coincided with the safe completion of CNPC’s 900-kilometre pipeline through Myanmar into southwest China. It will soon be pumping 12 billion cubic metres of gas per year from the Shwe field in Myanmar’s Bay of Bengal waters.
China has bought most of the verified 200 billion cubic metres of gas in two blocks of the field. Two more blocks have still to be explored, so the field could yield even more.
China consumed 147 billion cubic metres of gas in 2012, which was still only 4 per cent of the world’s total consumption and less than Japan and South Korea combined. But the International Energy Agency has predicted that Chinese gas consumption will reach 260 billion cubic metres a year by of the end of 2015.
State control of gas prices and other basic commodities as a means of controlling inflation has meant that national oil companies are often forced to sell imported gas at less than the price they bought it for on the international market.
If a Sino-Russian gas agreement is not finalised by the end of this year it will have “very serious regional and global implications towards gas trading business in the coming years,” senior research fellow Keun-Wook Paik at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies told M-Zine+ this week.
“Until 2020 China has secured sufficient gas supply, but during the 2020s there are many factors that could affect the large scale gas supply to China. When the second stage of LNG terminal development in China’s coastal provinces is completed, it could easily handle well over 60 million tonnes a year of LNG supply.
“The LNG import scale by CNPC is and will be much smaller than that of CNOOC [China National Offshore Oil Corporation]. It will be CNOOC that has to bear all the excessive LNG premiums, while CNPC has a number of supply options like domestic production and imported pipeline gas from the central Asian republics and Myanmar.
“CNPC’s dragging tactic [on a Russian deal] does not necessarily maximise China’s national consumer interest. Clearly this is an issue that has to be coordinated at the State Council level, not by CNPC,” said Paik, a specialist on Sino-Russian oil and gas issues.
With China’s conventional gas fields reaching peak production without new discoveries there has been much speculation about China reducing its import dependency by following the United States and tapping into its huge shale gas reserves. But the remote and deep locations of much of the Chinese shale, the lack of technical skills and pipeline infrastructure and the need for large volumes of water make it unlikely that this can be a short or medium-term solution.
An agreement with Russia is being further complicated by China seeking to win development contracts in Russia’s gas field development, CLSA Markets analyst Nelson Wang in Hong Kong told M-Zine+.
“The deal will be struck sooner rather than later as there is a huge supply gap to meet China’s surging demand and Beijing has to fix that. We are expecting the deal to be closed late this year or early next year. Forget about shale gas in China, it’s a non-event in China’s natural gas story as we won’t see any sizable flows before 2020,” Wang said.
Some analysts inside China think the Beijing government, ultimate owner of CNPC, could resort to coal rather than racking up more gas costs.
“If Gazprom asks for a high price, China does not have to import the gas as it could still fall back to use more coal, although this might not be ideal for combating the climate change issue,” the dean of the Academy of Chinese Energy Strategy at the China University of Petroleum in Beijing ,Wang Zhen, told Interfax.
Others speculate China may be stalling with Russia for other reasons.
“The big issue here is that such an agreement [on Russian gas] will require a huge capital investment in new pipeline capacity,” Christopher R. Knittel, professor of energy economics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States told M-Zine+.
“The value of this capacity, to Russia and China, depends heavily on the price of natural gas in China. So, if China is able to develop shale resources then it is possible building the pipeline would be a bad idea,” Knittel said.
“No one can say for sure, but I think this may be a big stumbling block for such a deal. If China does develop these alternative resources, a [Russian] pipeline does not make sense; if they can’t, then it does. Therefore, there is a big ‘option value’ for waiting.”
Most of Gazprom’s gas fields are in western Siberia nearly 3,000 kilometres from the Chinese border.
For Paik, however, a much longer wait on an agreement is not a healthy option for Beijing.
“It will be only a matter of time for the final agreement to be settled but it is difficult to predict when it will be inalised. Since 2006, Gazprom and CNPC entered into very intensive price negotiations, but no compromise was made even though the necessity was there. From the Chinese viewpoint, however, the necessity was not as strong as that of oil supply from Russia,” Paik said.
However, with 30 new Myanmar offshore blocks on the verge of being contracted to international developers, possibly including CNPC and CNOOC, perhaps Beijing sees a more pliable government in Naypyitaw as a better long-term solution than dealing with Moscow.
This article first appeared in the August 29 edition of M-ZINE+.
M-ZINE+ is a business weekly available in print in Yangon through Innwa Bookstore and through online subscription at www.mzineplus.com
Thailand’S raised minimum wage is causing Thai fishing boat captains heartache. Myanmar migrants who man the boats are trying when they can to escape to what they think might be better and safer opportunities in Thai factories.
Thai PM Yingluck Shinawatra has full-filled an election pledge and instituted a minimum daily wage of 300 baht in the country. While this may benefit many lowly-paid workers, it has also led to the shedding of jobs by companies and workers being forced to work harder and longer for their pay.
Thailand’s fishing fleet is facing a manpower crisis, partly because of the lure of higher pay elsewhere but also because of the industry’s bad reputation.
Contrary to the image of Thailand being a “Land of Smiles,” the reality of work for Myanmar migrants on the boats is one of bad treatment, even murder.
As one former Myanmar migrant fisherman put it, “Burmese fishermen dies like dogs and pigs on Thai fishing boats.”
A recent UN study reported that 59 percent of surveyed migrants who had been trafficked onto Thai fishing boats had witnessed a fellow worker being killed by the boat’s captain or senior crew members.
Most of the migrants are tricked into working on the boats after applying for what they had hoped would be lucrative work in factories or in the logging industry.
It’s tough being a sailor at the best of times, but for Myanmar migrants, they are lucky if they survive the experience.
Myanmar migrant Wan Yan counts himself lucky to be alive. At the age of 16, he fled poverty in Myanmar in search of work and was lured to join the crew on a Thai fishing boat with promises of good pay. It was two years before he could place his feet back on dry land.
Wan Yan’s story is one of thousands that typically remain untold. The Thai fishing fleets rely almost exclusively on Myanmar and Cambodian migrants, typically working illegally. It is an industry cloaked in murky dealings, with horror stories of long hours, bad conditions and abuse, and one that is proving hard to police.
Jim Wickens is a film maker with the UK-based Ecologist Film Unitwho penetrated the hidden world of migrant workers at sea. In his documentary, “Grinding Nemo: What’s the real cost of your prawn curry?” Wickens surreptitiously got access to the boats and migrants – mostly from Myanmar - struggling to work.
Working undercover for the Ecologist, he managed to board several trawlers fishing offshore. According to the film and story by Wickens, they were told of captains force-feeding amphetamines to half-starved crew members, the routine killing of crew who complain, and Myanmar migrants leaping from the backs of vessels in suicidal bids to escape the torment of life at sea.
One man Wickens spoke to talked of a killing he witnessed: “The captain took his gun and shot him until he fell off the boat. He fell in the gap between the two boats. He didn’t die right away, he tried to come up, but the captain just gave him another shot until he sank away... I’ve seen this happen twice,” he said.
Wickens told Mizzima Business Weeklythat there was no camaraderie that you might find on a small boat. This was essentially apartheid at sea, a Thai captain and his crew lording it over the fishermen. Treatment of the deck hands is poor. And it was hard to get a clear picture of how many fishermen were beaten, or worse, killed, he said.
Wan Yan’s case reflects the experience of many. “Every time I saw the mother ship come, I would cry because I wanted to go home,” he told the Ecologist, referring to the large supply boat. “But I couldn’t because they wouldn’t let me.”
Taken to fish hundreds of miles out at sea in the Indian Ocean, he was continually trafficked between vessels, his only contact with the outside world was the supply boat that would bring food and fuel and carry the fish back to Thai ports.
Even those allowed to return to shore may find themselves locked up, waiting until the boat sets sail again.
Wickens and his film team met and interviewed a number of Myanmar migrants on the boats, as well as some who had escaped and were only willing to talk under cover of anonymity.
Not all migrants are treated badly but there are many stories of abuse.
There have been alarming cases where complaints over pay or working conditions have been met with collusive responses that involved three types of people: fishing company or ship owners, local gangsters as enforcers, and police or immigration officials. The results for some Myanmar migrants have been beatings, occasional deaths, and deportations. The police typically claim they are not involved and that any problems in the past have been sorted out and the bad apples dismissed from the force.
Surveys, interviews and anecdotal evidence suggests Wan Yan’s case was fairly typical. As he said, he was seasick all the time but had to continue to work as the captain carried a gun and it was impossible to say no to him. It was only because the boat began to leak that the boat returned to port.
Vulnerable to abuse
A crucial part of the problem is the vulnerability of migrants minus papers, like Wan Yan. In total, there are estimated to be around 2 million Myanmar migrants, in addition to other nationalities, working illegally or on temporary work papers. Many are vulnerable and have no choice but to take what is on offer as far as work and pay and keep quiet. All it takes is a phone call and they can be taken away for deportation with others being hired in their place.
Fishing boat captains and their owners know that there is lack of efficient policing at sea. Plus fishing is getting tougher as stocks are depleted and boats and their crews have to go on longer voyages. As the Ecologist points out, many boats seek to catch whatever they can, with nets that in effect vacuum up the oceans with young fish caught in the catch, a practice that is illegal. As the report points out, few people dining in the United States or Europe realize that the prawn curry they may be eating comes at a substantial cost, both in terms of the treatment of labour used and in the young fish that are ground up to make feed for onshore prawn farms.
Those most likely to end up on the Thai boats are Myanmar and Cambodian migrants desperate for a job and often tricked into joining up, expecting good wages, some not expecting they will be going to sea.
Phil Robertson, an expert maritime labour issues and the author of a report for the International Migration Organization, entitled, “Trafficking of Fishermen in Thailand,” says Myanmar migrants are in demand because Thais tend to steer clear of working as fishermen in the wake of the 1989 Typhoon Gay tragedy that saw the sinking of 200 fishing boats, 458 deaths and over 600 missing, presumed dead. Compounding the problem is scarcity of fish and increased competition. Plus the message has got out to the many local Thai migrants, who often come from the country’s relatively poor Northeast – stay clear of the fishing boats.
“One of the things that has propelled trafficking of Myanmar fishermen on Thai fishing boats is that the Thai boats are going much further than they did before,” Robertson told Mizzima Business Weekly. “Given the abusive labor conditions and the propensity of fishing captains to cheat workers out of wages, no one wants to voluntarily sign up for a tour that will take four to five years – which is the amount of time some of the boats take to go to and remain in Indonesian waters, or even further, to Somalia, or off the coast of Yemen. So, increasing competition for ocean fish stock also causes greater demand for trafficked men and boys from Myanmar to serve on fishing boats.”
Robertson’s investigations reveal the harrowing conditions that Myanmar and Cambodian migrants face on the boats, similar to those faced by Wan Yan.
“The conditions are brutal and deadly. Fisherman are forced to work day in and day out, often 20 or more hours per day, and face severe beatings if they falter, fall asleep, or are seen to not be working as hard as the captain and first mate think they should. In Indonesia seas, boats can be out at sea and working consistently for 45 days in a row before coming back to port. In other places, I was told about ‘sea prison’ – where trafficked fishermen are transferred from a boat returning to port to another boat staying at sea, and this happens time and time again so that these fishermen may not see land, or have a break from their brutal treatment, for years.”
Dealing with the problem
The Thai authorities have said they are trying to deal with the problems besetting the fishing industry. But it is hard to see any positive progress. The International Migrant Organization report makes recommendations for actions to solve the problem of trafficking on Thai fishing boats including developing a legal and regulatory framework, prevention measures, and ways to prosecute in the case of bad treatment.
According to Robertson, the Thai government is not seriously considering any of these except the proposal for hiring reform, through a hiring hall arrangement, – “but unfortunately, I predict that will be a situation similar to the fox guarding the chickens, since the Thai government appears to be ceding day to day operational control over the proposed centers to the National Fishing Association of Thailand, an employers’ group which has a checkered record in dealing with the issue of human trafficking.
For years, they have denied that it was happening, and now they are suddenly part of the solution – looks like the prescription for a whitewash of the situation to me, without likely really improvements occurring.”
Andy Hall is an expert on migrant issues. He says there has been little effective antitrafficking and anti-exploitation programs enacted by the Thai authorities to genuinely address and improve the appalling situation of migrant workers, particularly from Myanmar and Cambodia, but also from Thailand itself and other countries, being blatantly and systematically abused on Thai fishing boats in Thai waters and outside of Thai waters.
He says there has been a positive development in the drafting and enactment of a fishing regulation to bring these vulnerable workers more clearly within Thailand’s labor protection laws (Labour Protection Act 1998), but enacting more legislation is one necessary step, as without enforcement and addressing wider systematic abuse factors like poor recruitment practices, broker exploitation and law officials’ abuses of power, the legal changes will be meaningless in practice.
There has been little sign so far that the Thai Government is addressing this problem as seriously and urgently as they should be, says Hall, given the amount of global export from Thailand of seafood products but also in view the global campaigns on trafficking and migrant abuse. There has not been enough pressure placed on Thailand by international consumers and governments who receive Thai fish also, he points out.
He says it is very difficult to address such challenges as the industry is essentially in practice not regulated, boats are not registered, workers are not registered, and these boats often travel to far away waters.
In addition, there continues to be no clear line of responsibility for related and overlapping authorities to take action on this issue. A serious overhaul of the fishing sector is needed, as is the recruitment processes used to find the much needed workers.
Migrants steering clear?
Although migrants from Myanmar like Wan Yan still appear to be seeking work on Thai fishing boats, the word may be getting out that it is far from a path to riches. The Thai fishing industry is struggling in terms of manpower, and with opportunities in Myanmar improving, though at slow speed, the longterm prognosis for people to man Thai boats is likely to grow bleaker. Hence action is needed.
Migrant workers from Bangladesh are said to be being brought in to ease the problem of labor shortages in the Thai fishing industry, to the tune of tens of thousands of workers. Whether or not the employment of Bangladeshi workers on fishing boats will receive due oversight remains to be seen. Judging by the record so far, the prospects do not look good.
As Wan Yan said, he and his fellow fishermen did not dare claim their salaries when their boat eventually did arrive in port. Those who complain, it is said, are often the ones who end up dead in the sea.
This article first appeared in the August 22 edition of M-ZINE+.
M-ZINE+ is a business weekly available in print in Yangon through Innwa Bookstore and through online subscription at www.mzineplus.com