Could Myanmar (Burma) have Southeast Asia's first 'green president'?

President Thein Sein still has a long way to go in assuring citizens, investors, and international donors that the country is on the right track, but with the right development assistance, Myanmar has the chance to succeed in sustainable development where many of its neighbors have failed.

Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters
A journalist films near smoke from a sulfuric acid factory associated with a copper mine project at Sarlingyi township in Myanmar, Sept. 13. Op-ed contributor Colin Poole says that based on some of President Thein Sein's recent pro-environment decisions, Myanmar 'could become a regional model for linking environmental sustainability and economic growth.'

We are used to politicians and world leaders describing their intentions to put environmental concerns on their policy agendas. Sadly, we’re equally used to seeing them not deliver. Yet one world leader – Thein Sein, president of Myanmar (Burma) – is currently delivering on an environmental agenda almost unnoticed. Next week he arrives in New York to address the United Nations General Assembly.

In March 2011, when Mr. Thein Sein made his inaugural speech as president, few inside or outside of the country gave much credence to what he had to say. Observers were skeptical, especially in light of his past as a general in Myanmar’s military junta that ruled the country with an iron first for decades. Like all politicians, he promised a lot and, understandably, focused on issues such as ethnic reconciliation, economic reform, human rights, and fighting corruption. One pledge, however, was especially interesting to those of us who have long worked to support the environmental sector in Myanmar.

“We will lay down a new policy in which we will work for economic development in parallel with environmental conservation,” declared Thein Sein. Myanmar, he promised, would “pay serious attention to conservation of forests and woodlands and take measures in various sectors to reduce air and water pollution, control dumping of industrial waste and conserve wildlife.”

Just six months later, in September 2011, Thein Sein suspended work on the Myitsone Dam, a $3.6 billion project to be financed by China on the Irrawaddy River to provide electricity to China’s Yunnan province just across the border. Among the five specific issues he cited were the environmental concerns and the negative impacts on local livelihoods. A true mega-project, the dam would have been the 15th largest hydroelectric project in the world, creating a reservoir larger than the area of Singapore.

Then, in January 2012, the government cancelled a 4,000-megawatt Thai-financed coal-burning power plant. At a press conference announcing the decision, the minister of electrical power cited the “fear of the adverse effects on the environment.”

These were not one-off decisions. Green legislation mandating environmental and social impact assessments has been passed by the parliament. The old Ministry of Forestry has become the new Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry. And earlier this year, its minister – Win Tun – described to me plans for a new Department of Environmental Conservation, now being formed, empowered to implement the new laws.

This July, after President Obama eased sanctions on Myanmar to promote responsible investment there by US firms, President Thein Sein subsequently repeated to the British newspaper, The Financial Times, “we don’t want to have foreign or any investment in this country that will be damaging to the natural environment.” In a meeting later that month with US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Thein Sein committed Myanmar to becoming a signatory to the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative (EITI). The initiative's member companies and countries agree to implement a global standard for transparent about revenue from natural resources.

A steady stream of US and European politicians are now visiting Myanmar to observe the changes taking place first-hand and meet with Aung San Suu Kyi. And very soon, if political reform continues to move at its current pace, billions of dollars – both in aid funds and private investment – will start to flow.

With millions of people wholly dependent upon the country’s natural resource base, the environment sector is at the very heart of Myanmar’s future. The international community – and particularly key development partners like the United States Agency for International Development, the United Nations, and the World Bank – has an unprecedented opportunity to support and build a Myanmar-led process for sustainable development of the country’s vast natural resources.

The role of civil society organizations in supporting this vision will be critical. For decades, national and international civil society organizations with an environmental focus have been among the strongest advocates for environmental conservation in the country and have a wealth of experience that should be capitalized upon. With the recent reforms, after decades of oppression they and other civil society groups are finding their voices, growing in influence, and finding receptive audiences within government.

Of course, Thein Sein still has a long way to go in assuring citizens, investors, and international donors that the country is on the right track. but with the right development assistance, applied strategically, Myanmar has the chance to succeed in sustainable development where many of its Southeast Asian neighbors have failed. It could become a regional model for linking environmental sustainability and economic growth.

Perhaps, then, Thein Sein could become Southeast Asia’s first true “green president.” Far-fetched? Maybe. But who would have thought we would see Aung San Suu Kyi democratically elected to parliament and become the chair of a parliamentary committee to monitor and help implement the rule of law?

Colin Poole is based in Singapore as director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Regional Conservation Hub and has overseen WCS’s program in Myanmar since 2004.

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