From 16-18 February 2018, academics, researchers, and civil society convened in Mandalay, Myanmar for the 2nd International Conference on Burma/Myanmar Studies hosted by the University of Mandalay in conjunction with Chiang Mai University. This three-day event gave participants an opportunity to present their most recent research on all things related to Burma/Myanmar, from the effects of hydropower construction on the country’s rivers and communities, to health trends of Burmese migrants in northern Thailand. For full details on the conference and to download all the abstracts for the presentations detailed below, please follow the link. CSDS Researchers convened three separate panels during the event, and supported Salween fellows and visiting researchers to present on the panels.
The first CSDS session, convened by Carl Middleton, focused on the sometimes-drastic changes that are now taking place in many of the sites within the Salween Basin as the effects of hydropower and land development transform communities and livelihoods. With a session title of “Local Livelihoods and Change in the Salween Basin,” four researchers from the Salween Fellowship program (Dr. Mar Mar Aye, Dr. Khin Sander Aye, Hnin Wut Yee and Dr. Cherry Aung) presented findings from their research. Satellite imagery was used in Dr. Khin Sander Aye’s research to show how forest and agricultural land cover was changing due to a lack of management and conservation, and the negative impacts this was already causing in community’s local economies and individual livelihoods. Similarly, Dr. Cherry Aung’s research focused on how new developments on the Thanlwin River, and in particular its estuary, were affecting natural ecology and fish populations, where the drastic decline of fish populations (some have even gone extinct) is causing major problems for the people and economies that depend on them. Dr. Mar Mar also used an analysis on how plants are being tapped for their medicinal purpose and how the changes in this practice is effected by development projects and economic improvements in the study area. Fellow Hnin dived deeper into the hydropower development debate by looking specifically at how women are not only impacted by these new plans, but how they are (or are not) included in decision making processes that will have major impacts on their lives and livelihoods.
In the afternoon, Vanessa Lamb convened a session that looked at the cultural and political implications and transformations of the Salween River and the communities that are located on or around it. Civil society member and research fellow John Bright presented on how the traditional understanding of human rights as well as a lesser known frame of cultural rites could be used to increase participation and decision-making power of local communities that are most effected by river developments, concluding with a presentation of the Salween Peace Park concept that has been growing in popularity among many involved in the riparian debate. Similarly, Alec Scott, co-authoring with Carl Middleton, analyzed river developments from a frame that recognizes that there are multiple pathways in the debate, further complicating the not-so-simple debate by bringing in more actors and viewpoints on the benefits or damages created from hydropower developments on the Salween River. Visiting CSDS Research Fellow Joanna Göetz took a step back from the normal conversation to question the current definition of water and scale in the governance conversation. By redefining the debate and understanding of these concepts amongst various actors (both state, government and citizen), she argued that this could have very important implications for future development, most of which would not be positive for the everyday person. Finally, Dr. Vanessa Lamb took a look at flooding, and how various communities, particularly those who practice riverbank gardening, utilize and harness monsoon flooding, shining a new spotlight on how we understand disaster narratives and some uncovered truths behind them.
The last of the sessions organized by CSDS was that of “Development and Transition in Myanmar: Exploring a New Political and Economic Landscape Since 2010,” led by Dr. Nauremon Thabchumpon where panelist delved into discussion about change and future implications of such transformations. This session took on a more formal and technical tone, with panelists looking at specific development projects, laws and finance structures and how they are creating new status quos and relationships in the political and economic sectors. Looking at newly established legal and political reform, Wolfram Schaffer used various case studies to demonstrate his argument that rather than state-building, recent changes in governance and rule-of-law are resulting in greater trans-nationalization between Myanmar and its neighbors, particularly given increased bi-lateral development projects and trade in the region. Nattapon Tantrakoonsap from Chulalongkorn University's Institute of Asian Studies took the recent case study of the Mandalay-Ruili Road Connection project to highlight Myanmar’s new and growing relationship with China, as well as the fact that this relationship is not static but rather one that continues to change as its border situation, forest policy and special economic policy continues to alter course. MAIDS alumni Zaw Aung also used the country's current development policies and plans to determine how these were resulting in economic transitions both for the post-military government as well as the nation, a transformation which has important implications for the citizens of Myanmar who are eager for change and prosperity. With the return of the civilian government (the first in 50 years), the economic effects of a growing democracy and liberalization of the markets could spell success if enacted correctly, or financial disasters for millions. Dr. Naruemon Thabchumpon also focused on the effects of economic changes on the democratic transition and how these trickled down to effect the public sector and the growing civil society movements. Her presentation made the case that these transitions in both the economic and political spheres were resulting in expanded spaces for the public sector and civil society participation in the democratic movement, but not without a sleuth of challenges that comes with such a transformation. Lastly, a presentation by Carl Middleton on work conducted with Naruemon Thabchumpon, Fransiskus Adrian and Tarmedi Surada Chundasutathanakul discussed how the road link project of the Dawei Special Economic Zone (SEZ) has sparked and transformed conflict among communities on the project's route, and threatens local livelihoods and ways of traditional life. While power structures continue to grow asymmetrically, mainly benefitting the state and project developers, new spaces are appearing in which the public and civil society can challenge the current narrative.
Lastly, in a separate panel that had a focus on Chin State, Dr. Carl Middleton presented his research on water insecurity in Hakha town, Chin State, Myanmar, culminating the over year-long field research that was conducted there. With a growing population and decreasing peace and resources, accessible and clean water for all is of major concern for the region and the town is making due with community water groups and small-scale private activities. The research presented uncovered that structural violence, not just population growth, was a major factor behind the decline of water security in Hakha Town, so matters of justice actually stand to be addressed on top of traditional water governance methods.