Myanmar, also known as Burma, is famed for its natural beauty and rich, diverse cultures. Home to 52 million people from over 100 ethnic nationality groups, Myanmar is rich in natural resources, including vast oil and gas reserves, a variety of metals and minerals, precious gems, and lush rivers and forests. Along the banks of the country’s many rivers -- including the Thanlwin/Salween, the Irrawaddy, and the Mekong -- and throughout the country many indigenous peoples and ethnic nationality groups continue to rely on land and natural resource-based livelihoods.
For decades, the people of Myanmar endured atrocious human rights abuses at the hands of notoriously brutal military regimes. While recent reforms have lessened political oppression, other abuses persist, particularly in ethnic nationality areas and those rich in natural resources. With Myanmar’s borders newly opened and democratic reforms in process, international investment is soaring.
The accelerated pace of development has created new threats to Myanmar’s people and ecosystems. Under previous military regimes and a stagnant and isolated economy, the country’s natural resources remained relatively undisturbed, it’s countryside undeveloped. Now, communities in Myanmar are more vulnerable than ever to land-grabbing and forced relocation, as well as to the environmental consequences of development projects. Dozens of endangered species are also teetering on the brink of extinction.
To make matters worse, corruption and mismanagement of natural resources are continuing to route most of the benefits of development to a small elite in Myanmar, and to international investors. The people who suffer the negative impacts of Myanmar’s development receive few of the benefits.
What We're Doing About It
Since our founding in 1995, we have worked alongside affected communities to document the human rights and environmental impacts of large-scale development projects in Myanmar, to pursue legal and policy remedies, and to deter ongoing and future abuses. We have focused on monitoring the oil and gas sector, collecting difficult to obtain information from inside Myanmar on internationally financed energy projects.
In 1995, on behalf of local villagers from southern Myanmar, we filed our landmark human rights case, Doe v. Unocal, in U.S. courts. The case accused energy giant Unocal of complicity in human rights abuses related to the construction of the Yadana pipeline, including forced labor, rape and murder. A successful settlement in 2005, shortly before Unocal was acquired by Chevron, marked the first time an international human rights case had forced a multinational corporation to compensate victims and their families.
Long after the settlement, our fact-finding along the Yadana pipeline continued, and our advocacy helped reduce forced labor and other abuses during the latter phases of the pipeline project. Building on these successes, we’ve applied the same fact-finding and advocacy strategies to protect communities threatened by dams on the Thanlwin/Salween River (Southeast Asia’s longest free-flowing river), by the Shwe Gas Project, and by rampant development in Myanmar’s new Special Economic Zones (SEZs). We’ve campaigned for revenue transparency and for tougher accountability mechanisms, to break down the wall between those who profit from development in Myanmar and those who suffer its consequences.
Meanwhile, since 1999, our EarthRights School Myanmar has been equipping emerging civil society leaders with the legal tools and research and advocacy skills they need to promote and defend earth rights in their home communities. Working for grassroots organizations inside Myanmar and along its borders, our alumni have played vital roles in campaigns throughout the country, including to keep the Thanlwin/Salween River free-flowing, to assist villagers who have been displaced by new SEZs, and to suspend construction of the Myitsone Dam on the Irrawaddy River.
The effectiveness of the EarthRights School Myanmar has inspired the creation of two similar partner schools. In 2002, four of our graduates founded the Karenni Social Development Center. And from 2011 to 2014, with Dr. Cynthia Maung of the Mae Tao Clinic, we jointly operated the Health & EarthRights Training Center, training backpack health workers in human rights documentation.
We also provide trainings on human rights and environmental justice lawyering to Myanmar attorneys, legal practitioners, and civil society leaders in Myanmar and the Mekong Region through our schools, alumni networks, and legal network. We encourage these actors to find strategic ways to work together to assist communities affected by development.
For nearly two decades, we performed all of this work in exile from Thailand and the U.S., only travelling into Myanmar to conduct clandestine fact-finding trips. More recently, however, we have begun to operate inside Myanmar’s borders. During this time of rapid political and economic change, Myanmar has an incredible opportunity to set a new course and we work every day to ensure that Myanmar’s most marginalized communities aren’t left behind.