Lending a helping hand to Myanmar’s upland communities

Joern Kristensen is executive director of the Myanmar Institute for Integrated Development, which works in upland regions with large ethnic minority communities, many of which have suffered decades of civil conflict linked to the production and trafficking of narcotics.

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Published in Mizzima Business Weekly on 17 August 2014

Joern Kristensen, executive director of the Myanmar Institute for Integrated Development
Joern Kristensen, executive director of the Myanmar Institute for Integrated Development

Joern Kristensen is the executive director of Myanmar Institute for Integrated Development, a non-profit research and development organisation he founded in January. MIID’s focus is on economic development, natural resources management, heritage preservation, governance and social protection and it works mainly in upland regions with large ethnic minority communities, many of which have suffered decades of civil conflict linked to the production and trafficking of narcotics. These communities are dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods but have been affected by climate change, environmental degradation, food insecurity and a lack of social protection. Mr Kristensen, who has worked in humanitarian and development programs for more than 30 years, spoke to Mizzima Business Weekly’s Jessica Mudditt about his passion for improving the lives of some of Myanmar’s most vulnerable people.

Before establishing MIID this year, you served as a director of the Institute for International Development (IID) Myanmar for four years. Please describe the difference between the two organisations.

IID is an Australian-based network of consultants that operates in several countries. I supported the establishment of IID-Myanmar and assisted in directing a number of IID’s studies. Early this year, when IID’s directors decided to seek a partnership with a large international consulting company and to pursue bigger, commercial contracts, my staff and I felt the time was right to withdraw from IID and establish our own independent entity. However we continue to undertake projects for IID that are of mutual interest.

MIID focuses on Myanmar’s upland areas, where there are large ethnic minority populations who have often been affected by armed conflict and the production and trafficking of narcotics. How does MIID gain access to those areas, which are often not under government control?

Our field work is carried out in close cooperation with local authorities and civil society. Our relationships with Union, state and regional governments – as well as in the self-administered zones where we have worked since the new constitution established these new entities in 2011, is based on transparency and open communication. The invaluable knowledge of our Myanmar staff is key to building confidence in our projects.

Furthermore, the majority of areas where the production and trafficking of narcotics takes place is today under government control, and there is no particular danger in entering these areas. Last year, I found myself walking through a huge opium field in Shan State, together with a colleague, and nobody took any notice of us.

Mountainous Chin State. Photo supplied by MIID
Mountainous Chin State. Photo supplied by MIID

Describe the process that links MIID’s research projects with community-led initiatives, such as developing social protection measures.

Real social protection requires the involvement of government because it is responsible for protecting its citizens. Other stakeholders, such as civil society organisations, monasteries and churches also play an important role. Without the government taking on a role, social protection will remain weak and as a result citizens may suffer mistreatment and abuse. That has characterised the situation in Myanmar for many years, both in areas where there are a majority of ethnic minority communities and elsewhere. It was only after the change of government in 2011 that social protection in its true sense was placed on the agenda. While it’s encouraging to see that the government does want to give priority to social issues, it’s also important to understand that social protection is about more than improving health care services and education facilities.

With financial support from DANIDA [the Danish International Development Agency] and UNICEF [the United Nations Children’s Fund], MIID is currently preparing an Economic Development and Social Plan for Chin State. By working in close cooperation with the Chin State Government and civil society groups across the state, we have identified a range of social protection issues. In addition to the most common problems of a lack of access to education and health care services due to poverty and isolation, other issues include the exclusion of people with disabilities, child labour, gender discrimination, domestic violence and elderly people without any family support. The Economic and Social Plan for Chin State will be the first of its kind in Myanmar. MIID will present a number of project ideas for interventions at the community level to be implemented in cooperation with the state government and civil society. The project will help to enable the Chin State Government to seek funding from the Union Government and international donors, as well as prioritising the state government’s own resources for social protection.

 

Please provide an example of MIID’s work in promoting heritage preservation and the sustainable management of natural resources with community involvement.

We are now in the final stages of preparing a Regional Tourism Destination Management Plan for the Inle Lake Region. It is being carried out with support from the Luxembourg Government and ICIMOD [the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, which is a regional intergovernment body based in Kathmandu, Nepal]. The Destination Management Plan is a follow-up to a major report we published in 2012 called “Inle Lake – A Plan for the Future”. MIID consistently takes a participatory approach and it’s very encouraging to see how enthusiastic the lake communities are about getting involved – the younger generation in particular. They’re eager to go out and educate villagers about the need to protect the environment and are doing their upmost to deal with the increasing challenge of waste management both on and around Inle Lake.

By working directly with communities through joined field research, interviews, focus group discussions and workshops, scores of local knowledge are unleashed. It also creates a strong sense of ownership of projects and increases the likelihood of successful outcomes. In the past, Myanmar people were accustomed to a top-down decision-making process by previous military governments and rebel commanders. Having the opportunity to have a say about their needs and take part in development initiatives is a new concept and still in its infancy, but the results are already very encouraging.

Chin youth. Photo supplied by MIID
Chin youth. Photo supplied by MIID

How does MIID foster the idea among communities to take responsibility for managing complex issues such as environmental degradation and food insecurity – and why is this so important for sustainable development?

Securing access to food is the very basis of preventing environmental degradation. Myanmar’s economy relies heavily on its natural resources: approximately 70 percent of the population are living off the land and the agricultural output to feed them. Farmers understand these issues, but they need help in the form of relevant training to upgrade skills, secure land rights and gain access to credit on reasonable terms in order to increase production. These needs are most pressing in marginalised ethnic minority communities, who have suffered from decades of isolation and a lack of exposure to markets. MIID’s way of addressing these issues is to apply our trademark participatory, bottom-up approach. It creates an environment of inclusion and in the end, local ownership of the solutions.

In 1999, Myanmar pledged to eliminate opium production by 2014. Despite the efforts of the government and international agencies to achieve this goal, opium production has risen during the last seven years. Why is opium production rising?

Until very recently, international development assistance to Myanmar was extremely limited due to the sanctions imposed by western governments. The task of eradicating opium production was therefore left to the government alone to deal with – as well as some limited assistance from UNODC [the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime]. With insufficient financial and technical resources, a lack of credibility among ethnic minority groups involved in drug production, unresolved conflicts with rebel armies that were financed by the drug trade and rampant corruption, it was never realistic that Myanmar could free itself of opium production in such a short period of time.

Joern Kristensen hands over the development plan for Danu Self Administered Zone to the township administrator in Pintaya
Joern Kristensen hands over the development plan for Danu Self Administered Zone to the township administrator in Pintaya

Do you believe that crop substitution for opium farmers is a viable solution?

Opium production continues because of its high value and easy market access. But it isn’t lucrative: the farmers involved are poorer, less educated, suffer higher rates of addiction and have a lower life expectancy than the regional average. However crop substitution alone cannot solve the problem: not in Myanmar or any country with a sizeable narcotics industry. A full range of development activities are necessary to reverse the prevalence of poverty, addiction, isolation, the lack of education opportunities and inadequate health care. Opium production is a growing problem and requires a concerted effort by the government, international donors and specialised agencies such as the UNODC. Unfortunately however, it appears to be less of a priority among both the government and international donors than it was in years past.

As UNODC’s resident representative in Myanmar from 1991 to 1994, you were involved in implementing drug prevention and treatment programs. How would you compare the situation of drug abuse and HIV transmission then with now?

During the early 1990s Myanmar was isolated from the rest of the world and thus in terms of movement of people and the exchange of information, drug abuse and related problems were, by and large, confined to specific “hot spots”. Opium addicts mainly lived in Shan State, particularly in the areas along the Chinese border where the opium was cultivated and hardcore heroin use was concentrated in the jade mines in Kachin State and the ruby mines of Mogok. The practice of sharing needles and syringes among drug users resulted in an extremely high prevalence of HIV. Today, synthetic drugs such as amphetamines are easily available in urban areas and I think it’s fair to say that the challenges authorities face in dealing with illicit drug abuse are greater today than 20 years ago.

How important is a coordinated approach to tackling drug production and abuse?

Addressing the challenges relating to the production, trafficking and abuse of narcotic drugs requires a coordinated approach. Every stakeholder, including the government, international donors and specialist organisations such as UNODC and DEA [the United States Drug Enforcement Administration] must work together. Furthermore, development activities that aim to create alternative income opportunities need to go hand-in-hand with measured law enforcement and a genuine effort to prevent the further spread of addiction. In the case of Myanmar, the impact of ethnic conflicts on the drug trade adds another layer of complexity. It’s a tremendous task to coordinate and it’s not going to go away by itself. Left unresolved, Myanmar’s narcotics problem will undermine efforts to boost economic and human development where it is most needed – in the country’s peripheries.

Chin textiles and handicrafts are among Myanmar's finest. Photo supplied by MIID
Chin textiles and handicrafts are among Myanmar’s finest. Photo supplied by MIID

As someone with experience in assisting refugees, what is your opinion of the plan by Thailand’s military government to repatriate the Myanmar refugees living in camps in Thailand?

I don’t think the refugees are ready to go home, nor is Myanmar ready to receive them at this point in time. Each and every refugee has a reason to leave his or her place of origin. If the refugees in camps in Thailand are not convinced that the reasons that led them to make the decision to leave has changed substantially, they will feel insecure and object to being repatriated. From the viewpoint of a Thai refugee camp, it would seem fair to assert that the circumstances that led to the exodus have not fundamentally changed. Despite ceasefires, there are still clashes between Tatmadaw patrols and rebel armies and land mines remain in the areas the refugees left – and are supposed to return to. And neither civilian nor military leaders in Myanmar have yet revealed a vision for how they would like to see the country in terms of equal rights that are irrespective of ethnicity and religion. The journey towards a genuine democracy that Myanmar embarked on just over three years ago is long and will take many years to complete.

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