The sacking of Bago Region minister U Kyaw Min San was a response to widespread discontent with the regional government, but has also revealed the NLD’s internal failings and the deep level of corruption in the bureaucracy.

By HEIN KO SOE | FRONTIER

U Kyaw Min San is smart and articulate. A human rights lawyer, he holds a master of laws from Hong Kong University. He is a long-time member of the National League for Democracy legal aid team in Bago Region and more recently has acted as a legal adviser to the International Commission of Jurists’ office in Myanmar.

At 40, he was one of the youngest cabinet members in Myanmar when appointed Bago Region minister for natural resources, forestry and environmental conservation in March 2016. In short, he seems like the kind of person the NLD should be trying to attract to replace its ageing leadership.

But then, in January, he was fired. Although the noticed issued by President U Htin Kyaw on January 11 said he was “permitted to resign”, Kyaw Min San is clear that he went unwillingly.

Why he was fired is unclear. He says he was the victim of personal attacks, including accusations of corruption: specifically, that he profited from illegal timber that was confiscated in Bago Region during his tenure. He said he knows who was responsible for spreading the rumours.

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“I am lawyer so I know how I can respond to them but I don’t want to do it,” he said. “I was never corrupt. I believe I did my duty faithfully.”

Failing government

But the accusations emerged at a time of widespread dissatisfaction with the Bago Region government’s performance and regular protests calling on the chief minister, U Win Thein, to resign. Many people interviewed for this story were critical of the government, describing it as corrupt and inept.

Ko Zaw Myo Tun, a Bago-based political activist who describes himself as non-partisan, said that Kyaw Min San was “a good guy”. “He could do his job, he is young and he wasn’t corrupt. I never heard he was connected to corruption – but we have heard some other cabinet members are involved in corruption,” he said.

He said Kyaw Min San also faced difficulties because most of his portfolio was controlled by Nay Pyi Taw.

“Kyaw Min San couldn’t really reform things because his role was very small. But we were surprised [that he was fired] – why didn’t the NLD change the Bago chief minister?”

A high-ranking bureaucrat from Bago Region said the state and region governments were more like “shadow cabinets”, with most processes and projects going through the union ministries in Nay Pyi Taw. “Nothing changes in this era. We need do more work with our head ministry than the regional ministry … It is very similar to the past.”

A party decision

Kyaw Min San’s firing also highlights the strong role of the party in government affairs. In mid-2017, senior NLD official U Win Htein visited Bago Region in response to the complaints about the regional government. While the visit was aimed at improving the performance of the government, the main outcome was the sacking of Kyaw Min San and Minister for Municipal and Social Affairs U Maung Maung Lwin.

But these changes were part of a broader shakeup that saw six regional government ministers – two each in Bago, Ayeyarwady and Magway regions – lose their jobs in early January. Although the government said the ministers resigned voluntarily, Kyaw Min San said he just received a notice from the party central executive committee informing him that he had to resign, he claimed.

Kyaw Min San said that when he objected to being sacked, Win Htein responded: “Don’t complain about it. It’s a political decision.”

However, Dr Myo Nyunt, who leads the NLD complaints committee, told Frontier that the party had not received any complaints about Kyaw Min San and hadn’t conducted any investigation into his performance or behaviour.

Kyaw Min San said he wants to know exactly why the NLD ordered his resignation without conducting an investigation.

“Every voter believes in me. The party and union government should say why they made this decision. If they are transparent, people will have more trust in the party and the government.”

Achievements

When Frontier interviewed Kyaw Min San, he listed a slew of achievements during his 21 months as minister. He took particular pride in his attempts to tackle illegal timber – a huge issue in Bago Region, home to the teak-rich Bago Yoma mountain range.

Under his predecessor, the regional government would typically seize between 1,000 to 2,000 tonnes of illegal timber a year. This number rose to about 6,000 tonnes in 2016-17 and 5,000 tonnes in the first nine months of 2017-18, with seizures particularly high around Pyay and Pauk Khaung townships in western Bago Region.

A worker's bag is seen among the remains of burned teak trees in Bago Region in 2014 (AFP)

A worker’s bag is seen among the remains of burned teak trees in Bago Region in 2014 (AFP)

“He made a plan to tackling illegal logging in the region and appointed more forest police,” said lawmaker U Thet Min Zaw (NLD, Pauk Khaung-1). “It worked – there was a big increase in seizures, especially in my constituency.”

But it’s clear that not everyone agrees. U Thein Oo, a businessman from Pauk Khaung Township who manages 7,500 acres of community forest, said that Kyaw Min San lacked the knowledge for the job.

Thein Oo recalled that when a ceremony was held to present community forest certification to residents, Kyaw Min San did not give all of the required documents to the forest managers.

“When the community forest founders complained, he didn’t know what they were talking about. It showed the minister wasn’t interested in community forests,” he said.

“I think Kyaw Min San didn’t have enough experience and knowledge about this sector, that’s why he was fired.”

Thein Oo added that illegal logging was still rampant in Bago Region, particularly in Pauk Khaung. The seizure figures represented just a fraction of what was being smuggled. “Now, 50 to 60 tonnes of illegal timber from the Bago Yoma are coming into Pauk Khaung every day,” he said. “Nobody can solve the illegal logging problem in Bago, including Kyaw Min San. Illegal loggers have close relationships with the regional government. It’s just the same as in the past.”

Illegal mining

Shwegyin Township, about 70 kilometres northeast of Bago, is famous for its gold mining. The town sits in a narrow strip of low-lying land, with the Sittaung River to the west and the Kayin Hills to the east. It has long been affected by conflict, with the Karen National Union active in the area.

Shwegyin township sits in a narrow strip of low-lying land.

Shwegyin township sits in a narrow strip of low-lying land.

The Union government has permitted only two companies to mine gold in Shwegyin. Of these, only one is actually operating. But Kyaw Min San said his survey found there was 60 illegal small and medium sized gold mining outfits in Shwegyin.

He visited Shwegyin twice to meet the operators and discuss how they could legalise their business, but the process had not concluded by the time he left office.

“I collected a list of the companies and submitted it to the union government with a proposal on how we should solve the problem,” Kyaw Min San said.

The issue is complicated not only by Myanmar’s outdated mining framework and poor enforcement but also conflict. Most of the illegal mine operators are paying bribes not only to the Department of Mines but also the Tatmadaw and KNU. Kyaw Min San said he wanted to find a way to convert those bribes into tax revenue. So far, nothing has changed.

Lawmaker U Win Myint (NLD, Shwegyin-1) said the presence of armed groups would make it difficult to solve the illegal mining problem, but he also didn’t think Kyaw Min San had made any great effort to do so.

“He came here twice, but we can’t see any improvement over the past two years in Shwegyin,” he said.

Win Myint said that because the regional government has little power to intervene in the illegal gold mining, Kyaw Min San’s visits to Shwegyin had led to rumours about corruption between the mine operators and the regional government.

Ko Zaw Myo Tun said the sacking of Kyaw Min San only highlighted the NLD’s inability to introduce real reform amid a highly corrupt bureaucracy.  “We have no other political party, so I will probably vote for the NLD again in 2020,” he said, “but I’m really disappointed in the NLD and their governments.”

TOP PHOTO: Lawyer and NLD member U Kyaw Min San at his Bago home (Steve Tickner | Frontier) 

By AFP

YANGON – A whoop of disbelief erupted in the small office used by anti-hate speech activists in Myanmar when they spotted the name that had dropped into their email inbox: Mark Zuckerberg.

In a week that saw the Facebook CEO field questions in Washington over privacy breaches and election interference, angry online warriors have thrust Myanmar and its volatile social situation into the forefront of the debate on how to fix the platform.

They say Facebook is used as a tool to spread incendiary posts, bringing bloodshed to the largely Buddhist country that has expelled some 700,000 Rohingya Muslims to Bangladesh since late last year.

“It’s not just problematic. It’s dangerous and they need to take more responsibility,” said Ma Htaike Htaike Aung, executive director of the Myanmar ICT for Development Organization (MIDO), which promotes digital rights.

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While battling power outages from their front-room office in a Yangon suburb, they penned a letter along with five other Myanmar groups to Zuckerberg questioning his recent assertions about combatting hate speech in the combustible country.

The personal reply and apology from the Silicon Valley boss came as a shock, not least because they had only written to him the night before.

He thanked them for reporting posts on the platform and said Facebook was boosting its Burmese-language staff to “better understand the specific local challenges and build the right tools to help keep people there safe”.

Facebook has come under increased pressure in Myanmar as the Rohingya crisis has intensified.

In January the social media giant removed the account of extremist monk U Wirathu who had spent years posting denigrating remarks about Muslims to an enormous following, and it has also tried to regulate the use of anti-Muslim terminology.

But activists say the platform’s response rate is too slow, with malicious posts gaining traction for more than 48 hours on average before they are removed, by which time they have often gone viral.

A dangerous cocktail

Pressure is building on Facebook regionally after recent violence against Muslims in Sri Lanka, while activists in Vietnam accuse it of helping the government scrub dissident content online.

But the platform is especially powerful in Myanmar, which emerged in 2011 from half a century of military rule that kept people firmly offline.

The country has since leapfrogged into the smartphone era and onto Facebook, which now boasts nearly 30 million active users in a nation of just over 50 million.

Army chief Min Aung Hlaing claims one of the most popular pages in the country with more than 1.3 million followers. Civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi has some 2 million. 

Both understand the platform’s dominance, using their pages to make key announcements.

Facebook serves as an easy one-stop-shop for entertainment, social interaction, work and news for a population that is still “not very highly digitally literate”, according to Jes Petersen, CEO of local tech hub Phandeeyar.

Myanmar has faced widespread condemnation for a brutal military-led campaign against the Rohingya after insurgents attacked border guard posts in August.

United Nations investigators have said hate speech and incitement to violence against the stateless minority are rampant on Facebook and that the site has morphed into a “beast”.

In January, the government posted the names and photos of some 1,300 Rohingya, including at least 46 children, labelling them “terrorists”, in what the UN team called a “clear violation” of the right to a fair trial.

But problems on the platform have been brewing for years.

One example that came up in the Capitol Hill hearing was a photo of local Muslim journalist Ko Aung Naing Soe from November 2016 that circulated on Facebook calling for him to be killed for being a “terrorist”.

The company initially said the post did not violate “community standards” and by the time it was removed it had been shared thousands of times.

The reporter told AFP that the harassment has continued and derogatory Facebook posts are still online urging authorities to “punish” him.

Don’t shoot the Messenger?

In another case, messages were spread last September across Myanmar saying Buddhists and Muslims were each preparing attacks against the other.

Zuckerberg, in an interview with Vox media, said Facebook had detected the messages, an assertion that prompted the activists to write their open letter.

They reminded him that they had been the ones to report the posts and, even then, it took three days for the platform to act, later acknowledged by the Facebook CEO in his apology.

His promises to add technology and dozens more Burmese-language reviewers leave them underwhelmed.

They point out there are some 1,700 Facebook staff in Germany, where there is strict legislation for removing hate speech posts within 24 hours.

For others, however, shooting the messenger is not the answer to Myanmar’s deeply rooted problems.

“Facebook has been used by the government and military as a platform for their propaganda,” says head of Burma Campaign UK Mark Farmaner.

“But it is government laws and policies which deny the Rohingya full citizenship… and are seen as justification for abuses against them.”

By AFP

KUTUPALONG — A Myanmar minister on Wednesday toured one of the Bangladesh camps struggling to provide for some one million Rohingya Muslims, the first such visit since a Myanmar army crackdown sparked a massive refugee crisis.

Social welfare minister U Win Myat Aye met with Rohingya leaders at the giant Kutupalong camp near the border city of Cox’s Bazar, where a group of refugees tried to stage a protest during his visit.

It is the first time a Myanmar cabinet member has visited the camps since the military crackdown that began last August in response to a spate of insurgent attacks.

An official said a group of refugees were prevented from unfurling a banner detailing a list of demands from the Rohingya.

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“We cleared them out,” said Nikaruzzaman, a senior government official at nearby Ukhia township, who goes by one name.

A Rohingya leader, Abdur Rahim, said protests were held in roughly a dozen locations timed with the minister’s visit.

Win Myat Aye met with some 30 Rohingya community leaders and was briefed on the situation in the sprawling refugee camps by Bangladeshi and United Nations officials, he added.

The minister declined to answer questions from reporters after the briefing.

The leaders from the displaced minority group handed a statement to the Myanmar minister saying “it was not safe for them to return”.

Bangladesh and Myanmar signed an agreement in November to repatriate some 750,000 refugees. Myanmar has approved several hundred Rohingya from a list of thousands to go back, but so far, not a single one has returned.

“The military is still abusing the Rohingya population in Arakan, there are many restrictions on Rohingya who still live there,” the statement said, using a local name for Myanmar’s westernmost Rakhine state.

“There has been no punishment for soldiers and security officers who committed abuses,” it continued.

Fear of return

Syed Ullah, a Rohingya community leader who met the minister, said the group were upset that Win Myat Aye referred to them as “Bangladeshis”.

“We showed my parents’ national verification card, saying that they are Rohingya who lived in Myanmar. Yet the minister said I’m a Bangladeshi. That’s completely illogical,” he told AFP.

Rahim, the community leader, said the minister offered the Rohingya a residency status akin to that given to foreign migrants.

“We demanded full citizenship,” Rahman said, adding the Rohingya leaders outlined a detailed list of preconditions for their return.

“But the minister quietly disagreed.”

Win Myat Aye is the deputy head of a task force led by Myanmar’s de facto civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi on the crisis in Rakhine state, and has overseen the stalled agreement with Bangladesh to repatriate three-quarters of a million refugees.

Nikaruzzaman, the Bangladeshi official, said the Myanmar minister delivered a speech saying he wanted “to see the conditions of the Rohingya”.

Win Myat Aye is still in Bangladesh where he will meet with the country’s senior officials including Foreign Minister A.H. Mahmood Ali in the capital Dhaka today.

The Kayah State government wants to revive a failed industrial zone in Loikaw that residents say was designed to enrich a well-connected elite and put many local industries out of business.

By HEIN KO SOE | FRONTIER

WHEN THE Kayah State government announced in January that it would set up an industrial zone, the first reaction of many residents was: oh no, not again.

The state capital, Loikaw, already boasts one failed industrial zone. Residents blame it for destroying the livelihoods of many entrepreneurs around a decade ago. Once businesses gave up on the zone, it is said to have become a haven for illicit activities.

“We don’t call it an industrial zone,” said Ko Ye Baw, a resident of Nang Paw Wan ward in Loikaw. “We call it an industrial ward because there is nothing, just buildings. These have been used to store drugs and illegal timber.”

Bad memories

The Loikaw industrial zone plan was overseen by Brigadier-General Nyunt Tin when he was head of the Regional Operations Command in Loikaw, multiple sources told Frontier.

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Nyunt Tin selected an 817.46-acre site about 25 kilometres (16 miles) from downtown Loikaw. A first phase of around 270 acres was developed, with 574 plots of about 10,000 square feet each.

The plots were sold to cronies for K2.5 million each in 2007. These investors then re-sold the land – for double, triple or quadruple that price – to small business owners from Loikaw, who had been forced by the junta to move from the downtown area to the new industrial area. The businesses were mostly edible oil producers and sawmills, which also had to invest significant amounts in new buildings .

A timber yard in the Loikaw Industrial Zone (Sai Lin Lin Oo | Frontier)

A timber yard in the Loikaw Industrial Zone (Sai Lin Lin Oo | Frontier)

But the lack of infrastructure – including roads, water and electricity – meant most businesses gave up after a short period.

Loikaw resident U Yan Moe recalled that his parents’ peanut oil business failed soon after shifting to the zone, in part because the higher transportation costs made it uncompetitive.

“I resold the land at a very low price. It wasn’t easy to do business there,” he said. “We will never go back.”

Pyithu Hluttaw lawmaker Daw Khin Sithu (Loikaw, National League for Democracy) said the history of the industrial zone was widely known in Loikaw, where people still blame Nyunt Tin for his poorly conceived and executed plan.

“So many people had their lives destroyed in Loikaw because of this industrial zone plan and they ran away to other parts of the country. They lost their businesses because of it,” she said. “It had nothing to do with promoting the economy – it was just about military officials and their cronies making money from the sale of the land.

“We heard regular stories about drug production in the zone but the authorities never seemed to catch anyone there.”

Back from the dead

In January, the Kayah State Ministry of Finance and Planning sent a letter to the Ministry of Industry in Nay Pyi Taw and the Myanmar Investment Commission outlining its plans to “reform” the industrial zone. The new zone would be built on the original 817.46 acres allocated by the military junta, it said, including the existing 220-acre “industrial ward”.

“We will produce high-quality corn and export it, and invite investors from Myanmar and abroad,” said Kayah State’s Minister for Finance and Planning U Maw Maw.

He said the government would build new roads and improve the electricity supply, while water would be provided from nearby Nan Thapar Creek.

“Come and do business where there’s better electricity and water,” said U Teza Tun Win, who leads the industrial zone management committee and has run a timber mill in the zone since 2014. “Everybody should invest and do business in Loikaw.”

Few share his enthusiasm – not least those who were burned back in the early 2000s.  “Nobody wants to do business in this fake industrial zone. There will be no real industrial development in Kayah State – everybody knows that,” said Yan Moe.

Kayah State does indeed seem an unlikely candidate for industry and foreign investment. The state is landlocked and surrounded by mountains. It has a small population and is one of the poorest and most undeveloped areas of the country. Although Kayah State borders Thailand, an official gate opened only recently and international trade is less than $1 million a year.

Instead, its economy is based around natural resource extraction, particularly power generation, logging and mining. But most people in Kayah State benefit little from these industries and instead are engaged in small-scale agriculture and commerce.

Map of Kayah State

Map of Kayah State

Conflict has been a major hindrance to socio-economic development. Kayah State has numerous non-state armed groups and one large ethnic armed group, the Karenni National Progressive Party, which has not signed the nationwide ceasefire. Tens of thousands of Kayah State residents have fled to Thailand as a result of decades of civil war.

Ye Baw from Nang Paw Wan said that without significant improvements to electricity supply and transport infrastructure the industrial zone would be a waste of time.

“At the moment, only the downtown area of Loikaw receives electricity,” he said. “Because of its inland location I don’t think entrepreneurs will be interested to invest in Kayah State. Certainly industrialisation seems impossible.”

Khin Sithu was equally downbeat about the zone’s prospects. “I’m not interested in that plan for an industrial zone in Kayah State,” she said. “We already know that it won’t benefit the country.”

TOP PHOTO: An aerial shot of the Loikaw Industrial Zone, which was established in 2007 by a local military commander (Sai Lin Lin Oo) 

By AFP

YANGON – A whoop of disbelief erupted in the small office used by anti-hate speech activists in Myanmar when they spotted the name that had dropped into their email inbox: Mark Zuckerberg.

In a week that saw the Facebook CEO field questions in Washington over privacy breaches and election interference, angry online warriors have thrust Myanmar and its volatile social situation into the forefront of the debate on how to fix the platform.

They say Facebook is used as a tool to spread incendiary posts, bringing bloodshed to the largely Buddhist country that has expelled some 700,000 Rohingya Muslims to Bangladesh since late last year.

“It’s not just problematic. It’s dangerous and they need to take more responsibility,” said Ma Htaike Htaike Aung, executive director of the Myanmar ICT for Development Organization (MIDO), which promotes digital rights.

While battling power outages from their front-room office in a Yangon suburb, they penned a letter along with five other Myanmar groups to Zuckerberg questioning his recent assertions about combatting hate speech in the combustible country.

The personal reply and apology from the Silicon Valley boss came as a shock, not least because they had only written to him the night before.

He thanked them for reporting posts on the platform and said Facebook was boosting its Burmese-language staff to “better understand the specific local challenges and build the right tools to help keep people there safe”.

Facebook has come under increased pressure in Myanmar as the Rohingya crisis has intensified.

In January the social media giant removed the account of extremist monk U Wirathu who had spent years posting denigrating remarks about Muslims to an enormous following, and it has also tried to regulate the use of anti-Muslim terminology.

But activists say the platform’s response rate is too slow, with malicious posts gaining traction for more than 48 hours on average before they are removed, by which time they have often gone viral.

A dangerous cocktail

Pressure is building on Facebook regionally after recent violence against Muslims in Sri Lanka, while activists in Vietnam accuse it of helping the government scrub dissident content online.

But the platform is especially powerful in Myanmar, which emerged in 2011 from half a century of military rule that kept people firmly offline.

The country has since leapfrogged into the smartphone era and onto Facebook, which now boasts nearly 30 million active users in a nation of just over 50 million.

Army chief Min Aung Hlaing claims one of the most popular pages in the country with more than 1.3 million followers. Civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi has some 2 million.

Both understand the platform’s dominance, using their pages to make key announcements.

Facebook serves as an easy one-stop-shop for entertainment, social interaction, work and news for a population that is still “not very highly digitally literate”, according to Jes Petersen, CEO of local tech hub Phandeeyar.

Myanmar has faced widespread condemnation for a brutal military-led campaign against the Rohingya after insurgents attacked border guard posts in August.

United Nations investigators have said hate speech and incitement to violence against the stateless minority are rampant on Facebook and that the site has morphed into a “beast”.

In January, the government posted the names and photos of some 1,300 Rohingya, including at least 46 children, labelling them “terrorists”, in what the UN team called a “clear violation” of the right to a fair trial.

But problems on the platform have been brewing for years.

One example that came up in the Capitol Hill hearing was a photo of local Muslim journalist Ko Aung Naing Soe from November 2016 that circulated on Facebook calling for him to be killed for being a “terrorist”.

The company initially said the post did not violate “community standards” and by the time it was removed it had been shared thousands of times.

The reporter told AFP that the harassment has continued and derogatory Facebook posts are still online urging authorities to “punish” him.

Don’t shoot the Messenger?

In another case, messages were spread last September across Myanmar saying Buddhists and Muslims were each preparing attacks against the other.

Zuckerberg, in an interview with Vox media, said Facebook had detected the messages, an assertion that prompted the activists to write their open letter.

They reminded him that they had been the ones to report the posts and, even then, it took three days for the platform to act, later acknowledged by the Facebook CEO in his apology.

His promises to add technology and dozens more Burmese-language reviewers leave them underwhelmed.

They point out there are some 1,700 Facebook staff in Germany, where there is strict legislation for removing hate speech posts within 24 hours.

For others, however, shooting the messenger is not the answer to Myanmar’s deeply rooted problems.

“Facebook has been used by the government and military as a platform for their propaganda,” says head of Burma Campaign UK Mark Farmaner.

“But it is government laws and policies which deny the Rohingya full citizenship… and are seen as justification for abuses against them.”

The Kayah State government wants to revive a failed industrial zone in Loikaw that residents say was designed to enrich a well-connected elite and put many local industries out of business.

By HEIN KO SOE | FRONTIER

WHEN THE Kayah State government announced in January that it would set up an industrial zone, the first reaction of many residents was: oh no, not again.

The state capital, Loikaw, already boasts one failed industrial zone. Residents blame it for destroying the livelihoods of many entrepreneurs around a decade ago. Once businesses gave up on the zone, it is said to have become a haven for illicit activities.

“We don’t call it an industrial zone,” said Ko Ye Baw, a resident of Nang Paw Wan ward in Loikaw. “We call it an industrial ward because there is nothing, just buildings. These have been used to store drugs and illegal timber.”

Bad memories

The Loikaw industrial zone plan was overseen by Brigadier-General Nyunt Tin when he was head of the Regional Operations Command in Loikaw, multiple sources told Frontier.

Nyunt Tin selected an 817.46-acre site about 25 kilometres (16 miles) from downtown Loikaw. A first phase of around 270 acres was developed, with 574 plots of about 10,000 square feet each.

The plots were sold to cronies for K2.5 million each in 2007. These investors then re-sold the land – for double, triple or quadruple that price – to small business owners from Loikaw, who had been forced by the junta to move from the downtown area to the new industrial area. The businesses were mostly edible oil producers and sawmills, which also had to invest significant amounts in new buildings .

A timber yard in the Loikaw Industrial Zone (Sai Lin Lin Oo | Frontier)

A timber yard in the Loikaw Industrial Zone (Sai Lin Lin Oo | Frontier)

But the lack of infrastructure – including roads, water and electricity – meant most businesses gave up after a short period.

Loikaw resident U Yan Moe recalled that his parents’ peanut oil business failed soon after shifting to the zone, in part because the higher transportation costs made it uncompetitive.

“I resold the land at a very low price. It wasn’t easy to do business there,” he said. “We will never go back.”

Pyithu Hluttaw lawmaker Daw Khin Sithu (Loikaw, National League for Democracy) said the history of the industrial zone was widely known in Loikaw, where people still blame Nyunt Tin for his poorly conceived and executed plan.

“So many people had their lives destroyed in Loikaw because of this industrial zone plan and they ran away to other parts of the country. They lost their businesses because of it,” she said. “It had nothing to do with promoting the economy – it was just about military officials and their cronies making money from the sale of the land.

“We heard regular stories about drug production in the zone but the authorities never seemed to catch anyone there.”

Back from the dead

In January, the Kayah State Ministry of Finance and Planning sent a letter to the Ministry of Industry in Nay Pyi Taw and the Myanmar Investment Commission outlining its plans to “reform” the industrial zone. The new zone would be built on the original 817.46 acres allocated by the military junta, it said, including the existing 220-acre “industrial ward”.

“We will produce high-quality corn and export it, and invite investors from Myanmar and abroad,” said Kayah State’s Minister for Finance and Planning U Maw Maw.

He said the government would build new roads and improve the electricity supply, while water would be provided from nearby Nan Thapar Creek.

“Come and do business where there’s better electricity and water,” said U Teza Tun Win, who leads the industrial zone management committee and has run a timber mill in the zone since 2014. “Everybody should invest and do business in Loikaw.”

Few share his enthusiasm – not least those who were burned back in the early 2000s. “Nobody wants to do business in this fake industrial zone. There will be no real industrial development in Kayah State – everybody knows that,” said Yan Moe.

Kayah State does indeed seem an unlikely candidate for industry and foreign investment. The state is landlocked and surrounded by mountains. It has a small population and is one of the poorest and most undeveloped areas of the country. Although Kayah State borders Thailand, an official gate opened only recently and international trade is less than $1 million a year.

Instead, its economy is based around natural resource extraction, particularly power generation, logging and mining. But most people in Kayah State benefit little from these industries and instead are engaged in small-scale agriculture and commerce.

Map of Kayah State

Map of Kayah State

Conflict has been a major hindrance to socio-economic development. Kayah State has numerous non-state armed groups and one large ethnic armed group, the Karenni National Progressive Party, which has not signed the nationwide ceasefire. Tens of thousands of Kayah State residents have fled to Thailand as a result of decades of civil war.

Ye Baw from Nang Paw Wan said that without significant improvements to electricity supply and transport infrastructure the industrial zone would be a waste of time.

“At the moment, only the downtown area of Loikaw receives electricity,” he said. “Because of its inland location I don’t think entrepreneurs will be interested to invest in Kayah State. Certainly industrialisation seems impossible.”

Khin Sithu was equally downbeat about the zone’s prospects. “I’m not interested in that plan for an industrial zone in Kayah State,” she said. “We already know that it won’t benefit the country.”

TOP PHOTO: An aerial shot of the Loikaw Industrial Zone, which was established in 2007 by a local military commander (Sai Lin Lin Oo)