The recent resignation of a minister in Ayeyarwady Region has cast doubt on the future of fisheries industry reforms, under which leases were taken off local investors and given to groups of fishermen.
By HEIN KO SOE | FRONTIER
Photos NYEIN SU WAI KYAW SOE
IN MOST parts of Myanmar, inland waterways are public spaces. You can swim, fish or navigate a small vessel without asking for permission. In some places there are restrictions – in busy ports, near hydropower dams, close to naval bases – but waterways are generally open to everyone, rich or poor.
Ayeyarwady Region is different. Each year, more than 1,000 of its waterways are closed off to the public. They are patrolled by security; farmers aren’t even allowed to take water from them. For a person from Yangon, it’s a shock to see these waterways in private hands.
These private interests pay significant sums to gain the fishing rights for what are known as inn: ponds and lakes of varying sizes, some of which are natural and others man-made. Tenders are held for licences, which are the single biggest source of revenue for the Ayeyarwady Region government. A January 2017 study by the Renaissance Institute, a National League for Democracy-aligned economic think-tank, found that fisheries licences contributed 56 percent of total revenue to the regional government, excluding transfers from the central government.
The privatisation of the waterways and development of fish farming has encouraged a massive intensification of production. Once the rice bowl of Asia, it could now better be described as the fish bowl.
But the system has come at cost to communities, many of which have been blocked from local water sources. A fisheries governance project in Pyapon and Dedaye townships supported by the Livelihoods and Food Security Trust Fund and implemented from 2011 to 2014 concluded that fisheries policies and laws, including the tender system, were “unequal” and favoured “rich and powerful private sector groups” at the expense of small-scale fishermen or landless farmers.
This inequity over fisheries resources has sparked conflict and anger that has occasionally ended in bloodshed. In October 2012, workers from a fishery business in Kyonepyaw Township allegedly killed a fisherman after he encroached on their concession; his death sparked a riot and police fired on the crowd, killing two people. Three months later, thousands of people joined a protest against the confiscation of land and licensing of waterways.
Shortly after the National League for Democracy government took office in March 2016, Minister for Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources U Ba Hein announced sweeping changes to the fisheries licensing system aimed at empowering small fishermen and alleviating poverty. But fisheries business owners – known as inn thar gyi – have fought back, complaining to Nay Pyi Taw that the changes Ba Hein introduced were unlawful.
Now Ba Hein is gone – he resigned in January, ostensibly due to ill health – and Ayeyarwady’s fisheries industry is once again at a crossroads. Will businessmen or fishermen prevail?
U Kan Thaung remembers when private businesses took over the farmland and waterways in Tharbaung Township. In Kan Thaung’s village, Sa Thwar, there was a creek that ran into the Nga Wun River. Locals relied on it for fishing and to irrigate their fields. Suddenly it was off limits.
It was 1998. A general named Thura Shwe Mann, who would later go on to serve as parliamentary speaker and then adviser to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, had recently taken over as regional commander in Ayeyarwady Region. A company, Ayeyar Shwe Wah, was given large concessions in Tharpaung to do contract farming. The agribusiness was a subsidiary of U Tay Za’s Htoo Group; Shwe Mann’s son, U Aung Thet Mann, was a director.
The contract farming didn’t go well and soon Ayeyar Shwe Wah was instead focusing on the waterways, which were sub-leased to local businesspeople with connections to government and military officials. While fisheries had been leased out in the past, farmers were now also blocked from using even local creeks. If they were caught taking water from the creek they were accused of stealing fish and forced to pay arbitrary fines.
“The security even accused us of taking fish if they saw us bathing in the river in the afternoon when we came back from our fields,” Kan Thaung told Frontier.
The policy had a devastating effect on the community. Fishermen were frozen out completely; without irrigation, farmers could only crop once a year, during the monsoon season. “Most people lost their jobs and migrated to other places,” said Kan Thaung.
In 2008, tensions boiled over. Farmers set fire to company buildings beside a creek. The military junta, the State Peace and Development Council, relaxed its policy slightly, gradually reopening the creeks to fishermen. The lakes and ponds, however, remained firmly in the hands of the inn thar gyi, the class of fisheries entrepreneurs.
That is, until shortly after the NLD took office. The new minister, Ba Hein, was an agronomist familiar with the policies of the previous governments. Ba Hein blamed the policies of the past for impoverishing rural communities in Ayeyarwady Region. “Ordinary people haven’t been allowed to fish in lakes, ponds and rivers for the past 20 years. [Because of that] they’ve been living under the poverty line,” he told Frontier on January 11, two days after his resignation was announced by the President’s Office.
Local fishermen supported by NLD activists came to him and lobbied for the right to fish some of the smaller ponds. They complained that they couldn’t compete with the business owners for licences because the Department of Fisheries refused to deal with them. In August 2016, Ba Hein issued an order rescinding all concessions for which the licence fee was less than K3 million and opened them up to cooperatives of local fishermen.
“Natural resources are for everyone, so I made a plan that would treat fishermen and businessmen equally under the law,” said Ba Hein. “The elephant shouldn’t rob from the ant; it should let the ant eat enough food. So I ordered to share the resources equally.”
Before leaving office, Ba Hein also initiated a review of Ayeyarwady Region’s Freshwater Fishery Law. A spokesperson for LIFT said the Network Activity Group, a local NGO that took part in the fisheries governance project, had been consulted on the proposed amendments, which are with the regional parliament. The amendments would introduce a fisheries co-management model that aims to “improve small-scale fishermen’s access to fishing ground licences and environmental safeguards”, the spokesperson said.
Ba Hein said that as a result of the policy change 8,367 fishermen were able to gain the right to fish from April 2017, when the licences for small ponds were re-issued; he estimates that 40,000 people benefited as a result. Further, 8,000 migrant workers had returned to Ayeyarwady Region because of new opportunities in the fishing industry, he said.
Frontier was unable to independently verify these statistics, but those who have benefited say the policy change has indeed made a huge difference to their lives. U Ahsan, a fisherman from Tharbaung Township, received a permit together with 90 other local fishermen for a small creek near his village of Kyonetadin village. They pooled their money to pay the K3 million licence fee.
“In the past we were never allowed to fish there,” he said. “We never thought we’d get the chance again, so when it actually happened we were really surprised. Now we are all able to earn more than K150,000 a month – that’s because of U Ba Hein.”
Ba Hein said he expects the impact to be even greater when the next tender is conducted later this year, as the government plans to issue licences to more than 10,000 individual fishermen.
“I made sure that 50,000 to 100,000 of the poorest people in our region have enough to eat everyday,” he said. “U Tay Za, U Zaw Zaw – they can’t do it. But I can and I did.”
The first signs of pushback were immediate. In Tharpaung, the licence-holders refused to negotiate common access to three lakes – Kyeebin, Khenan and Thittaya – with local fishermen, arguing it was a violation of the Freshwater Fishery Law.
When Ba Hein learned of this, he wrote a letter to the head of the Department of Fisheries, instructing him to withdraw the licence from the present holders and turn it over to “local farmers and fishermen at the present rate of fishery revenue”. He said this was permitted under section 50(b) of the law, which gives the government the discretion to cancel licences “for the necessity or the interest of the region”.
U San Win, who subsequently received a permit to fish at a Kyeebin Gyi village in Tharbaung together with other local fishermen, said corruption was likely the reason for the reluctance to follow Ba Hein’s instructions. “The Fisheries Department officers don’t want to give us a permit because we don’t pay bribes,” he said. “So I think that’s why when the minister issued the order they didn’t want to distribute it to their offices.”
U Aung Naing Tun, the NLD lawmaker for Danuphyu-1, said Department of Fisheries and General Administration Department officials had tried to stymie Ba Hein’s policy reforms. When conflicts erupted between businessmen and fishermen, local officials had refused to get involved and help resolve the problems.
“When Ba Hein was minister, all the bureaucrats defied his order … U Ba Hein was really annoyed at that time,” Aung Naing Tun said. “He faced many difficulties from government staff … it was one of the reasons behind his resignation, but I don’t know if there were other reasons too.”
The head of the Ayeyarwady Region Department of Fisheries, director U Nyunt Wai, declined to comment on the allegations. The only information he would provide is that there are 1,771 fisheries sites in the region that are leased out to private operators. He refused to comment on the allegation that his staff were opposed to Ba Hein’s reforms.
It wasn’t just government officials who fought back against Ba Hein’s reforms. After the new policy was introduced, affected business owners submitted formal complaints to the union government in Nay Pyi Taw. Two hearings were convened, in 2016 and 2017. President’s Office spokesperson U Zaw Htay declined to comment on the outcome. In November, the business owners organised a protest in Pathein that was attended by around 100 people, who urged the President’s Office and Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation to rescind the order.
But Ba Hein said the “complaints from the rich men” had no effect. “I followed the law. I’m not corrupt. I stand for the grassroots people,” he said.
He also said the complaints were overblown, as the changes affected just 20 percent of tendered waterways, leaving 80 percent for the inn thar gyi.
But U Tin Than, an inn thar gyi businessman from Yegyi Township, said the policy change had affected about 900 out of 1771 licence areas – more than half of all concessions.
When the order was released, Tin Than held permit for two lakes in Yegyi Township. He’d had them since 2008, when he retired from the Veterinary Department, part of the same ministry as the Department of Fisheries.
On Ba Hein’s order, the licence for one of the lakes was withdrawn. Tin Than said he lost K11.5 million he’d invested setting up the enterprise, including the licence fee, wages, fuel and other costs. He alleges that Ba Hein’s decision was contrary to the regional Freshwater Fishery Law.
“He [Ba Hein] just used his power and did what he wanted. He never listened to us or met with us,” Tin Than said. “This has had a very bad impact on businesspeople like me … I hope the new minister will follow the law. If they want to permit the fishermen in this way they need to amend the law.”
U Win Kyaing, the secretary of the Myanmar Fisheries Federation, warned against demonising fisheries investors, saying they had helped to develop the industry in Ayeyarwady Region. However, he said private investors had not focused enough on ensuring the sustainability of the industry, and rectifying this should be the government’s goal.
“I don’t want to focus on who should get the fisheries licences,” he said. “If we do not improve the sustainability of the industry, our mismanagement will cause a shortage of fish resources in the future. We still have more resources than Thailand and other neighbouring countries but we need to take care of them.”
Ba Hein announced his resignation to the media in early January and it was confirmed by the President’s Office on January 9. On January 23, lawmakers confirmed U Tin Aung Win as his replacement.
The order did not state why Ba Hein had quit. Asked for the reason, he said: “I don’t want to work in this position any longer because of my health. I don’t want to comment further on my resignation.”
He’s given this answer repeatedly, but it hasn’t stopped many from speculating that he was forced out. Ba Hein admitted that he’d had some difficulties working with the regional government, both at the cabinet level and with bureaucrats. “They need to change the culture of their institutions, their working systems and functions.”
Minister for Electricity, Industry and Transportation U Win Htay said Ba Hein was a “well-qualified and very reliable” minister. “He worked hard to improve the image of the Ayeyarwady Region cabinet,” he said.
Ayeyarwady Region Hluttaw Deputy Speaker U San Min Aung (NLD, Bogale-2) said while Ba Hein’s policies had a “positive impact on grassroots fishermen” he also had “some weaknesses because he was getting old”. “I think he really did resign because of his poor health,” the lawmaker said.
NLD Central Executive Committee member U Nyan Win said the party had not received any complaints from Ayeyarwady Region about Ba Hein and had not forced him to resign. He directed further questions to Nay Pyi Taw.
Zaw Htay, the President’s Office spokesperson, declined to comment, referring only to the January 9 announcement.
Ba Hein’s departure has generated concern among fishermen who have benefited from his policies. U Hla Myint was a landless casual labourer until April 2017, when he borrowed money and joined a cooperative of other Sa Thwar village residents to bid for a fisheries lease that had been rescinded from an investor. He’s been able to earn a stable income for the first time in years, and has almost paid back his debt.
His heart sank when he heard the news. He’s worried the reforms might be rolled back. “We are concerned, because we’re not sure that this permit system they’ve introduced for grassroots fishermen like us will stay. We don’t know what the new minister will do,” he said.
“We really need him [Ba Hein], he was like a light who could show the way for fisherman … our future is in the hands of the new minister. We hope he will listen to our voice.”
Aung Naing Tun, the Danuphyu lawmaker, said he was also concerned. “We need to wait and see … we hope he continues with Ba Hein’s plan.”
Ba Hein said he didn’t share their concerns. “I never worry that when I resign as minister that the policy will go backward. I’m sure they’ll listen to the voice of grassroots people,” he said.
It seems he may be right. Shortly before publication, Frontier conducted a short interview with the new minister.
U Tin Aung Win said he was not only planning to keep Ba Hein’s reforms; he would ensure the amendments to the Freshwater Fishery Law enshrined them in legislation. He said the changes may be approved by lawmakers before the next tender is conducted in April.
“I will continue to do U Ba Hein’s plan, but we’ll grant permission to the fishermen through the law,” he said. “Then nobody will be able to criticise our actions.”