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Myanmar - Ground Zero for Asian Elephant Conservation (Part 1 of 2)

May 21, 2017

We recently left off with a simplified account of the sordid, modern history of Burma/Myanmar as seen through the windows of The Strand Hotel. The conclusion of that coverage was the election success of the National League for Democracy (NLD) which is led by the world's heroine, Aung San Suu Kyi. As an aside, have you noticed when former western colonies are conquered, as Burma was by the Japanese, and then go through a feeble colonial attempt to return, everything tends to go sideways? Moreover, removal of despotic, totalitarian regimes by well-meaning folks usually results in death, heartache and anguish for those who live there, as is the case in much of the Middle East following invasions by well-meaning western countries. Want to make Pete Seeger's Where Have All the Flowers Gone the anthem of the United Nations?

Getting back to the title, Myanmar is home to some 10,000 Asian elephants roughly divided between those in the wild and domesticated ones representing the greatest number in one country. However, there is reason to believe the number of elephants in the wild is declining significantly. Further, with a per capita income of $1,227, it is one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia with the lowest per capita income per elephant index. In case you have never heard of that statistic, we just invented it. The Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation (GTAEF) has spent considerable effort with Positive Reinforcement Training and Capacity Building Seminars to strengthen the veterinarian and elephant training skills of the mahouts and elephant owners. However, at some point, only the host country can provide the proper environment for the occupants of its country.

Dr. Khyne U Mar, the "elephant whisperer" of Myanmar and John Roberts, Director of the GTAEF, kick off one of their frequent training programs which extend beyond the classroom as well. Further, Dr. Khyne was recently on Myanmar TV discussing her Elephant Research Project which offers encouragement that she is reaching a broader audience.

Accordingly, we have a situation where the domesticated elephants are facing unemployment as teak logging diminishes and there is inadequate control or funding to create proper wild elephant sanctuaries. 

There is inadequate funding to support the level of elephant sanctuaries needed.  Further, the private sector financial capacity is lacking to create natural habitat tourist resort elephant experiences for domesticated elephants such as the Anantara Golden Triangle and Four Seasons Tented Camp, all of which are in Thailand where the per capita GDP is roughly five times that of Myanmar.  Moreover, there is no interest or Myanmar capacity to provide a domesticated elephant subsidy as it would exceed the per capita GDP of the country. Therefore, those concepts will have to wait until the economy and quality of life improves.   

Accordingly, we need to talk a bit about what is going on in Myanmar. First of all, there is an explanation owed regarding the move of the capital of Myanmar from Yangon to Naypyidaw in 2005 as it defined the mentality of the military government. The Burmese conglomerates that had been established and prospered due to western sanctions regarding investment and commerce in the country were asked to build and create a new capital some 200 miles north of Yangon. The charge was to replicate all of the Government buildings in a new, unoccupied area and the former buildings/land in Yangon would be gifted to the Burmese companies. In addition to a trade of new buildings for land, they could also have land grants to build hotels in the new capital.

Naypyidaw was inaugurated as the new capital at 6:37 a.m. on November 6, 2005. On "11-11," November 11 at 11 a.m., truckloads of government personnel left Yangon for Naypyidaw leaving their families behind as there were no schools provided in the new capital. General Than Shwe, the ruler at the time, revered 11 as his lucky number. Why the move? Despite the absurd rhetoric at the time of making a foreign invasion more difficult, the Government wanted to distance itself from its own people given their memories of the riots in 1988. When you get on the drive to Naypyidaw from Yangon, you can only exit once after 100 miles to a primitive restaurant that is owned by some government guy. Also, in the past, there were no petrol stations so one took many containers of gasoline and topped up as needed so as to be prepared for the hopeful return to Yangon. Naypyidaw offers very little and as a result is a veritable ghost town except for Government personnel.

There was a period when the author made that drive many times in anticipation of sanctions being lifted by the European Union as the day job is a UK-listed oil and gas company. Given the frequent and visible protests by the people addressing the sanctions imposed by the West, it appeared to be only a matter of time until they would be lifted.

As the country began to open up a bit to the outside world, the commercial future for Myanmar was thought to be natural resources. However, we quickly concluded that was not the case in the economic environment of the time. Nonetheless, we found something to do, albeit fraught with many problems and geological risks. In the final analysis, a UK legal firm was retained to scrutinize and sanitize our venture associates in light of the UK Anti-Bribery Act. Following great expense, everything checked out save the comment: "If you do anything in Myanmar, corruption is assumed." There is no place to go with that view other than home. Accordingly, we said goodbye to a place and people that the author holds dear as a nostalgic throw-back to the early days in Thailand.

Whereas, limited natural resource potential has diminished a future development opportunity for the country, it has confined the development explosion to Yangon. Therefore, the quality of life in Yangon has taken a dramatic turn for the worse with massive traffic congestion and power outages while there has been little impact on the rural areas, thereby protecting existing natural habitats. On the other hand, any economic prosperity is confined to a very narrow segment of the population. Moreover, foreign direct investment has recently declined significantly and GDP growth is now slowing as investor enthusiasm has waned.

Further, move outside of Yangon and you quickly enter the world of the many different ethnic minority groups that comprised the original Union of Burma that its founder, Aung San, and his daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, committed to support. Although Yangon is booming, difficult economic times in the frontier hill tribe areas support continuance of the lucrative, established practices of opium growth and drug smuggling which is controlled by their own respective armies. Accordingly, the weak attempts at a reconciliation of the Tatmadaw (despised army of Myanmar) and the ethnic minorities have proven unsuccessful. We will pick up in Part 2 with a commentary on the results of Aung San Suu Kyi's NLD's first year in office.

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