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

May 25, 2017

After one year in office, the NLD under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi does not get high marks, despite the fact that Suu Kyi is worthy of sainthood after some 20 years of house arrest following a trip from the UK to visit her ailing mother. On the other hand, the political strength of the NLD is severely crippled as the military still retains veto power over most anything the NLD might choose to do.

Further, a disillusioned, very low voter turnout at the recent by-elections evidences the difficulties Aung San Suu Kyi faces in turning around the decades of military rule. Although Suu Kyi may be taking a practical and prudent approach, she does not appear to be using her political capital to the maximum extent possible. Some years ago, the author asked a very knowledgeable Burmese why the military had even painted the façade of creating a "democracy." The response was to eliminate sanctions and to keep their vast fortunes safely tucked away in Singapore.

Moreover, it is difficult to reconcile the low level of voter interest on election day when compared to the elation of the NLD success one year ago.

A more critical situation is the fact that the ethnic minority Muslim Rohingya people in the western Myanmar state of Rakhine are at "Ground Zero." Their claims of massacres, rape and genocide by the Burmese military are difficult to deny.

As the Rohingya flee to their native, over-crowded Bangladesh, or as they create a new generation of "boat people refugees," the reaction in nearby Muslim countries is pretty clear as well.

A most distressing aspect of the Rohingya persecution is that Buddhist monks have taken a lead role seeking their removal from Myanmar thereby providing a bit of a cover to the military.

The lack of any visible progress in assimilating the many different ethnic groups in Myanmar has resulted in a noticeable increase in the fighting with Tatmadaw Government forces. Although Suu Kyi seeks a sustainable peace agreement, there is very little trust on her part with either her own military or the diversity of interests among the guerilla, ethnic armies. Moreover, she lacks the authority to negotiate and attain a lasting peace with the vast number of ethnic militias. As a result, armed conflicts have increased. Shown below are young Kachin Independence Army soldiers at a training center in the Kachin State. To paraphrase Pete Seeger, "Where have all the Kachin boys gone? Gone to soldiers every one. When will they ever learn?"

The Kachin Army pales in comparison to the army of the Shan State in northeast Myanmar on the Thai border connecting to the Golden Triangle via the border towns of Tachilek, Myanmar and Mae Sai, Thailand. That particular border crossing is one of the favorite shopping locations of The Elephant Story though only for legal products such as vintage hill tribe clothing.

The most famous historical figure of the Shan State is the now deceased drug lord Khun Sa. To illustrate how free and wild those parts are, a Thai Police Colonel took the author into a small village where Khun Sa had a residence. It was a strange experience as the villagers did not speak Thai but rather Chinese having fled the Chinese communists in the 1950's. Khun Sa died at age 73 of natural causes which was probably smoking as evidenced by his cigarette. He was featured in the movie American Gangster.

So where do we go with all of these issues that extend far beyond elephant conservation? On the one hand, we can take some comfort that the economic development has been confined to Yangon thereby destroying the colonial charm of former Rangoon though leaving natural habitats in the remainder of the country largely unaffected. However, there has been a significant increase in elephant poaching that is driven by the demand for ivory and other products made from elephant parts. Although actions by China to ban ivory imports may have had a favorable impact on African elephants, poaching is on the upswing in Myanmar.

The Myanmar Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation and the Wildlife Conservation Society indicated that 25 elephants in the wild were killed in 2016. Moreover, male elephants have become a rarity in the wild as poaching remains lucrative in a corrupt system where the police and border control are compensated to turn a blind eye to illegal activity. Further, much of the illegal cross border trade is in areas dominated by rebel forces such as the Shan State Army, particularly the border towns.

The diminishing opportunity for employment of domesticated elephants significantly reduces the incentives to capture elephants in the wild unless they are being exported to neighboring Thailand or China. On the other hand, as most of the domesticated elephants are timber elephants employed by the Myanmar Timber Enterprise, they face an uncertain future as efforts are made to limit the timber trade. When deforestation occurs in natural elephant habitats, settlers move in to plant crops which are then destroyed by wild elephants leading to the inevitable elephant/human conflicts which results in deaths on both sides.

It will likely be a long time before international hotel chains create natural habitat resorts and sanctuaries for domesticated elephants in need of a livelihood for themselves and their mahout owners. Further, significant economic growth is required before any form of government support system can be enacted to sustain domesticated elephants that lose their livelihood due to the end of logging.

The Rohingya persecution by Buddhist monks is disturbing on many fronts. The Thai Buddhist reverence for elephants is a basic spiritual precept in Thailand. If one in Myanmar does not respect human life, where would they come out on elephants? Further, the setting represents a perfect destructive environmental cocktail-poor rural economy, corruption on all fronts, little respect for human life and a weak central government to control rebel armies engaged in numerous illegal activities.

Therefore, the elephant care and sustainability missionary work of Dr. Khyne, as supported by John Roberts and the GTAEF, is essential to even up the odds a bit at this point in time. Perhaps Dr. Khyne is the future heroine of Myanmar.

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