Burma, also known as Myanmar, a country struggling to become democratic, is rich in natural resources. Comprising eight major ethnic states with each group having its own indigenous land, Burma is such a diverse multi-cultural country.
Unlike other member states of the Union of Burma, Chin State, which remains the poorest in the whole country according to UNDP’s 2010 Poverty Profile survey, is in lack of valuable natural resources. Being isolated and mountainous, it has suffered economic and developmental neglect from successive military dictatorships of Burma over the past 50 years.
But now with the country opening its door to foreign countries following the introduction of democracy, a glimmer of hope for economic development comes out in Chin State. Democratic reforms taking place in the country since early 2011 have eased some restrictions for tourists to visit Chin State although some parts remain closed. Until recent months, foreigners were required to obtain a separate permit from authorities to make a trip to Chin State. Therefore, the tourism industry has not been developed due to these various dubious restrictions in place, and isolation. But the interest in Chin State for development of tourism still remains.
This hope is none other than the selfsame tourism industry. With its beautiful landscape and scenery, Chin State has recently become one of the destinations for eco-tourists and visitors from both inside and outside of Burma. Since 1997, Mt. Victoria, the highest in Chin State and locally known in its various dialects as Khonumsung or Khonumthung or Khonu m’tung as it compasses parts of Kanpetlet, Mindat and Mautpi townships, has been developed into an eco-tourism site after being recognized as one of the preserved national parks in the country.
Standing at the height of 10,500 ft above sea level, the park covers a wide area of rich biodiversity ranging from rare herbal species of orchids to butterflies and birds indigenous to the place. From the peak, it also offers a breathtaking panorama of landscape as far as Mount Popa in central Burma.
With political reforms come economic changes which make the price of land go up sharply at a rate that the local people can’t even imagine buying, let alone afford to buy. Rich businessmen and cronies, not obviously from Chin State, have begun their investments in building hotels and resorts in the area. Of course, in Burma, this always has to do with how good a relationship you have with the authorities who have power in their hands in terms of granting necessary permits and so on. It is undeniable that the land is bought with permission from the authorities concerned. Systematically and realistically, the investment must also be done in a bid to boost the local economy. However, it is very unlikely that the tourism industry would benefit the native land-owners, the Chins.
It is a readily accepted notion that providing support to improve the tourism industry in a land with intact natural beauty in order to bolster up its economy is a right decision. However, the notion would be right only if the industry falls into the hands of the local people, indigenous to the land. However, the situation in the national park of Mt. Victoria is quite the opposite at the moment as the local people do not have the capacity and ability to build and run a hotel. They are by no means in a situation to compete with outside forces. They lack both financial and human resources. So, it would be very difficult for the local people even to get a job in the industry. The hotels will, therefore, be staffed mostly with non-indigenous people, implying that the income from this industry will go into the pockets of outside people.
What does it mean if these businesses do not bring benefits to the local people? It is important that detailed information on the projects should be made known to them so that they could weigh the pros and cons of the industry and its possible outcomes in their land. More importantly, terms of agreements signed between the government and company agents should be announced and should include a guarantee that the industry will benefit the communities. Eventually, the right to make decisions on the matter rests upon the local people.
The state government has an important role to play at this propitious time. It should encourage and support the locals to start businesses while cautiously attracting investments from outside sources that would be useful and helpful to the area. Permitting outsiders to a land that lacks necessary human resources will serve to advantage if the ultimate goal is to benefit the local communities. In fact, this has to go along with terms and conditions set for any company in order to make sure that the locals receive their share of profits for the land.
The event in a village of Irrawaddy Region can be taken as an appropriate example in this case. In the past, the villagers owned their own paddy fields. With the arrival of outside investors who bought fields from the local people, they have become ‘hired’ farmers on the land that had been owned by their ancestors from one generation to another. In other words, their inherited land has fallen into the hands of a handful of rich people, changing the status of the villagers in the end. Without a properly reviewed set of terms and conditions in place, chances are that the local people can eventually lose their native land to outsiders.
As the ongoing reforms have opened up opportunities for investment including the tourism industry, it is very important that homegrown local businesses be encouraged to flourish, and be well established. For them to be successfully thriving, necessary support and back-up from the local government are required to protect them from being swallowed up or crowded out by large outside tour companies.
If cautious and effective protective preparations are not made by both the local government and the people themselves in advance, it is inevitable that the land’s most treasured asset will be exploited, spoilt and eventually lost.# By Salai Kham Tin Thang