A bloody year for Southeast Asia’s environmentalists

A murky “military-government nexus backed by powerful business forces is behind” silencing environmental movements.

The controversial Xayaburi Dam, the last of the Chinese cascade of seven dams and the first to be built on the Lower Mekong River, could eventually displace some 2,100 people [EPA]

The year hasn’t been kind to Southeast Asia’s environmental defenders. Anti-copper mine protesters in Myanmar have been firebombed and Laotian journalists critical of major hydropower projects were silenced; in Cambodia, two activists, including famed anti-logging campaigner Chut Wutty, have been killed; in the Philippines, the number of land activists alone who were assassinated stands at six.

The levels of oppression are consistent with a global increase in the number of assassinations of activists, journalists and community workers who expose the ills of economic development – in 2009, according to research by Global Witness, 56 killings took place across the world; last year, 106 were slain.

Behind the campaigns to snuff out environmental movements in Southeast Asian countries lurk a murky military-government nexus backed by powerful business forces. The deaths this year in Cambodia and Philippines were “carried out by men in uniforms”, said Global Witness in June, who were “acting on behalf of private sector interests and/or governments”.

The stories are not new, but the intensity of attacks may well be: the month of May in the Philippines was the deadliest on record for environmental defenders, and it continued throughout the year. In July, Willem Geertman, the head of Dutch environmental NGO Alay Bayan-Luson Inc (ABI) was shot dead in front of his office.

In early November, the director of the Lovers of Nature Foundation, Dr Isidro Olan, was shot in his car, and narrowly survived. A week earlier, Philippine President Benigno Simeon Aquino III had blasted criticism of his administrations’ rights record as “leftist propaganda”.

In Cambodia, Wutty’s death and the subsequent dismissal of murder charges against his killers spotlighted the perils of challenging the development designs drawn up by its autocratic government and encouraged by foreign interests. The danger is that growing Chinese hunger for Southeast Asia’s natural resources, coupled with resurgent western interest in the region could, over time, seal the fates of those who challenge the human cost of this drive.

Intolerance for activism

Work on megaprojects is being ramped up across the region, many of which are backed by Beijing. After months of negotiations and public resistance, the Laotian government in November broke ground on the controversial Xayaburi Dam, the last of the Chinese cascade of seven dams and the first to be built on the Lower Mekong River, which could eventually displace some 2,100 people. 


 Dam threatens livelihood of Cambodia’s poor

Around the same time, Cambodia announced it had scheduled 2014 to begin work on a dam on the 3-S River Basin, a crucial tributary for the mighty Mekong waterway, upon which more than 60 million directly depend, and 300 million indirectly. Experts have warned of disaster if heavy development of the Lower Mekong continues.

For many of Southeast Asia’s 600 million people, the right to freedom of speech and protest, as enshrined in constitutions the region over, doesn’t translate into reality. Many countries here share characteristics that bode ill for citizens campaigning on environmental issues: elite business tycoons with close ties to the government who own vast areas of land; a majority rural population who are dependent on this land; and competing domestic and foreign business interests whose ventures depends on unfettered access to land, free of resistance from civilians.

“In general, increased concentrations of economic power exerts undue influence on policy-makers and government officials in favour of corporate interests,” said Paul Donowitz from EarthRights International, via email. “This concentration of economic power distorts the necessary and proper participatory role that civil society must play in shaping and influencing a country’s policies around investments, and protecting and promoting environmental and social safeguards.”

Standing in the way of the development trajectories of these frontier markets is costly, particularly given that competition for Southeast Asia’s resources and land is heating up (the World Bank has recorded a rise of 17.1 million hectares between 2002 and 2009 in the amount of land used in Asia for large-scale farmland investments).

“The increasing numbers of killings of environmental defenders show how luring more investment has come at a high price,” a human rights lawyer from the Philippines told me. “Most environmentally-destructive projects, especially mining, are undertaken in areas where the armed rule of paramilitary and military elements prevail and serve to exacerbate conflicts arising from investment.”

Despite the international criticism that Wutty’s death brought on the Cambodian government’s intolerance for activism, this week saw a three-year jail term handed to land activist Yorm Bopha on charges of violence that colleagues have said are fabricated in order to send a “chilling message” to other protesters.

Similarly, the Laotian government was accused of breaching its own laws when in February it cancelled a radio show, Talk of the News, which had become a platform for listeners to publicly air grievances about land grabs and corruption. Its host, Ounkeo Souksavanh, is now unemployed, but according to Asia Times, he may have set in motion a move towards greater resistance to land confiscation.

“That particular programme attracted a huge audience and might have contributed to the subsequent deluge of the National Assembly’s hot-line with similar land-grabbing complaints,” the paper wrote.

The cautious hopes that Laos may follow in the footsteps of Myanmar’s emergence from dictatorial rule were tempered by Ounkeo’s departure. Yet for the countries like Myanmar that are coming in from the cold, a dangerous paradox has formed. Its gradual opening has ignited a dormant environmental activist movement that, as it grows in confidence and voice, risks the same recriminations that have befallen colleagues elsewhere in the region.

Competition for resources

In late November, police and riot control squads arrived at a protest camp set up close to the country’s biggest copper mine, a Chinese-led project that sprawls over 7,800 hectares of confiscated land and which over a decade has leaked toxic chemicals into nearby rivers. Police fired incendiary bombs into the camp, leaving dozens of protestors, including monks, with severe burns. Myanmar hadn’t seen such a brutal crackdown since the 2007 Saffron Revolution. 

“In general, increased concentrations of economic power exerts undue influence on policy-makers and government officials in favour of corporate interests” 

– Paul Donowitz, from EarthRights International

The attack was a reminder that, in societies emerging from military rule, the legal relaxations on political freedoms rarely mirror the pace of change on the ground. It also highlighted the continuing grip that China has on smaller countries across the region, given Myanmar minister Aung Min’s fears about how Beijing would react to the mine’s closure.

Concerns about China’s attempts to co-opt smaller nations will continue to grow. A World Bank report four years ago, which Beijing had attempted to smother, revealed that around 750,000 people die from pollution-related deaths in China each year. Findings such as these have spurred China into exporting its destructive megaprojects abroad, to countries like Myanmar and Cambodia where governments prioritise economic interests over the wellbeing of their people.

Regional attempts to protect the rights of citizens to protest such investments have foundered: in November, leaders of the 10-member Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), currently chaired by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, signed a rights charter that received widespread criticism.

“Rather than meeting international standards, this declaration lowers them by creating new loopholes and justifications that ASEAN member states can use to justify abusing the rights of their people,” said Human Rights Watch.

In this context – where increased competition for resources combines with unwillingness by Southeast Asian governments to protect their populations from the ill effects of investment, indeed complicity in clearing the land of any resistance – the alarm bells are ringing louder.

New fronts in the region’s battle for rights to land and resources could open, with rising global demand “pushing the frontiers of investment further into areas with inadequate governance, tenure rights and rule of law”, as Global Witness warns. With this, the risks for environmental defenders rise dramatically.

Francis Wade is a Thailand-based freelance journalist and analyst covering Myanmar and Southeast Asia.

Follow him on Twitter: @Francis_Wade