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Archive for May 2015

China’s next big export: state-sponsored ecocide (Book Review)

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In September 2011, President U Thein Sein ordered the suspension of the Myitsone Dam in Kachin State for the duration of his term in office, which ends later this year.

The announcement came in the midst of an ongoing campaign supported by environmental and civil society groups that focused on the image of the Ayeyarwady as the cultural lifeblood of Myanmar, and that highlighted worries that the dam would destroy downstream fisheries, rice production and livelihoods.

The 6000-megawatt Myitsone project, which would supply electricity to China while displacing about 20,000 people in Kachin, is only part of a series of seven dams on the upper reaches of the Ayeyarwady planned by the China’s state-owned Chinese Power Investment Corporation.

The Chinese company has made clear its desire to resume the Myitsone project, but many locals and civil society groups want it cancelled altogether. The issue promises to re-emerge as a major conflict following the end of U Thein Sein’s tenure as president.

Whatever the outcome, Myanmar will remain at the mercy of China’s insatiable greed for energy, warns Canadian author Michael Buckley in his 2014 book Meltdown in Tibet. This is due to the negative environmental fallout from rampant dam-building and mining projects in Tibet, which will affect the 2 billion people – in China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Bhutan and Pakistan – who rely on the 10 major rivers that originate on the Tibetan plateau for drinking, agriculture, fishing and industry. Among these rivers are Myanmar’s Thanlwin (Salween) and Ayeyarwady.

Buckley first visited Tibet in the 1980s as a guidebook writer, and the environmental degradation he witnessed over time prompted him to produce the 40-minute documentary film Meltdown in Tibet (2009), and last year a book of the same name.

The author describes what is happening in Tibet as “ecocide” and contends that China is destroying Tibet “on all fronts”. “The wildlife in Tibet was one of the first casualties of the Chinese occupation. Another casualty was clear-cutting the forests,” he says.

Meanwhile, Tibet’s glaciers are melting fast, and China is “aggravating the situation” with massive dam-building and mining projects. Buckley’s book supplies numerous statistics for a litany of “hydro megaprojects” in China that have already started affecting countries downriver, as well as for projects in the planning stages that will magnify the devastation.

“What appears to be just a Tibetan Plateau problem or a Chinese problem is going to become an Asia-wide problem. There are no boundaries when it comes to environmental impact,” he writes, warning that as a result of China’s policies “Asia will tumble into chaos”.

Among the downstream effects of China’s frenzy for “progress” will be the destruction of fisheries and the blockage of nutrient-rich silt vital to farming. Without fresh silt, farmers must resort to increased use of expensive, environmentally destructive artificial fertilizers. Another casualty will be mangrove forests.

“Mangroves are your first line of defense against sea-level rise and against cyclones,” Buckley said during his appearance at the Irrawaddy Literary Festival in Mandalay in March.

“But mangroves need silt and fresh water to grow. If you put a dam upriver, silt and fresh water are not getting through to the mangroves, and the mangroves will slowly disappear, which leaves you open to disasters along the coast.” This is of particular concern in Bangladesh as well as in Myanmar’s Ayeyarwady delta.

Buckley has visited the site of the Myitsone Dam, and in an interview with Mizzima last month he posed two questions concerning the current state of the project: “Why are the Chinese workers still there? Why are the people who lived there not allowed to come back?” He is clearly unconvinced that the dam will ever be officially cancelled.

He is also concerned about the Thanlwin, which he describes as “a virgin river untouched by big dams”. But China aims to nullify this idyllic state of affairs with plans for five major hydropower projects.

“If they build the five dams that are planned, it means [Myanmar’s] water flow can be controlled by China at any point,” Buckley said. “China will say, ‘We’re solving your flooding problems.’ But most downstream countries want the flooding because they need it for rice and fishing. It’s an annual cycle. So the Chinese dams do not solve the problem, they only create other problems. By the time they put all those dams up, they’re going to ruin the river and affect the people who depend on the river.”

Buckley said that in supporting the construction of dams on the Ayeyarwady and the Thanlwin, Myanmar would be sacrificing its own people and environment for the sake of greed.

“But who can stop China? Nobody can stop China because they’re too entangled in economic relations and nobody wants to upset the Chinese government. So they’re getting away with this,” he said. “It’s insane what China is doing.”


This article was published in the May 8-14 issue of The Myanmar Times Weekend magazine.

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Masters of Myanmar art show their work in Malaysia

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Myanmar artists (left to right): Pann Kyi, Khin Maung Zaw, Khin Zaw Latt, Soe Soe (Laputta), Tin Win, Mon Thet and Zay Yar Aye.

During his 40-year career as a painter, Tin Win has attended numerous opening ceremonies at fine arts galleries in Myanmar and abroad – but he had never experienced anything quite like the formal affair at The Edge Galerie in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on April 21.

Among the notable guests at the event, which marked the opening of the “Masters of Myanmar Art” group exhibition, were eminent Malaysian artists and art collectors, as well as Sultan of Perak Sultan Nazrin Muizzuddin Azlan Shah and his consort, Raja Permaisuri of Perak Tuanku Zara Salim.

“The opening ceremony was excellent,” said Tin Win, known for his photorealistic paintings of Myanmar’s ethnic minorities set against abstract backgrounds. “I had a very good experience meeting important people who were interested in our Myanmar artwork.”

The exhibition, which continues through May 22, encompasses 45 paintings by 11 of Myanmar’s most talented visual artists, seven of whom made the trip to Malaysia for the opening: Tin Win, Pann Kyi, Khin Zaw Latt, Zay Yar Aye, Khin Maung Zaw, Soe Soe (Laputta) and Mon Thet.

Also participating in the show but unable to make the journey were Tin Htay Aung, Moe Nyo, Aung Thin Oo and Zaw Min.

The works include oils, acrylics and watercolors, and range from realistic village scenes to semi-abstract pagoda images.

In a speech at the opening ceremony, Sultan Nazrin noted that as Myanmar has opened up to the outside world, “its art has emerged from the shadows, and today gallery owners from across the world are already scouting for talent”.

He said artists stand to benefit from such increased regional and international exposure to their work.

“These developments in the art scene are positive because, as in all great civilizations, a greater appreciation of art and culture contributes to a country’s aspiration to be a developed and civilised society. It gives a nation soul and depth,” he said.

“Art has always been an effective mode of political and social expression, and history has shown that many artists have paid a heavy price for daring to stand up to injustice.”

This “heavy price” is all too familiar to Myanmar artists who, before 2010, spent decades struggling under a government in which paranoid military ideologues with no fine arts knowledge dictated what was permitted to be shown in art galleries.

During their trip to Kuala Lumpur from April 20 to 24, the Myanmar painters visited several private art collections as well as the National Art Gallery, the Islamic Arts Museum and the Bank Negara Malaysia Museum and Art Gallery.

The tour provided insight into Malaysia’s art scene and highlighted the degree to which Myanmar’s arts had been asphyxiated – both creatively and financially – by more than 50 years of draconian military control.

And although some steps toward political liberalization have been made and censorship has been scaled back in recent years, the dark, not-so-distant days of junta rule have left a legacy of huge challenges for Myanmar artists. Among these is a business environment virtually bereft of local art collectors.

Tin Win, who was on his first visit to Malaysia, said that in Kuala Lumpur he met businesspeople “who collect artwork that is beautiful for hanging on the wall and that is also a good investment”.

“In Myanmar, businessmen don’t know about collecting artwork,” he said. “They invest in land or jewelry. Maybe with a little education, one day there will be more art collectors in Myanmar.”

During a radio interview on BFM 89.9 in Kuala Lumpur on April 23, Khin Zaw Latt expanded on this idea.

“It’s the same in every country: To live on art is very difficult. But especially in Myanmar, local people don’t buy art,” he said.

“I think it still needs to take time to develop Myanmar art … We still need to have the infrastructure like museums and private collections,” he said. “If you come to Myanmar, most of the galleries are run by the artists. No businesspeople are interested to do art galleries.”

On the creative side, Zay Yar Aye, who has benefitted from years of art education in Myanmar and Japan, said the Malaysia trip provided him with “practical experiences, ideas and energy” for future art projects.

“Malaysia’s art scene is very different from our country. In Myanmar, artists prefer to continue doing what they are already doing. In Malaysia they are more free. For example, you see artists who start out with a traditional style and gradually change to an abstract style,” he said.

Khin Zaw Latt, speaking to The Myanmar Times, agreed.

“Most Myanmar painters are still working on very traditional subjects like monasteries, temples and landscapes. In Malaysia they are more contemporary and free,” he said.

“I’ve seen many abstract artists [in Malaysia], but in Myanmar we have only a few such artists. Some artists in Malaysia, even though they are making abstract art, are doing well because collectors also appreciate these works.”

Overall, Khin Zaw Latt described the Malaysia trip as “a very good experience”.

“It’s a big exhibition for us because it’s a big group – 11 Burmese artists, including senior artists and younger artists,” he said.

“It was also a very grand opening. I’ve done many exhibitions inside and outside Myanmar, but I have never done this kind of formal grand opening. It was interesting, and also good to meet the local artists.”

The show was organized by ECM Libra Financial Group Bhd chair Datuk Seri Kalimullah Hassan and The Edge Media Group executive chair Datuk Tong Kooi Ong, with the aim of offering Malaysian collectors the opportunity to buy paintings by accomplished artists from Myanmar. Proceeds from the sales will be donated to charities in Myanmar.

“Masters of Myanmar Art” runs until May 22 at The Edge Galerie, G5-G6 Mont’Kiara Meridin 19, Jalan Duta Kiara, Mont’Kiara, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. For more information, email, visit or call +60-3-7721-8188. Opening hours are Tuesday to Sunday, 11am to 7pm.

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Raja Permaisuri of Perak Tuanku Zara Salim (left), Sultan of Perak Sultan Nazrin Muizzuddin Azlan Shah (centre) and Myanmar artist Khin Zaw Latt attend the opening of the “Masters of Myanmar Art” exhibition in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on April 21.

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Sultan of Perak Sultan Nazrin Muizzuddin Azlan Shah and Raja Permaisuri of Perak Tuanku Zara Salim.

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Zay Yar Aye poses with one of his paintings.

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Soe Soe (Laputta) and his artwork.

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Khin Maung Zaw poses with his artwork.

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The artists visit a private art collection in Kuala Lumpur.


This story was published in the May 1-7 edition of The Myanmar Times Weekend magazine.

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After-hours in Myeik Archipelago

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Humanity is engaged in an ongoing war against darkness – not in the metaphorical good-versus-evil sense, in which pure-hearted Hobbits drop magic rings into volcanoes to banish the forces of shadow, but in the literal sense of wiring the world with power lines, flipping the switch and pretending the sun never sets on civilisation.

This mania for poking artificial illumination into all corners of the planet has, since the discovery of electricity in the late 19th century, become one of the enduring hallmarks of human progress.

To a certain extent this is all well and good – it would be callous and absurd to begrudge anyone the right to enjoy the benefits of electricity – but I am also not afraid to admit that there are times when I find myself sympathising with the darkness, in all its mystery and ambiguity.

At such times I feel an overwhelming urge to turn my back to the light and retreat to those ever-shrinking zones where the power lines have not yet reached, and where the stars and planets have not yet been smothered by the electric glow of the city.

Living in Myanmar has provided some good opportunities to escape The Glow and become one with the night – often without the need to even leave my apartment, and usually at times that were unexpected and unwanted.

The best moments, however, have occurred during trips outside the city: spending the night in off-the-grid monasteries while trekking in Shan State; starting a daylong push for the 3091-metre summit of Natmataung in Chin State at 3:30am under an intensely twinkling, unpolluted sky; and venturing out for a nocturnal amble around Mrauk Oo, where fireflies vied with the stars as the main source of illumination.

But trumping all these was my experience in Myeik Archipelago in Myanmar’s southern Tanintharyi Region.

My previous trips, however active, had all involved sleeping indoors, but in the southern islands my wife and I effectively lived outside over the course of the six-day trip: eating, drinking, relaxing and sleeping on the open-air upper deck of the live-aboard boat that took us from Myeik to Kawthoung.

With no walls around us, and only a sun-shading tarp over our heads, there was no impediment to watching every sunrise and sunset from beginning to end, nor was there any distraction from experiencing the night-time hours in all their quiet glory.

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We knew from the start that our journey would be different from anything we had done before. On the first day our boat Ayer Princess left Myeik jetty at 5pm, just in time to watch the sun go down as we wove our way through the islands lying just off the coast.

We were the only two guests on the boat (along with five crew members), and despite the presence of three double-occupancy cabins below deck, we opted to settle in on the top deck, which was equipped with rattan chairs, a table, a reasonably comfortable bed, and a cooler full of water, soft drinks and beer.

We poured some drinks and basked in the smell and taste of the salty air, the feel of the wind, and the sight of the blue water and incandescent clouds. As day disappeared, the stars took their place in the indigo sky, a transition we witnessed as the crew brought us a feast of fresh food for dinner: chicken with cashew nuts, fried watercress and mushrooms, sweet and sour fish, and prawn tempura.

Our boat stopped for the night around 9:30pm, and our generator and lights stayed on for another 30 minutes as we prepared for sleep. Only when the electricity was switched off did the atmosphere take on an even more magical quality: light breeze, swaying boat, sparkling stars. A line of squid boats floated on the distant horizon, their banks of lights not enough to ruin our view of the sky.

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I woke several times that first night. The fact that I was not accustomed to sleeping on a boat probably contributed to the sense of unease I felt whenever I drifted toward wakefulness, but each time I opened my eyes the disquiet was replaced by silent, appreciative awe.

The first time I woke, I noticed the wind had died down but the stars still decorated the sky in glittering abundance. Strangely, hypnotically, the water seemed to shimmer with an eerie green luminescence, as if while we slept our boat had drifted across some invisible divide between worlds and into an alien ocean.

Waking later, I found that the wind had returned and a sickle moon had risen, sending the dimmest stars into retreat and casting a silver streak across the water. Later still, during the darkest hours before dawn, we were approached by another boat, whose crew used our vessel to anchor their fishing net, returning at daybreak to retrieve their catch.

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And so it went throughout the journey, the days spent exploring islands, coves and coral reefs by foot, kayak and flipper, and the evenings descending like an enchanted curtain over the Andaman Sea and the islands of the archipelago. Each night brought new surprises.

On our last night in the archipelago we anchored in a small bay between two low islands with names straight out of a Scooby-Doo episode: Myauk Pyu (White Monkey) and Thay Yae (Ghost). There was no village in sight, but three or four small fishing boats floated nearby. We were sheltered from the wind by the twin islands, and the atmosphere was calm and quiet.

My wife and I watched the sun go down as we ate our usual multi-course meal with fresh seafood, washed down with red wine and beer. As had been typical throughout the trip – during which we had been waking before dawn and spending many hours each day swimming, snorkelling and kayaking – we were asleep by 10:30pm.

On this night I slept through until 4:30am, at which time my wife and I both woke up. We didn’t try to go back to sleep. Instead we lay on our bed watching the stars in the western sky, where Ursa Major and Ursa Minor were clearly visible. We saw a few blinking satellites crossing the heavens, as well as a handful of falling meteors – I counted four, my wife seven.

We also glimpsed some peculiar sights, including what looked like another shooting star, except that as it streaked across the sky it followed a horizontal, rather than a downward, trajectory until it flared out. We both considered it too strange to add to our meteor count.

Odder still was a star-like light that we watched for many minutes as it moved quickly and erratically – up, down, sideways, diagonally – its bizarre dance confined to a small area of the sky. My wife and I both saw it and we were both baffled.

I tend to think it actually was a star, its apparent movement an optical illusion caused by the movement of our boat on the waves, coupled with the lack of a fixed visual reference on the ground. (The moon was new, and the night was so dark we couldn’t see the outlines of the nearby islands.)

My wife, on the other hand, calmly explained it away as an unidentified flying object whose pilot was clearly whacked out on space-yaba.

Eventually the lights in the sky, and their accompanying mysteries, faded with the inevitable rising of the sun over the trees of White Monkey Island. END

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This story was published in the May 1-7 edition of The Myanmar Times Weekend magazine. Layout below:

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Written by latefornowhere

May 3, 2015 at 6:49 am

Myanmar Times Weekend magazine No 7: After Dark

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The cover of the May 1-7 edition of The Myanmar Times Weekend magazine. I’ve got stories in this edition about Myeik Archipelago and Myanmar artists exhibiting their work in Malaysia, which will be posted soon.

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Written by latefornowhere

May 1, 2015 at 12:49 am