Confronting a legacy of crime and corruption in Myanmar’s illegal teak trade
In December 2018, on International Anti-Corruption Day, Myanmar President U Win Myint stated that “The Union Government will take effective administrative steps to rectify the weak areas in fighting corruption.” A bold and welcome statement, but tacit support is not enough because no President, Minister or Ministry alone has the power to fight the deep cancer destroying all parts of Myanmar’s fragile future – corruption.
Forests are being destroyed because Myanmar is one of the most corrupt countries in the world; in 2018, it was ranked 132 out of 180 on Transparency International’s Corruption Index and many in the political, business and military elite are unwilling to surrender the wealth and power that the country’s natural resources have given them.
Last month, we released our report State of Corruption: The top-level conspiracy behind the global trade in Myanmar’s stolen teakwhich showed how, for three decades, the multi-million dollar international trade in Burmese teak has been riddled with crime and high-level corruption, driving conflict and human rights abuses in Myanmar.
In response to the report, the Myanmar Timber Enterprise gave an interview to Frontier Myanmar magazine, published in both English and Burmese. Essentially, it claimed the network exposed in our report is an old structure with no relevance to the present, that this happened years ago and the main actor, PC Cheng, was dead, so what’s the problem?
The problem is that this network’s legacy still survives. It is estimated that up to 100,000 tonnes of teak cut during the worst excesses of overharvesting prior to the 2016/17 national logging ban are still sitting in Myanmar and being offered to the international community with limited information on the legal origin of this timber and no acknowledgement of the role of corruption in its production.
Refusing to look back and not understanding how the country’s current system works only perpetuates the opaque and bad forest governance that exists today. The problem is that without understanding the details, Myanmar will not be able to take the brave steps it desperately needs to take for true reform to happen.
In Myanmar, political instability and an economic crisis have created a situation where forest law enforcement has broken down. It is widely accepted that the military and police are making huge amounts of money from illegal logging and over the years only the small players have been arrested and, maybe, prosecuted. This is not about subsistence logging by local people, it is about the highly organised and vastly profitable international trafficking of timber stolen from Myanmar’s diminishing forests.
We have been investigating illegal logging and the associated illicit trade in timber since 1999. Understanding the methods, actors and drivers in a country has provided a unique insight into how this natural resource is about far more than trees.
In all the countries in which we have worked in South-East Asia, the core of the problem is corruption, top-down policies led by the centre and failure to include those whose livelihoods and survival rely on their forests.
The commercial and international trade of valuable hardwoods exists because of the market. We recognised that to combat this forest crime we needed to ensure that traders consuming this timber were also part of the solution. Recognising that a lot of what we were documenting was not trade but crime, we found pushing for a regulatory response was the only way to combat illegal logging and the associated illicit trade. Such laws now exist in a range of consumer markets, notably the US, EU and Australia.
None of these laws were aimed at only one country and none seek to undermine reform; in fact, these laws are in place to do the opposite. For instance, the European Union Timber Regulation (EUTR) exists to support producer countries in their efforts to improve governance within the sector and to help to re-define legality in an inclusive way which includes all stakeholders. Myanmar is not being singled out, as suggested by the Myanmar Timber Enterprise; the EUTR is also focused on European operators and suppliers, who likely know full well the problems that Myanmar has and continue to take advantage of the situation.
One country turning a blind eye to its involvement in driving corruption and undermining any hope of forest reform in Myanmar is neighbouring China, the world’s largest consumer of illegally logged timber, which has yet to regulate against imports of stolen wood.
To combat illegal logging and address the vast flows of timber into China, Myanmar enacted a log export ban in 2014. This was followed by a nationwide logging ban in 2016-17, yet China continues to benefit from illicit cross-border trade. Between 2007-17, the trade of teak logs and sawn teak wood from Myanmar to China is estimated at 1.4 million m3 – worth nearly one billion dollars– with the vast majority of this being illegal cross-border trade.
As part of any future dialogue, Myanmar’s leaders must urge China to support their country’s efforts to combat corruption and crime in the forestry sector. The first thing China can do is enact a reciprocal log import ban and move toward a regulation prohibiting illegally sourced timber from entering its market. This would not only support Myanmar’s efforts but those of many other producer countries around the world which are struggling for good forest governance.
No single ministry alone can address the underlying problems associated with illegal logging. We have met with and seen how individual champions within the Forestry Department, working within a complex set of issues far beyond the remit of a forester, are trying desperately to combat forest crime. It is wrong to expect them to do so without the support of the Government as a whole.
The President must personally ensure that his Government acts against timber barons by creating a cross-ministerial taskforce with the mandate and ability to enforce against high-level actors. Honest and proactive reformist officials desperately need support from honest enforcement officers, prosecutors and judges – a difficult thing to do, especially as these problems are the legacy of the military regime which, given its continued authority, still benefits from the opening up of Myanmar’s forests to international markets in 1989.
There needs to be a clear instruction from Myanmar’s leaders to the National Reconciliation and Peace Centre (NRPC) to stop setting agreements with ethnic armed organisations for the sale of hardwoods, including teak. The recent authorisation from the NRPC to the National People’s Liberation Front (KNPLF), in Kayah state, to extract and sell 5,000 tons totally undermines any approach for good forest governance and begs the question as to why the NRPC has authority over Myanmar’s forests in the first place. Because of the lack of transparency, no-one other than those who profited even knows if it was in fact 5,000 tons, where the timber came from or to whom it was sold.
In addition, the country’s Parliament needs to harness the knowledge and talents of those within the relevant resource committees who can lead to ensure comprehensive solutions. This must be done by ensuring that any policies being considered include input from those who already hold so many of the solutions we seek – local communities and indigenous peoples.
The world looks at Myanmar and sees endemic corruption. President Win Myint needs to find the best and most incorruptible people in the enforcement authorities and the judiciary and set them to work.
This is the only way the forests and the people of Myanmar will have a chance to reform and move forward.
Forests Campaigners Leader