From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 1997:

BURMA––”About 300 Karen
civilians fled into the Mae Sarieng district” of
Thailand, the Global Response environmental
and human rights electronic mail network
alerted 6,500 members on August 21, “after
Burmese soldiers torched six villages in
Burma’s Doi Kor province,” torturing relatives
and friends of the refugees who were
captured, according to interviews with the
escapees and relief workers published by the
Burma News Network and Bangkok Post.
The refugees, like many other
Karen fleeing the dictatorship of Burma over
the past several years, were interned at a
Thai government camp for displaced persons.
Especially problematic for human
rights advocates was that the incident came in
association with the establishment of the
Myinmoletkat Nature Reserve.

“The Burmese army has murdered
2,000 people and driven 30,000 from their
homes, clearing the Karen area, razing entire
villages, killing, raping, enslaving, to make
way for the biggest nature reserve of its kind
in the world,” the London-based N a t i o n a l
Observer charged on March 23. “Dwarfing
the Masai Mara and the Serengeti, it is home
to rare flora and fauna, tigers, elephants,
and the Sumatran rhinoceros. It will attract
millions of tourists,” the Observer continued.
“Most importantly, it will be a sign to the
world that Burma, shunned because of its
appalling human rights record” since the ruling
junta seized power in September 1988,
“cares about endangered wildlife and the
The junta calls itself by the obscure
acronym SLORC. SLORC, bluntly asserts
the Free Burma Coalition, “is a group of
heroin generals who rule Burma with financial
backing from drug kingpins and multinational
corporations such as Unocal, Total,
ARCO, Texaco, Caterpillar, and Mitsubishi,
as well as political endorsement by the
Association of South East Asian Nations.”
The junta lost a free election supervised by
the United Nations in 1990 to Aung San Suu
Kyi, winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace
Prize––and not only refused to let her take
office, but also kept her under house arrest
from July 20, 1989 to July 10, 1995.
“The military government continued
to harass and imprison her supporters in
1996,” says the World Almanac.
Even U.S. President Bill Clinton

sounds like a firebrand when discussing Burma, for instance in
a November 26, 1996 speech at Chulalonkorn University in
Bangkok, Thailand:
“Burma has long been the world’s number one producer
of opium and heroin, and now is also making methamphetamines,”
Clinton charged. “The role of drugs in Burma’s
economic and political life, and the regime’s refusal to honor
its own pledge to move to multiparty democracy are really two
sides of the same coin.”
The Myinmoletkat Nature Reserve coincidentally
flanks an oil pipeline and railway now under construction,
which when finished will bisect the traditional Karen homeland,
resistant to rule by Rangoon since the British occupation of
Burma ended in 1948.
“The type of construction required by the pipeline
and its platforms [supporting portions crossing over water] is
traditionally recognized as producing grave risks for the environment,”
pointed out the Free Burma Coalition in an August
20 position paper. “Similarly, the on-shore section of the
pipeline threatens forests and rivers, as well as biological
diversity. Not a single environmental impact assessment was
undertaken by an independent body. Unocal claims to have
conducted its own investigation of the environmental impact,
but has not made the results public.”
Reminded the coalition, “Unocal is responsible for
the worst environmental catastrophe ever in California, having
spilled over 10.5 million gallons of gasoline into the sea over a
period of 15 years. A study conducted by the University of
Chulalangkorn in Thailand has shown an unusual level of mercury
in the waters surrounding the Unocal platforms in
Thailand. Finally, Total,” another partner in the Myinmoletkat
pipeline, “has acknowledged having disposed of 75 pounds of
mercury into the Gulf of Thailand since the beginning of the
production of natural gas in that region. The person in charge
of Total’s exploration/production in Thailand has admitted that
the company’s projects in Burma potentially present the same
environmental problems.”
What’s in it for SLORC?
But creating the Myinmoletkat Nature Reserve could
be touted to the world as compensation for any ecological damage
done by either the pipeline or the railway. It also gives
SLORC an excuse to remove the Karen from proximity to
potential targets of sabotage. While global opinion doesn’t
think much of expulsions of indigenous people from their
homeland for mere profiteering, evictions to protect endangered
wildlife are another matter. Should desperate displaced
persons engage in resistance, they can be depicted as poachers––and
as many African nations learned earlier, shooting
alleged poachers on sight is popular policy with western donors
to environmental charities.
Further, international environmental charities can
even be tapped for help in clearing a strategic no-man’s-land,
just so long as the story is maintained that it’s all to help rare
charismatic megafauna. Trucks, light aircraft, night vision
equipment, radar, mapping help, electric fencing, barbed
wire, watch towers, and even automatic rifles may be donated
to protect wildlife. The donor charities might provide tactical
training, too. All of the help might indeed preserve endangered
species, even as it also helps Third World governments keep
their often precariously held political control.
As the Observer of April 6 pointed out, the Burmese
SLORC regime took power in 1988 just as 8,000 Masai herders
and their 75,000 cattle were driven out of the 1,400-square-mile
Mkomazi Game Reserve in eastern Tanzania, now privately
managed by a British nonprofit trust. Their mud huts were
razed behind them, leaving many to eke out an impoverished
existence at the edge of their former home, heavily dependent
on food handouts. With little or no grazing land and water,
most of the cattle are gone.
The eviction of the Masai might or might not have
helped the native wildlife by preventing overgrazing and poaching;
experts debate that point. It might or might not have
served a military and political goal by moving the Masai farther
from ethnic strife breaking out at the time in western Kenya. It
definitely coincided with an influx of foreign aid to wildlife
protection and perhaps other coincidental purposes in Tanzania.
Celebrity fundraisers for the Mkomazi project, the
O b s e r v e r reported, have included the late conservationist
George Adamson, the Prince and Princess Michael of Kent,
the Duke of Kent, Sylvester Stallone, Ali MacGraw, and Clint
Eastwood. Industry patrons include British Petroleum and
British Airways.
To Tanzanian conservation work generally, the U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service sent contributions under the African
Elephant Conservation Act via the African Safari Club, which
according to the USFWS AECA Funded Projects web site sent
“anti-poaching equipment”; Friends of Animals, which sent
“U.S. Army surplus M880 patrol vehicles”; Friends of
Conservation, a nonprofit arm of the safari hunting promoters
Abercrombie & Kent, which provided “security assistance”
and “status surveys of elephants in the Serengeti ecosystem”;
the Center for Wildlife Conservation, which assessed “longterm
impacts of elephant poaching”; and Safari Club
International, which surveyed the Tanzanian elephant population
as a whole.
Botswana, despite offering “little proof for its claim
that the Basarwa (Bushmen) threaten the environment” of the
central Kalahari game reserve, has similarly undertaken forced
eviction of the Basarwa since 1985, first concentrating the formerly
nomadic people in settlements, more recently trucking
them out en masse to sites reminiscent of Indian reservations.
Amid this, says the USFWS AECA Funded Projects
web site, “Funding was provided in cooperation with the
World Wildlife Fund,” in fiscal 1991, “to assist in the development
and implementation of an elephant conservation plan
for Chobe National Park.”
The Burmese government too has attracted conservation
charities, principally the World Wildlife Fund, the
Smithsonian Institution, which operates the National Zoo in
Washington D.C., and the Wildlife Conservation Society,
operators of the Bronz Zoo, Central Park Zoo, Prospect Park
Zoo, and New York Aquarium.
The Observer observes
Alerted to SLORC repression carried out in connection
with clearing humans from the Myinmoletkat Nature
Reserve, the O b s e r v e r last winter sent correspondent Adrian
Levy and photographer Cathy Scott-Clark into Burma, posing
as environmental researchers for a British university, while
staff writer David Harrison pressed WWF, the Smithsonian
and WCS for comment on the Levy and Scott-Clark findings.
According to Levy and Scott-Clark, “The brutal
offensive began in February after troops of the newly formed
Coastal Military Command massed at both ends of the
Tenasserim Division area. An isolated frontier-land cut through
with verdant river valleys and wrapped in dense jungle, the
Tenasserim already has wildlife sanctuaries established by
indigenous groups. Human rights monitors, who have interviewed
refugees fleeing from the area and have visited it” said
that the Burmese junta not only evicted the Karen, but also
forced most of the displaced people into slavery.
“As well as gathering scores of first-hand accounts,
the Observer was shown orders issued by the Tatmadaw, the
SLORC military wing, to village leaders, commandeering men
and women for work,” the expose continued. “One stated, ‘If
you do not come this time, you will be attacked by artillery.’”
A witness told the Observer he “saw at least 10 people
die, women and children among them,” when Tatmadaw
shelled them as they fled forced labor.
“Almost every village in a 40-mile stretch between
the towns of Tavoy and Mergui, the western perimeter of the
biosphere, has been ordered to move one or more times since
September 1996,” the Observer article added. “One non-governmental
organization reported that, ‘Children as young as 12,
people over 60, and women still breast-feeding are forced to
haul dirt, build embankments, break rocks, and dig ditches.’”
T h e O b s e r v e r quoted descriptions of gang rapes by
SLORC soldiers, executions, beatings, and burials of victims
with body parts exposed, as a warning to anyone else who
might resist SLORC orders.
The O b s e r v e r expose was scarcely the first warning
the conservation community had that the Myinmoletkat Nature
Reserve project might be mere cover for SLORC repression of
the Karen. Global Response, based in Boulder, Colorado, had
distributed similar reports since 1993. Human rights groups
had decried forced relocations of villages since early 1991.
The Observer expose coincided with a March federal
court ruling in Los Angeles, on behalf of 15 Burmese exiles,
including Karen and Mon villagers, that the U.S. divisions of
the Total and Unocal oil empires can be held liable for actions
of their foreign partners in association with construction of the
trans-Tenasserim pipeline and railway.
Yet the Observer findings about the Myinmoletkat
Nature Reserve apparently never appeared in major U.S. media.
Nor do the findings seem to have been aggressively followed
up, either by the Observer or by other international media.
WCS speaks
The Smithsonian and WWF did not respond to our
September 15 request for comment, but Asia program director
Joshua Ginsberg of WCS, on the eve of a long personal visit to
Asia, tried hard to distance WCS from the abuses.
“We have had long discussions with the Burmese
government in exile’s United Nations office about the way in
which they and others perceive that our activities contribute a
‘green’ patina to SLORC,” Ginsberg wrote. “In the end, I
asked them if they could provide examples of where SLORC
had used the activities of WCS, or other international conservation
organizations, to bolster their environmental image. To
date, we know of no document in which SLORC invokes our
activities to polish their environmental record. The reports we
send to the Burmese government, which we are also now sending
to the government in exile, frequently are critical of the
conservation activities of the government, and in no way rubber-stamp
their actions.”
ANIMAL PEOPLE didn’t find any SLORC documents
citing either WCS, the Smithsonian, or WWF by name,
but a World Wide Web search quickly produced an official
description of the Myinmoletkat Nature Reserve, signed by one
U Tun Yin, ballyhooing it as “a biosphere reserve with an
enormous potential to become a World Heritage site.”
According to U Tun Yin, the reserve was designated on
September 2, 1996. “The work [of creating it] is being carried
out by the Total Foundation,” U Tun Yin continued, describing
it as “a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting biodi-

versity, whose sole task is to carry out environmental projects.”
Wrote Ginsberg, “We went into Myanmar [the
SLORC name for Burma] because it holds some of the most
spectacular biological wealth in Asia. Roughly 40% of the land
is under forest cover, with the possibility of large remaining
populations of rare and endangered species. But with only 1%
of the land protected under a weak management system,”
Ginsberg added, “and few qualified forestry personnel to
buffer against impending environmental degradation, there was
a real need for the technical expertise that WCS could provide.”
WCS isn’t in Myinmoletkat
“The Myanmar Forest Policy has envisioned designating
30% of the land area as reserved forests and another
10% as parks and wildlife sanctuaries,” U Tun Yin posted.
“Fifty-three species of mammal, 106 species of bird, and 15
species of reptile are protected through the country. The southern
forests of central and southern Taninthayi [Tenasserim] remain largely untouched and still support wonderful wildlife,
such as tigers, elephants, and it is still optimistically hoped,
the Sumatran rhinoceros.”
Red pandas, Irrawaddy dolphins, Siamangs, and
orangutans are also in the area.
“WCS does not support nor condone human rights
abuse, in Burma or in any other country,” Ginsberg insisted.
“WCS is not working in Karen areas. WCS has not been
involved in any project in the Myinmoletkat Nature Reserve.
We are not working with SLORC. We have been working with
the Department of Forestry,” he confirmed. “While Forestry is
a government department, we believe that regarding all people
on government salaries as malefactors is irresponsible and
That much said, Ginsberg acknowledged that WCS
has supported “training of forestry personnel, assessment of the
protected areas, small grants for forestry personnel and students,
and surveys of key species,” to produce biological
“WCS has conducted four major surveys since
1994,” Ginsberg explained. “All have taken place either
in the northernmost areas along the Burma-China/India
border, or in the Lampi Island/Mergui archipelago,” off
southern Tenasserim.
However, both Global Response and the
Observer have reported abuses similar to those associated
with the creation of the Myinmoletkat Nature Reserve in
the Lampi Island/Mergui archipelago.
Myanmar Foreign Ministry advisor Ye Myint
and senior policy advisor Aung Din reportedly boasted to
the O b s e r v e r of the involvement of WCS, the
Smithsonian, and WWF in creating the Lanbi Island
Marine National Park, projected like the Myinmoletkat
Nature Reserve as a major ecotourism attraction. WCS
senior scientist Alan Rabinowitz, who formerly held
Ginsberg’s position, was identified as heading the Lanbi
Island management committee.
Meanwhile, the Observer interviewed refugees
from the Mergui region, who described evictions at gunpoint,
adding, “Stories have also begun to emerge of
killings and disappearances on Lanbi and other islands in
the Mergui archipelago. One elder from a village near
Mergui said, ‘We received reports of 140 deaths between
October and December 1996. On Lanbi Island, we were
told that many had died.”
Responded Ginsberg, “Although human population
on the islands has traditionally been sparse, there has
been a recent increase in immigration. The area suffers from
insurgency, timber theft, and illegal harvesting of marine
resources, including through dynamite fishing. Due to these
problems, and the fact that Forestry has had little or no presence,
military presence has been high. In 1995, WCS conducted
a survey of the Lanbi Island Marine National Park.
Because of the high harvesting pressure in areas close to the
proposed park boundary, the survey team recommended
extending the boundary to protect park resources. We did not
recommend removing people from the park. In fact, we
repeatedly recommend working with the local people to ensure
sustainability of their practices, and in particular, to establish
the rights of the local Salon people,” the ethnic group longest
native to Lanbi Island.
Robin Bellew, director of WWF-United Kingdom,
said WWF had done an elephant survey in Burma in 1992, a
general wildlife survey in 1996, and is planning to do a tiger
survey, but insisted to the Observer that WWF “currently had
no projects in Burma and no formal relationship with the
Burmese authorities.”
The Observer quoted Bellew as saying, “Sometimes
we have to deal with repulsive regimes. We have to weigh up
whether the conservation benefit is worth the risk of being seen,
directly or indirectly, to be supporting those regimes.”
A Smithsonian spokesperson reportedly added, “We
are there to do important conservation work. We may disagree
with a regime, but it is not our place to challenge it.”
An arm of the U.S. government, funded by Congress,
the Smithsonian has paradoxically claimed a duty to uphold
U.S. policy in such other areas as maintaining the public image
of the meat industry, during a spring flap over publication of
an article in Muse, a Smithsonian-endorsed magazine for children,
that the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association considered
overly favorable toward vegetarianism.

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