RANGOON — One year since President Thein Sein declared Burma’s official intent to join an international transparency standard governing natural resource extraction, civil society groups complain that efforts to educate the country’s citizens about the initiative are being hampered by local government officials.
As part of a broader push to prepare Burma for application to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), civil society groups have fanned out across the country in a campaign to raise local awareness about the initiative.
But Saw Moe Myint, an engineer with the Ministry of Mines who is also a member of the Myanmar Green Network, said at a workshop on mineral resources awareness held Saturday in Rangoon that some local government officials had refused to allow the EITI training sessions.
The local resistance comes despite a public push from the highest level of government, with Thein Sein and President’s Office Minister Soe Thane, who is serving as chairman of the EITI implementation committee, appearing eager to set Burma on the path to transparency in natural resource extraction.
The EITI is an international standard for good governance of countries’ extractive industries, in which transparent management of revenues and taxation is required from companies and government.
“We planned for trainings about EITI nationwide, but some provincial authorities do not want to allow that kind of training and we face many difficulties,” Saw Moe Myint said, adding that EITI awareness trainings had nonetheless been successfully carried out in Tenasserim Division and western Bago Division.
Saw Moe Myint declined to identify specific areas where EITI awareness campaigns have run into opposition from local government officials.
“People in some regions do not understand what EITI is, and companies take advantage by identifying themselves as the government and confiscating land. They also go to regional authorities to gain land concessions without checking whether the land has an owner or not,” he said.
“Our people are very simple,” he added. “Sometimes they face court for asking to get back their [confiscated] land; sometimes they are jailed for fighting for their land. These kinds of problems can be reduced through EITI, so we are trying to educate rural people.”
Under the opaque rule of Burma’s former military junta, information on revenues from natural resource extraction for decades was scant or nonexistent. With EITI, access to data on how much money is being earned from resource extraction, how much is being collected in taxes, and in what ways the natural resources bounty is being spent would all be available to citizens.
Another retired mining expert who formerly worked at the Ministry of Mines said the EITI effort was a priority for Thein Sein, who is seen as unlikely to seek a second term in office in 2015 and is looking to bolster his legacy as Burma’s first nominally civilian president.
A national EITI awareness campaign should be successfully carried out before the country submits its application to the initiative, added the former ministry official, who requested anonymity.
Burma looks unlikely to meet Thein Sein’s Dec. 31 deadline to submit an application to join the EITI. That application must include revenue data from both the government and companies operating in Burma’s mining, and oil and gas sectors. Additionally, an “EITI multi-stakeholder group” must be formed to map out a work plan for EITI implementation in Burma.
“We don’t think we can meet the deadline so we requested to extend it to January. During this time, government and companies from mining, and oil and gas have to give statistics on taxes, investment and profit. Other sectors like forestry, water management and electricity will implement EITI in the future,” said the retired mining expert.
The EITI multi-stakeholder group will be led by Soe Thane. The government has already appointed its six members to the group, and the business sector has also appointed its representatives—four from the oil and gas industry and two representing mining interests.
Civil society groups will meet next week to select at least nine people from its ranks to fill out the remaining slots on the multi-stakeholder group roster.
The EITI review of Burma’s eventual application to the initiative is expected to take about 20 months.
“If they are satisfied, we will be a member of EITI, and then we can expand [the application of EITI] sector by sector in the future,” he said.
Data from companies must match the information provided by the government, and civil society would serve as an independent auditor under the EITI framework.
A major goal of EITI is to reduce potential conflicts between local populations and natural resource extracting companies. By requiring extractive enterprises to operate transparently, local communities can better determine whether a company’s operations are equitably benefitting both corporate and communal interests. Through EITI, a mechanism would be in place to allow civil society groups to bring legal claims that arise among companies, the government and citizens.
Devi Thant Cin, also from the Myanmar Green Network, emphasized that EITI could play an equally important role in environmental protection by providing the transparency necessary to gauge extractive ventures’ sustainability.
The EITI, based in Oslo, Norway, was founded in 2003, and consists of an international coalition of representatives from government, industry and civil society. Twenty-five countries are considered “EITI compliant,” and 16 others have submitted applications seeking to achieve compliant status.
In Burma, an EITI Leading Authority was formed by Thein Sein on Dec. 14, 2012, with an aim to submit the country’s candidature by the end of the following year.
Last week on a visited to Burma, EITI chairwoman Clare Short commended the president’s efforts.
“I am impressed by the commitment of the government, civil society and industry to work together for better management of Myanmar’s natural resources,” she said, according to a statement on the EITI website.