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Volume 26 • Issue 1 • April 2017 Price: $8 ($5 student concession)

A publication of the Australian Human Rights Centre

UNSW Law, UNSW Australia

H uman R ights D efender Volume 26 • Issue 1 • April 2017 Price: $8


Maureen Harris


Lu Feng


Fran Lambrick

Environmental justice and human rights in Asia

Recent events

Recent events The Australian Human Rights Centre hosted a workshop, Key challenges in children’s rights, on
Recent events The Australian Human Rights Centre hosted a workshop, Key challenges in children’s rights, on
Recent events The Australian Human Rights Centre hosted a workshop, Key challenges in children’s rights, on

The Australian Human Rights Centre hosted a workshop, Key challenges in children’s rights, on 2 February 2017 that brought together academics and civil society professionals to discuss contemporary challenges to the protection and realisation of children’s rights in Australia and beyond. The workshop created a unique space for extensive conversations between the participants, with only two papers per session. The day concluded with a keynote paper delivered by Professor Aoife Nolan (Nottingham University) titled Child Poverty, Child Rights and Development.

On the 7 February 2017, the AHRCentre hosted

a seminar featuring Prof Conor Gearty and

Prof Andrew Byrnes who discussed the state of

human rights in the European and Australian

contexts in the lead up to the launch of Conor’s new book, On Fantasy Island: Britain, Europe and Human Rights.


Established in 1986, the Australian Human Rights Centre (AHRCentre) is one of the oldest centres in the Faculty of Law at UNSW Australia. The

AHRCentre aims to increase public awareness of and academic scholarship in domestic and international human rights standards, laws and procedures through research projects, education programs and publications. Its primary objectives are to:

undertake and facilitate interdisciplinary human rights research projects; develop human rights educational initiatives by hosting workshops, seminars and conferences, co-ordinating interdisciplinary human rights teaching and internship programs and providing a forum for domestic and international scholarship and debate on contemporary human rights issues; and • provide accessible information on significant human rights developments in Australia, the Asia-Pacific region and internationally, facilitate access to online human rights resources via the AHRCentre website and publish the Australian Journal of Human Rights (AJHR) and the Human Rights Defender (HRD).

AHRCentre Staff

Management: Andrew Byrnes, Chair; Andrea Durbach, Director; Justine Nolan, Deputy Director; Diane Macdonald, Manager Steering Committee: Andrew Byrnes, Louise Chappell, Andrea Durbach, Kieren Fitzpatrick, Rebecca Gilsenan, Justine Nolan, Padma Raman and David Sanderson AHRCentre Project Directors: Andrew Byrnes, Andrea Durbach, Louise Chappell, Bassina Farbenblum, Annie Herro, Jed Horner, Daniel Joyce,

Rosemary Kayess, Kirsten Keith, Lucas Lixinski, Christopher Michaelsen, Justine Nolan, Noam Peleg, Vicki Sentas, Sarah Williams and Pichamon


AHRCentre Associates: Sara Dehm, Beth Goldblatt, Rosemary Grey, Fleur Johns, Susanne Schmeidl, Carolien van Ham AJHR Editors-in Chief: Chris Michaelsen, Justine Nolan and Claudia Tazreiter. Managing Editor: Diane Macdonald AJHR Editorial Board: Christina Binder (University of Vienna), Andrew Byrnes (UNSW Law), Andrea Durbach (UNSW Law), Danielle Celermajer

(University of Sydney), Ben Golder (UNSW Law), Malcolm Langford (University of Oslo), Kelley Loper (Hong Kong University) HRD Editors: Daniel Joyce (Editor-in-Chief), Claire Higgins, Jed Horner, Noam Peleg, Pichamon Yeophantong and Diane Macdonald (Production & Photo Editor)

Human Rights Defender

The Human Rights Defender (HRD) is a human rights magazine published by the

AHRCentre featuring articles, commentary, art and photographs across a broad range of contemporary human rights issues. It provides a forum for the expression

of critical thinking and discussion of conceptual developments in human rights.

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Image © Jeni Rohwer 2017.

Image © Jeni Rohwer 2017. Human Rights Defender Volume 26 • Issue 1 • April 2017




Volume 26 • Issue 1 • April 2017



  • 3 Pichamon Yeophantong


Lu Feng



    • 11 Photos by Pianporn Deetes, Words by Kate Ross


Sean Bowes


Yuan Wang



  • 22 Fran Lambrick



  • 30 Eleanor Holden

MANAGING EDITORS AHRCentre - UNSW Law UNSW Australia Sydney, NSW, Australia, 2052 Email: Web:


AHRCentre - UNSW Law

UNSW Australia

Sydney, NSW, Australia, 2052

Email: Web:

Tel: +612 9385 1803

Twitter: @AHRCentreUNSW


MANAGING EDITORS AHRCentre - UNSW Law UNSW Australia Sydney, NSW, Australia, 2052 Email: Web:

Dr Daniel Joyce is a Lecturer in the Faculty of Law at UNSW
Australia and the Editor-in-Chief for the HRD. He is the project director for the digital media and human rights project for the AHRCentre. He is admitted and practises as a barrister in New South Wales.

Dr Claire Higgins is a Research Associate at the Andrew and
Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law. Claire completed doctoral study in History as a Clarendon Scholar at Merton College, the University of Oxford, writing on the development of Australian refugee policy from 1976 to 1983.

Dr Jed Horner directs the project on health, sexual orientation
and human rights and recently completed his PhD in public health and community medicine at UNSW. He has worked on anti-discrimination law reform and social policy at state and federal levels.

The Human Rights Defender would like to thank the following people for contributing their photographs and art work to this edition:

Pianporn Deetes, the Thailand and Myanmar Campaigns Director of International Rivers


UNSW students Jeni Rohwer and Lydia Morgan.

Dr Noam Peleg is a Lecturer in the Faculty of Law, UNSW
Australia. He previously was a research fellow at the Minerva Centre of Human Rights at the Hebrew University and a Postdoctoral Fellow at University College London, where he also wrote his PhD.

Dr Pichamon May Yeophantong is a Lecturer in International
Relations and Development in the School of Social Sciences, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, UNSW Australia. She leads the Centre’s Environmental Justice and Human Rights in Developing Asia project.


MANAGING EDITORS AHRCentre - UNSW Law UNSW Australia Sydney, NSW, Australia, 2052 Email: Web:

Andrea Durbach is a Professor at UNSW Law and Director of the AHRCentre. Born in South Africa, she practised as a political trial
lawyer and human rights advocate, representing victims and opponents of apartheid laws. Prior to joining UNSW, she was Director of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) in Sydney.

  • Photo Editor and Production Manager
    To submit your photos or artwork for publication,

Diane Macdonald


GUEST EDITOR: Dr Pichamon May Yeophantong MANAGING STUDENT EDITORS: Sean Bowes, Brittney Rigby CONTACT THE EDITOR:

Cover image © Pianporn Deetes 2016. Phongsali, Northern Laos.

©2017 Human Rights Defender. The views expressed herein are those of the authors. The Australian Human Rights Centre accepts no liability for any

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Photo ©Chi Nam 2016. Vietnam. Fair Use Prinicpal applied.
Photo ©Chi Nam 2016. Vietnam. Fair Use Prinicpal applied.

2016 was a landmark year for environmental progress globally. It marked the official launch of the United Nations ambitious Sustainable Development Goals, which further advanced its predecessor’s—the Millennium Development Goals— emphasis on strengthening the international community’s commitment to environmental sustainability. Considered a milestone in multilateral environmental cooperation, last year also saw the Paris Agreement on climate change come into force, as global awareness of how environmental change and the attendant problems impact human well-being reached a new peak.

But 2016 was also a year of continued ecological decline. Especially in Asia, the region faced an onslaught of environment-related woes. China experienced some of the country’s worst bouts of air pollution on record. Beijing and twenty-one other cities choked under a heavy blanket of smog, leading authorities to issue a pollution ‘red alert’ (the highest level of a four-tier warning system). 2 Crucially, this reflects the broader air pollution crisis facing East Asia—a result of the transport of ‘dirty air’ and yellow dust from China, as well as from local polluting industries. South Korea, for example, ranks 17 out of 18 on the Yale

University’s Environmental Performance Index. 3

In India, a situation of drought- induced water scarcity has resulted in ongoing conflict in Karnataka state, where riots and violence broke out over the distribution of the Cauvery River’s water resources. 4 2016 will also be remembered in Vietnam for the unprecedented ‘marine life disaster’. Toxic discharges, reportedly containing traces of cyanide and carbolic acids, from a Taiwanese-owned steel plant had caused around seventy tonnes of dead fish to wash ashore along Vietnam’s 200-kilometre coastline. Not only were fishing communities and tourism severely affected in four provinces, the severity of the disaster was such that rare public protests demanding social and environmental accountability were staged across the country. 5

Editorial ¹



Without a clean and healthy natural environment, human development would not be possible. The ability to breathe non-hazardous air and drink safe water is a basic human right. This is particularly true in less industrialised societies, where livelihoods are closely tied to the environmental services that provide food (e.g. fish) and other necessary resources (e.g. wood).

It is in this way that environmental injustice and social inequality prove inextricable, as the uneven distribution of environmental harm and degradation (think pollution) often exacerbates pre- existing inequality among certain social and minority groups.

To achieve environmental justice, however, observing the principles of distributive justice alone is not sufficient. Equally important is adherence to the rule of law, as well as the consistent and fair enforcement of standards and regulations. Given the prevalence of ‘governance poverty’ in developing Asia, many countries in the region still suffer from the lack of such procedural justice. This is evident from instances of problematic land acquisition and forced displacement, especially those involving foreign investment projects. A case in point is the controversial, but government-sanctioned, Boeung Kak Lake development project in Cambodia. A foreign venture, it has widely been criticised for its failure to respect community rights and acquire land in a transparent manner. 6 In more serious cases, procedural injustice may be manifest in alleged acts of (state- led) environmental violence. Here, the disappearances of the Cambodian and Lao activists Chut Wutty and Sombath Somphone—both of whom are discussed in this issue—come to mind.

Against the backdrop of Asia’s changing social and political landscapes, this issue of the Human Rights Defender explores the intersection of environmental justice and human rights issues. Focusing on cases drawn from China and Southeast Asia, the featured contributions examine the various challenges faced by communities, civil society and the region’s governments in achieving economic modernisation on the one hand, and sustainable development on the other. They also share a common purpose: to distill policy-relevant insights on how current circumstances might be improved.

The strength of this HRD issue is in its inclusion of a diversity of voices and viewpoints. The contributors include an environmental philosopher (Lu Feng), a documentary filmmaker (Fran Lambrick), seasoned practitioners

(Maureen Harris, Pianporn Deetes, Kate

Ross, Yuan Wang), academic experts (Kearrin Sims and Sarah Joseph), and the future generation of thinkers

(Ming Chin En, Blake Lambert, Michael Thai, and Sean Bowes). The issue also features a special interview with Mirco Kreibich, Director of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung’s Myanmar Program, who shares his critical insights on the state of human rights and the environment in Myanmar before and after the Aung San Suu Kyi leadership.

Despite the stark realities of ecological degradation and questionable human rights practices in Asia, there remains hope for positive change: the persistent belief that these problems are not insurmountable. But for this change to happen, talk of sustainable development must be accompanied by real action to actualise our environmental and social obligations. As echoed in the first article of this issue, the burden of responsibility rests squarely with all of us—the producers and consumers of both decline and progress.

Pichamon Yeophantong is a Lecturer

  • 1 This issue of the HRD would not have been possible without the assistance

of the HRD editorial team and our external reviewers. Special thanks also go to Sean

Bowes, Diane Macdonald and Daniel Joyce

for their enthusiasm and support.

  • 2 T. Phillips (2016) ‘Beijing smog:

pollution red alert declared in China capital and 21 other cities’, Guardian, 17 December,

  • 3 Taken from the Environmental

Performance Index on air quality at: http://

  • 4 M. Safi and V. Doshi (2016)

‘Angry clashes in Karnataka as India’s water

wars run deep’, Guardian, 15 September,




  • 5 J. Boudreau, D. Pham & M.N. Chau (2016) ‘Vietnam says Taiwan’s Formosa

caused millions of fish deaths’, Bloomberg, 30 June,




  • 6 C. Sopheap (2014) ‘Boeng Kak

Investor Dismisses Ethics in Name of

Business’, Cambodia Daily, 1 July, https://



in International Relations and Development in the School of Social Sciences at UNSW Sydney, and leads the Environmental Justice and

Human Rights Project in Asia at the

AHRCentre. She is the guest editor

for this issue of the Human Rights Defender.

Photo © Burma Rivers Network 24 March 2017. Protest on International Action for Rivers Day - Stop damming rivers, courtesy of Burma Rivers Network.

It is in this way that environmental injustice and social inequality prove inextricable, as the uneven dec/17/beijing-smog-pollution-red-alert- declared-in-china-capital-and-21-other-cities 3 Taken from the Environmental Performance Index on air quality at: http:// 4 M. Safi and V. Doshi (2016) ‘Angry clashes in Karnataka as India’s water wars run deep’, Guardian , 15 September, development/2016/sep/15/india-angry- clashes-karnataka-water-wars-run-deep- tamil-nadu 5 J. Boudreau, D. Pham & M.N. Chau (2016) ‘Vietnam says Taiwan’s Formosa caused millions of fish deaths’, Bloomberg , 30 June, news/articles/2016-06-30/toxic-discharge- from-taiwan-s-formosa-caused-vietnam- fish-deaths 6 C. Sopheap (2014) ‘Boeng Kak Investor Dismisses Ethics in Name of Business’, Cambodia Daily , 1 July, https:// kak-investor-dismisses-ethics-in-name-of- business-62927/ in International Relations and Development in the School of Social Sciences at UNSW Sydney, and leads the Environmental Justice and Human Rights Project in Asia at the AHRCentre. She is the guest editor for this issue of the Human Rights Defender. Photo © Burma Rivers Network 24 March 2017. Protest on International Action for Rivers Day - Stop damming rivers , courtesy of Burma Rivers Network. Page 4 Human Rights Defender • Volume 26 • Issue 1 • April 2017 " id="pdf-obj-5-113" src="pdf-obj-5-113.jpg">
Photo © Leo Fung 2010. CHONGQING SHI, CHONGQING, CHINA - great expectations 2010. Re-printed under a
Photo © Leo Fung 2010. CHONGQING SHI, CHONGQING, CHINA - great expectations 2010. Re-printed
under a Creative Commons Attribution License.

Since 1978, the Chinese economy has been growing rapidly. In 2012, China’s GDP became the second highest in the world. Television sets, refrigerators, air conditioners, computers, mobile phones, and cars are no longer rare amenities for the Chinese people. Yet, clean air, clean water, and healthy food have become increasingly rare. Although China experienced a shortage of living necessities such as food and clothing between 1949 and 1977, the country’s natural environment was arguably much ‘cleaner’ than it is now. Since 2013, increasing PM2.5—that is, atmospheric particles that have a diametre of less than, or equal to, 2.5 micron—in the air has posed a serious threat to people’s health across the country.

Most recently in Beijing, the air quality worsened so severely that people had to wear facemasks outside on a daily basis. 1 In major cities such as Tianjin, Shijiazhuang, and Shanghai, polluted air has been linked to a range of illnesses, including sore throat, trachitis, cerebral haemorrhage, and hypertension, and has consequently raised considerable alarm among locals. China’s air pollution today is a product of its past:

the result of over three decades of

rapid industrialisation and economic development since the 1970s. With a growing number of factories cropping up in many Chinese provinces, an increasing amount of coal is being used. Of China’s total energy, 96 per cent is sourced from coal, as green technology is still not well-developed. 2

But while it is common to hear complaints about China’s air pollution problem—how it is harming people’s health and lowering people’s quality of life—it is less common to hear anyone take responsibility. This raises two important questions: who bears responsibility for heavy air pollution in China? And who has the duty to change it? In this article, I argue that the answer is simple: responsibility lies with the Chinese people.

Between rights and responsibilities

Since the end of the nineteenth century, China has actively sought to amass wealth and power, both domestically and internationally, with the aim of enhancing national security. Especially

Who bears responsibility for air pollution in

China? Some critical


Dr Lu Feng

from the early 1980s onwards, China underwent rapid modernisation—a process that began as early as the 1940s. In pursuing his ‘reform and opening up’ policy agenda, former President Deng Xiaoping noted how ‘Development is absolutely necessary in China’. 3 Since then, ‘development’ has become the central concept in the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party.

‘Development’ has largely been defined in Chinese policy circles as economic growth, which is in turn understood as the cultivation of material wealth. This understanding has persisted until the present-day. It is commonly believed that people will become happier as the economy thrives. Indeed, the Chinese government continues to defend the country’s right to develop and, thus, industrialise at various international fora. Australia, the United States and Europe are all advanced economies boasting comparatively high standards of living. Why should the Chinese people not enjoy a similar standard of living? The rights of the Chinese people are the same as those of Australians, Americans and Europeans. As such, the Chinese people should also have the right to live in the way of ‘mass production, mass consumption and mass emission’, which first originated in these developed countries.

However, the reverse has been true:

as the economy rapidly grows, the emerging addiction of the Chinese population—especially those living in big cities—to the ‘mass consumption and mass emission’ lifestyle has now resulted in losing the ability to breathe clean air and drink clear water, which, in turn, underscores the country’s broader environmental crisis. Severe air pollution is the consequence of this national obsession with development.

With China’s transition to a market economy in the early 1980s, democracy and the rule of law is developing very slowly and with difficulty in China. Although more people are awakening to a consciousness of human rights, they have been slower to awaken to a consciousness that their rights and duties are complementary and interdependent. Many people are enthusiastic to defend their own rights, but are not so enthusiastic to respect and defend the rights of other people. There is, unfortunately, little

consciousness of a duty to protect common goods, including the health and integrity of critical ecological systems. In this light, I would argue that many Chinese citizens do not entertain a clear conception of justice. Justice is understood here as the proper allocation of rights and duties among different actors (i.e. individuals, organisations and groups). A just institution is one that appropriates a proper proportion of rights and duties to every actor. For this reason, justice is a virtue of exceeding importance to modern Chinese society. The just citizen is one who respects others’ rights and observes their responsibilities to the law and society. Unfortunately, it would appear that too few citizens among the Chinese population have adopted this virtue.

In order to mitigate heavy air pollution and traffic congestion in cities, the Chinese government has sought to progressively limit the number of vehicles on the road. Whether a particular vehicle can be used or not depends upon the classification of the vehicle registration numbers. Some people view this as a violation of their personal right to use cars and, by extension, an infringement upon their freedom of movement and freedom to choose how they live their life. However, it is necessary to restrict the number of cars on the road and ban the use of certain high-polluting vehicles in congested and severely polluted cities like Beijing. Given that carbon emissions from vehicles are among the major sources of PM2.5 in China’s big cities, every citizen has a duty to avoid, or stop, driving for at least one or two days per week in order to help alleviate air pollution, except those who have to drive to acquire their necessities to live.

It is in this sense that the majority of the Chinese people, except those living very simply in undeveloped areas of Tibet and Xinjiang, bear responsibility for the heavy pollution seen in China today. That said, it is of course the case that different people who belong to different professions and socioeconomic backgrounds should be ascribed different duties. The leaders of the Chinese Communist Party and the central government are obligated to change the country’s overarching development policy, as well as ensure that the country’s political and economic institutions encourage clean production and green consumption.

Likewise, the CEOs of polluting enterprises have both a legal and moral obligation to cease business-related activities that cause unnecessary environmental harm and also to pay for necessary emissions, whereas scientists and engineers have a duty to innovate efficient green technology. And most importantly, every citizen has a responsibility to live prudently and greenly.

Between environmental justice and eco-civilisation

In China today, we need to invest a concerted effort into achieving environmental justice. The term ‘environmental justice’ can be used to refer to how every individual has a right to live in a clean environment. But in the absence of laws in China that protect the environmental rights of citizens, the burden of responsibility rests upon the Chinese people to fundamentally change our way of production and consumption.

Here, the right to environmental justice and the duty to protect the environment are intertwined. Only when every citizen lives ‘green’ can we begin to save our badly polluted environment. In this sense, we can view environmental justice as an expansion of the general concept of justice – that is, the proper allocation of the right to live in a clean environment and the duty to protect the natural environment.

Fortunately, a growing number of Chinese people are beginning to realize that we cannot, and should not, completely imitate the western model of growth-led development. China must find its own way to achieve sustainable development. This is epitomised in the idea of ‘eco-civilisation’, which refers to a society whose modes of production and consumption are guided by ecological laws. Currently, constructing an eco-civilisation in China is recognised by the Chinese government as part of a long-term national strategy.

It is not always easy for western scholars to understand what eco- civilisation means. As used by anthropologists and historians, ‘civilisation’ normally refers to a very

Photo © Sheila 2007. LINFEN, CHINA – An elevated view of one of Linfen’s main streets.
Photo © Sheila 2007. LINFEN, CHINA – An elevated view of
one of Linfen’s main streets. Linfen has been named by some
organizations as the dirtiest city in the world. Re-printed
under a Creative Commons Attribution License.

general idea, defined in terms of human ways of life as distinct from that of nonhuman animals, and the objects created by human beings such as tools, instruments, machines, languages, laws, institutions, and the like. Human civilisation originated in fishing and hunting societies, and progressed through farming. We are now in the period of industrial civilisation that originated in Europe. In many respects, especially with regard to the production of material wealth, industrial civilisation has proven to be extraordinarily successful. The fatal sickness of this industrial civilisation, however, is that it is not sustainable. A radical and systematic change is needed.

Today, there are more people in China who adopt the concept of eco- civilisation as a means to safeguard the sustainability of our civilisation. From an eco-civilisation perspective, pollution and environmental damage is caused by specific elements of industrial civilisation, including coal- sourced energy, technology, and global markets; however, the sources of these deep-seated problems can also be found at the level of the institutions and ideas underpinning a civilisation. In this way, eco-civilisation becomes an inevitable consequence of industrial civilisation itself. To keep the biosphere healthy and make human civilisation sustainable, we need to transform our current industrial civilisation in a systematic manner. In order to do so, we need to reduce the use of fossil fuel, innovate green technology, regulate the market with ecological principles, as well as change laws and public policies to encourage clean production, a ‘circular’ economy and green consumption. Most importantly, we must change the mainstream ideas that

have supported industrial civilisation for the past 300 or so years. Among these ideas, scientism and axiological materialism are fundamentally wrong, but are still believed by many, especially in today’s China.

Constructing eco-civilisation may well lead to one of the greatest revolutions in human history. Yet, constructing eco- civilisation will also be one of the most difficult endeavours that we, as human beings, seek to achieve.

‘Scientism’ presupposes that scientific

knowledge is progressing toward a

final theory about the universe we live in. 4 Unlimited scientific progress supports unlimited technological innovation. Any problem that arises from economic development can thus be solved by technological innovation. In turn, scientific progress can be seen to support the unlimited growth of material wealth. This feeds into the concept of ‘axiological materialism’, which claims that the ultimate meaning of human life lies with the creation, possession and consumption of material wealth. Pursuit of the common good, therefore, involves the pursuit of economic growth, which is necessary for the construction of necessary infrastructure as well as the development of, inter alia, health and educational services. From this perspective, mass production, mass consumption, and mass emission would appear rational and right. But scientism and axiological materialism are fundamentally wrong, just as lifestyles based on ‘mass production, mass consumption and mass emission’ are unsustainable.

Bid farewell to industrial civilisation; only by entering into eco-civilisation can we truly realise environmental justice.

Dr Lu Feng is Professor of Philosophy and Executive Director of the Center for Ecological Civilization at Tsinghua University, China. He can be contacted at

  • 1 Li Y. (2014) ‘Haze days, wearing

what kind of mask?’, Science and Technology

Daily 28(2), 4.

  • 2 R. Smith (2015) ‘China’s

Communist-Capitalist Ecological Apocalypse’, Real-World Economics Review 71.

  • 3 Deng X. (1998) Deng Xiaoping’s Economic Thought (Beijing: Economic

Management Press), 63-66.

  • 4 S. Weinberg (1993) Dreams of a

Final Theory: The Scientists Search for the

Ultimate Laws of Nature (New York: Random House), 242.

Without eco-civilisation, environmental justice will remain elusive in China—if not the world. Without eco-civilisation, we may have more cars, more advanced smartphones, more intelligent machines, but we will not possess the most basic of necessities: clean air, clean water, and safe and healthy food.

Photo © Prachatai 2015. CAMBODIA - Lower Sesan II Dam. Re-printed under a Creative Commons Attribution License.

‘We will fight until

we die, we will not

leave’ 1 : Dams and environmental rights in the Mekong

Maureen Harris

Hundreds of large dams are currently planned or underway along the Mekong River and its tributaries, driven by a demand for energy and revenue to boost economic development. Yet hydropower development not only has significant environmental costs, but also human ones. People are forced to relocate from their homelands; many lose access to fresh water, productive land, community forests and fish, an essential source of protein in local diets. Resettlement programs often do not provide adequate farmland for rural smallholders, as arable land in the region is increasingly tied up in corporate agricultural concessions. For populations who live downstream, the exploitation of the Mekong River by private developers has detrimental impacts on fish stocks, agricultural productivity, water quality and seasonal flow patterns. Diminished access to food and water security and the loss of material and cultural livelihoods are fundamental human rights concerns.

These issues are not isolated to the Mekong River Basin. Throughout Southeast Asia, hydropower development is accelerating against a backdrop of natural resource competition and often at the expense of marginalized ethnic groups and indigenous peoples. Local communities across the region are struggling to cope with the rush of dam-building. For instance, in 2011, the massive 6,000-megawatt (MW) Myitsone dam, proposed for construction in the Irrawaddy Basin in Myanmar, was postponed by former President Thein Sein following public outcry and a grassroots people’s campaign opposing the project. Following recent parliamentary elections in which the new National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government swept into power, the project is back on the table for consideration. The struggle between governments, developers and local communities is as much a struggle for human rights as it is for the development choices the will shape the future of the region and its people.

The case of the Lower Sesan II dam in Cambodia

In Stung Treng province in northeastern Cambodia, indigenous villagers in Kbal Romeas are preparing to leave their homes for newly developed resettlement sites, paving the way for the 400MW Lower Sesan II dam (LSII), which will officially displace around 5,000 people. 2 The dam is under rapid construction by a consortium of Chinese and Cambodian companies. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and his government promote hydropower construction as a boon to economic development and energy generation in a country where over 75 per cent of people lack access to electricity. 3

Some villagers in Kbal Romeas have

agreed to relocate. Yet villagers assert that in some cases agreement to move

was obtained under duress, or because

people felt they had little choice. 4 Others have vowed to remain, even to die in their homes, expressing their deep cultural and historical relationship to the landscape. Relocation due to the dam will result in extensive loss of fisheries, arable land, and community forest. There is little information on plans to ensure long term food security, or support a transition to new forms of livelihoods. Reports from the resettlement site have emerged, describing poor quality housing and farmland. Resettlement is an extremely difficult and fraught process, likely to fail without adequate resources, community buy-in, and extensive consultation and planning. 5 None of these factors have been addressed in the relocation of people from Kbal Romeas, or the other villages to be affected by the LSII project. Further, the indigenous identity and legislated cultural rights of those displaced have scarcely registered in the project resettlement plans.

The human rights footprint of LSII extends far beyond involuntary resettlement in the reservoir area. The dam blocks both the Sesan and Srepok Rivers, major tributaries forming essential channels and spawning grounds for long-distance migratory fish in the Mekong Basin. A 2012 study, released after the Cambodian government had already approved the LSII dam’s environmental impact

assessment (EIA), 6 estimated a 9.3 per cent decrease in fish biomass across the entire Lower Mekong Basin. 7 Hundreds of thousands of villagers along the linked ecosystems of the Mekong River and Tonle Sap Lake face significant decline in fish catch, which is critical to the food security and nutrition of local communities. These impacts have major implications for the right to food and livelihood of affected populations. The project’s EIA alluded to its extensive impact on fisheries, but did little to address them. Ecological transformation and the loss of river-based livelihoods is akin to being displaced without physical relocation, yet these communities will be offered no compensation.

Decision-making on LSII, as for many dams in the region, has suffered from a lack of transparency and public debate. Official statements by government officials frame hydropower

development as inevitable in a country and region where a large proportion of the population lacks access to electricity. Yet many large dams support electricity for export or industrial rather than local or domestic use. Cost- benefit analyses tend to underestimate environmental and social costs and exclude assessments of alternatives. The Cambodian government has paid scant attention to renewable and smaller-scale decentralized energy technologies, which are increasingly cost-competitive and relatively effective

contributing to climate change, 10 as

well as to other serious social and environmental problems. 11 This is a significant concern in the Mekong, a region facing major impacts from climate change. Declining water levels, reduced sediment and rising sea levels

are already causing saline intrusion,

disrupting agricultural productivity in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. Increases in the occurrence and intensity of extreme weather events due to climate change, such as droughts and tropical storms, may compound the impacts of dams and the threats to local populations. Shifts in weather patterns and water flows also raise questions about the long-term viability of large dams, and the justifications for developing them.

The electricity to be generated by LSII is proposed for domestic consumption. However, much of the

power is speculated to be routed to

energy-hungry mining and industrial developments in Stung Treng and neighboring provinces. Many of the arguments used by Southeast Asian governments to promote dams emphasize their importance to boosting development and growth for countries long dogged by poverty and economic stagnation. The net advantages of dams are attributed to an abstract ‘nation’. However, these advantages generally privilege an elite few, with marginalized people bearing the brunt of the impacts.

in ensuring electricity access in rural

areas where it is lacking, with much

lower human rights and environmental costs.

Environmental rights: development for whom?

Questions surround the public interest value of many large dam projects. While experiencing a boom in parts of Southeast Asia, hydropower development is in decline in other parts of the world. Globally from 2013 to 2015, new capacity has rapidly dwindled from 38 gigawatts (GW) to 22GW only two years later. 8 Studies show that hydropower projects are economically questionable, with cost overruns averaging 96 per cent. 9 Despite justifications of large hydro as ‘clean energy,’ research has found that large dams in tropical basins are a significant source of methane emissions

The international human rights framework prohibits involuntary resettlement for large-scale development projects not justified by ‘compelling and overriding public interest’. 12 Due to the well-documented economic and environmental costs of large-scale hydropower projects, as well as the inequitable social benefits, there are clear grounds for scrutinising and contesting environmentally destructive dam projects from a human rights perspective.

Human rights and the environment

In March 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a resolution on human rights and the environment, recognizing that environmental degradation and unsustainable use of natural resources

interferes with the enjoyment of human rights. 13 It built on work of the Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, who has set out a framework for governments to protect against such interference, including:

‘(a) procedural obligations, including to make environmental information publicly available, facilitate public participation in environmental decision-making

and provide access to legal


  • (b) substantive obligations to

adopt institutional frameworks to protect against environmental harm that may infringe on enjoyment of human rights; and

  • (c) heightened obligations to

protect those who are most

vulnerable to such harm.’ 14

Adherence to this framework requires governments to ensure appropriate weight is given to human rights in environmental decision-making, and that alternatives which minimize impacts on human rights and vulnerable populations are favoured where reasonably available.

These obligations extend to corporate stakeholders involved in mega-projects. Governments in the region lack the technical and financial capacity to implement projects themselves. Most Mekong dams are therefore driven by cross-border investment from neighbouring countries such as Thailand and China.

Yet local communities in both home and host states have struggled to find effective avenues to seek redress for the impacts of such projects. For instance, villagers in northern Thailand affected by the 1,285MW Xayaburi Dam in Laos filed a lawsuit in Thailand’s Administrative Court challenging Thai state agencies’ approval of a Power Purchase Agreement for the project. The approval was given without adequate community consultation and in the absence of a transboundary EIA examining the impacts of the project on Thai communities. Originally filed in 2012 and dismissed by the lower court, the case saw a landmark appeal

decision by the Supreme Administrative Court accepting jurisdiction, and remains ongoing nearly five years later. 15 Another example is seen in a complaint by Cambodian and Thai communities and NGOs to the Malaysian Human Rights Commission against the Malaysian developer of the Don Sahong Dam in Laos. The commission ultimately concluded that it lacked the mandate to conduct an extra-territorial investigation into the project, but issued recommendations to the developer to ensure respect for human rights in its overseas operations

and to the Malaysian government to take further action to regulate the conduct of companies in outbound investments. 16

International and domestic law is slowly evolving on transboundary harm and extraterritorial human rights obligations (ETOs). 17 In one example from the region, a recent Thai Cabinet resolution and policy guidelines from the Ministry

of Foreign Affairs on the Dawei Special

Economic Zone (SEZ) in Myanmar

noted the responsibility of the Thai government and investors to monitor the human rights impacts of overseas investments in line with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. 18 Unfortunately, enforcement and domestic implementation remain lacking.


The struggle for human rights in the Mekong is inextricably bound up with decisions on environmental governance and the use of natural resources. More must be demanded of the human rights framework to secure the voices of all, especially the most vulnerable, in these decisions—and in determining the region’s future.

Maureen Harris is the Southeast Asia Program Director of International


  • 1 Sign in Khmer in Kbal Romeas village, Stung Treng Province, Cambodia.

  • 2 International Rivers (n.d.) ‘Lower

  • 3 Council for the Development

of Cambodia (2013) Cambodia Investment

Guidebook 2013 (Phnom Penh: Japanese International Cooperation Agency).

  • 4 Mekong Watch (n.d.) ‘Field Notes:

Interview at Affected Village in February 2015

Regarding Asset Survey Held on Lower Sesan

Large Dams: Dealing with Social, Environmental,

Institutional and Political Costs (London and Sterling: Earthscan).

  • 6 Key Consultants (Cambodia) Ltd. (2008), Environment Impact Assessment for

Feasibility Study of Lower Sesan 2 Hydropower Project (Phnom Penh).

  • 7 G. Ziv et al. (2012) ‘Trading-off Fish Biodiversity, Food Security and Hydropower in the

Mekong River Basin’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109(15), 5609–5614.

  • 8 International Renewable Energy Agency (n.d.) 2016 Renewable Capacity Statistics,


  • 9 A. Ansar, B. Flyvbjerg, A. Budzier, & D. Lunn (2014) ‘Should We Build More Large Dams?

The Actual Costs of Hydropower Megaproject Development’, Energy Policy, 1-14.

  • 10 M. Manibo (2016) ‘Are mega dams

a solution or burden to climate change?’,

Eco-business, 4 May; CNRS (Délégation Paris Michel-Ange) (2014), ‘Ebullition causes methane

emissions in tropical reservoirs’, ScienceDaily, 13 August.

  • 11 J. Kirchher (2016) ‘Why we urgently

need more research on the social impacts of

  • 12 United Nations (1998) Guiding

Principles on Internal Displacement, UN Doc. E/ CN.4/1998/53/Add.2, Article 6.

  • 13 United Nations General Assembly

(2015) Human Rights Council Resolution 28/11:

Human rights and the environment, UN Doc A/


  • 14 J. Knox (2015) ‘Report of the Special

Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment’, Human Rights Council 31 st session, UN Doc A/

HRC/31/53, at para. 3.

  • 15 Business and Human Rights Resource

Centre (n.d.) ‘Xayaburi dam lawsuit (re Laos & Thailand)’, xayaburi-dam-lawsuit-re-laos-thailand

  • 16 Business and Human Rights Resource

Centre (n.d.) ‘National Human Rights Commission

of Malaysia responds to complaint about adverse environmental & social impacts of Don Sahong dam construction’, https://business-humanrights.

  • 17 The Maastricht Principles on Extra-

territorial Human Rights Obligations of States in the area of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

(2013), were developed by a group of jurists to

provide guidance on the application of the human rights framework to ETOs.

  • 18 Pianporn Deetes (2016) ‘Visit is a

chance to rethink investments’, Bangkok Post,

Photos by Pianporn Deetes Words by Kate Ross

Photo essay: The human cost of hydropower

Rivers play a central role in the lives of millions of people in Southeast Asia. They are the lifeblood of the region, providing fish, fresh water, fertile sediment, employment, transportation, recreation and many other essential benefits. However, these critical lifelines are increasingly threatened by the construction of cascades of large dams which will irreversibly alter the ecology of the rivers, block crucial fish migration routes and re-settle hundreds of thousands of families. The widespread social and environmental impacts of large dam projects disproportionally affect riparian communities, many of them ethnic and indigenous peoples who have limited voice in the decision-making process. The photos presented below illustrate the importance of three of Southeast Asia’s most iconic rivers, the Nam Ou, Mekong and Salween Rivers, the way of life that they support and the impacts associated with large-scale hydropower development on each river.

The Nam Ou River is one of the most important rivers in Laos. Originating along the Lao-China border, the river flows south into northern Laos and on to meet the mainstream of the Mekong River. Communities of diverse ethnic minorities have relied for generations on the Nam Ou River and surrounding forest resources for food, income and spiritual well being. These communities are now significantly affected by the ongoing construction of a cascade of seven dams along the river. Three dams are already completed, and phase two of the cascade development was announced in April 2016. Affected villagers have been largely kept in the dark about project plans and resettlement schemes.

Photos by Pianporn Deetes Words by Kate Ross Photo essay: The human cost of hydropower Rivers

1. The impacts from the first three dams on the Nam Ou River are already apparent: a lady who lives just downstream of the Nam Ou 6 dam looks out at the Nam Ou River. The water level has become uncertain since the dam started operation. Sometimes, water released from the dam upstream floods her small shop. Her life has been irreversibly altered by construction of the dam, yet she has received no acknowledgement of the impacts or compensation from the dam developers.

Photos by Pianporn Deetes Words by Kate Ross Photo essay: The human cost of hydropower Rivers
  • 2. Downstream of the Nam Ou 6 dam stands an abandoned

village. Villagers were relocated to a site up on the hill, where three villages were moved together, far from the river. Villagers still travel back to their old village to look for materials for their homes, and to visit their abandoned farms in search of food. The image of beautiful new homes and a better life put forward by project developers is in stark contrast to the reality which these villagers now face.

The destructive model of dam development, which externalises the true social and environmental cost of these projects, is being exported beyond the Nam Ou River. On the lower Mekong River, two dams are under construction, along the river’s mainstream in Laos, with a third following quickly. Before the Xayaburi Dam moved forward in 2010, the lower Mekong River flowed freely from Laos through the Vietnam Delta. Now, Mekong communities face a similar uncertainty over their future as villagers along the Nam Ou River.

The Mekong River is recognised globally for its abundant biodiversity and is home to the world’s largest freshwater fishery.

Communities along the length of the river rely on fish as a critical protein source, and for many people Mekong fish are also a primary means of livelihood. Mekong fisheries face a major threat from hydropower construction due to blocked migration routes, reservoirs and irreversible ecosystem changes. A significant decrease in fish stocks and shifts in the river’s seasonal flood pulse are likely to trigger a food security crisis in the region. One of the most vital fish migration pathways along the lower Mekong mainstream is found in Siphandone, southern Laos. In 2014, construction began on the Don Sahong Dam, blocking the Hou Sahong Channel, the main pathway in the area allowing for year-round fish migration. The dam is located just two kilometres upstream of the Laos-Cambodia border; however, project developers have failed to study the dam’s trans-boundary impacts,

leading to widespread concern in Cambodia and throughout the lower Mekong region.

3. A fisherman casts his net on the Mekong River in Siphandone, Southern

Laos, close to the site of the Don Sahong

dam. Construction of the Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams moved forward without meaningful consultation with affected communities, ignoring objections from people across the

region and ongoing concerns voiced by

neighboring countries that share the

river downstream.

The Mekong River is recognised globally for its abundant biodiversity and is home to the world’s
The Mekong River is recognised globally for its abundant biodiversity and is home to the world’s

4. In November 2016, the Lao government announced plans to move

forward with a third dam on the lower

Mekong mainstream, the Pak Beng dam, in northern Laos. A fishing boat travels along the Mekong River in Pak Beng,

which is a popular tourist route for slow boats coming from Thailand.

With each new dam that moves

forward, the impacts on the Mekong

River and its people are compounded, and the unique ecosystems and vital

natural resources are pushed to the brink of collapse.

All photos © Pianporn Deetes 1. Nam Ou River in Phongsali, Northern Laos, 2016 2. Nam Ou in Phongsali, Northern Laos, 2016 3. Fisherman at Don Sahong, Laos - 2016 4. Fisherman Pak Beng, Laos - 2016 5. Salween River, Karen State, Myanmar 2007 6. IDP family, Karen State, Myanmar 2006

  • 7. IDP camp, Karen state, Myanmar 2006

  • 8. IDP camp, Karen state, Myanmar 2006

The Mekong’s sister river, the Salween is one of Asia’s longest remaining free-flowing rivers. It holds a unique place in the identity of the diverse ethnic peoples who live along its length. The Salween River sustains rich fisheries and fertile farmland that are central to the lives of communities living along its banks. The history and significance of the river runs deeply through these communities. Due to decades of armed conflict, it is also a highly sensitive and contentious area. Salween communities have experienced decades of violence and displacement in Myanmar’s longstanding civil war. A cascade of seven dams planned along the Salween River represent yet another installment in a long series of devastating events.

The Mekong’s sister river, the Salween is one of Asia’s longest remaining free-flowing rivers. It holds

5. A boat navigates rapids along the Salween River near the location of the proposed Hat Gyi dam in Karen State, Myanmar, and the site of recent active armed conflict.

The Mekong’s sister river, the Salween is one of Asia’s longest remaining free-flowing rivers. It holds

6. Most dam-affected people in Karen and Shan State, Myanmar, are either internally displaced people (IDPs), or refugees who were forced to flee to Thailand during Myanmar’s military junta and decades of conflict. Planned dams along the Salween River, including the Hat Gyi and Mon Ton dams, threaten to drown the hopes of thousands of refugees of ever returning home. The proposed dams face widespread opposition from local communities.

The Mekong’s sister river, the Salween is one of Asia’s longest remaining free-flowing rivers. It holds
The Mekong’s sister river, the Salween is one of Asia’s longest remaining free-flowing rivers. It holds

8. A medic treats a woman at an IDP camp along the Salween River.

7. An IDP family at a camp along the Salween River close to the site of the proposed Hat Gyi dam.

Dams planned, under construction and in operation on these three rivers will have profound and irreversible social and environmental impacts. The people who stand to lose the most are riparian communities who have little voice in decision-making processes. There is an urgent need for governments in Southeast Asia to recognise the importance of these iconic rivers and the benefits that they provide beyond electricity generation. Healthy rivers are the lifelines of our planet and this is nowhere more evident than in the Nam Ou, the Mekong and the Salween Rivers.

Pianporn Deetes is the Thailand and Myanmar Campaigns Director of International Rivers. Kate Ross is the Mekong Program Coordinator of International Rivers.

Human rights and environmental justice in Myanmar:

An interview with Mirco Kreibich

Sean Bowes

Photo © Stephan Röhl.
Photo © Stephan Röhl.

Myanmar is undergoing a democratic transition. Just last year, its first

democratically elected government came to power after decades of military rule. Although Nobel Peace Prize

laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK), was

constitutionally barred from becoming President due to the British nationality of her husband and children, she is the State Counsellor and de facto head of Myanmar’s government.

Despite these changes, the situation in Myanmar remains fraught. Amnesty International reports that the change of government ‘did not lead to significant improvements in the human rights situation’. 1 Violence and discrimination against the Rohingya minority has intensified, 2 fighting between ethnic armed groups and the Myanmar Army persists, 3 political repression continues, 4 land grabs deprive farmers of their homes and livelihoods, 5 and foreign direct investment increasingly drives the management of natural resources. 6

One challenge is that for local and international NGOs [non-governmental organisations] in the country, it’s still quite cumbersome to work. We have to deal with a lot of bureaucracy. It takes a lot of time to get a memorandum of understanding with the government. You need this to register yourself. Most organisations that I know have taken more than two years to register.

A huge challenge that we face is the weak capacities on the ground. It’s a typical transition or post-conflict context where you have a lot of INGOs and a lot of international donors— Myanmar has become a donor darling. There is a lot of money coming into the country, but at the same time, there is basically one or more than one generation that has not had a proper education. So there is a lot of competition for a very tight labour market. This is one of the challenges for us.

The other is that civil society is still

To find out more, I spoke with Mirco Kreibich, Director of the Myanmar Program of the Heinrich Böll Foundation (HBF). HBF is a German- based political foundation with offices in 34 different countries. Its work focuses on democracy, human rights, environmental degradation, social participation, non-violent conflict resolution and individual rights.

What challenges does HBF face

working in Myanmar?

I think there are two main challenges.

not really regarded as a key player in

political decision-making. The whole question of the participation of people, of civil society, has not yet taken root. This also hasn’t really changed with the change of government. On the contrary, some of our partners would even say that it has gotten worse.

What difficulties have you personally faced working in Myanmar?

For me personally, there are cumbersome issues – for example, legal status. Unless you are a member of [the] UN or diplomatic staff, when you

come from civil society, it’s difficult to get long-term visas. You have to leave the country every 70 days. Almost all of us are on multiple-entry business visas. That’s the only way for international staff to stay on longer-terms.

I’ve never had any problem with my work. We are free to work on difficult topics. But there are some topics that are very, very ‘hot potatoes’— for example, the Rohingya issue. It’s difficult for organisations working on this issue. You expose yourself as an organisation not only to nationalist Buddhists, but also to public opinion. But while these are challenges, they exist more at the logistical and bureaucratic levels, rather than at the political level.

In your article, ‘Burma’s Rocky Path

to Democracy—The Role of Natural Resources’, 7 you wrote about Myanmar

being treated like a pawn in a game of geopolitical chess between China

and India. What are China and India’s impact on Myanmar?

You have to differentiate between China and India. Myanmar’s ties to India are rather weak, which was something that surprised me given the common history. Myanmar was part of India when India was a British colony. These ties have been broken and culturally, there is hardly any exchange between the regions bordering the northeast of India. The border has been closed for the past decades. People don’t really look towards India when they look towards their future.

India has been very cautious when it comes to direct investments in Myanmar. This is very different to China. China has, in the past decades, been the ‘big brother’. There’s even a saying that China and Myanmar are ‘brotherly countries’. China has, in the past three decades, hugely invested in Myanmar. It’s by far the largest foreign investor in Myanmar and politically, it has also invested a lot.

For China, Myanmar has been a crucial cornerstone in their ‘One Belt, One Road’ policy. Myanmar gives China and especially its southwestern parts— Yunnan province, for example—direct access to the Indian Ocean. This is China’s major interest in Myanmar:

to build these trade routes through Myanmar to the Indian Ocean. They are building a special economic zone in Kyaukpyu, which is in Rakhine State. A deep-sea port will be built. They already have oil and gas pipelines. They are about to build roads. There is a lot of talk about a rail link as well. They want to build a major trade route through the north of Myanmar that will bring their goods to the west. For them, that’s a big issue.

The other big issue is energy. I think the interest in energy may have waned a bit because China now has fewer energy needs. In Yunnan, there is actually energy excess at the moment because of lower growth rates. So at the moment, there is not so much demand. But China is always planning ahead for the longer term. I think they have identified the whole Southeast Asian region as crucial to securing their energy future through hydropower. You see this in Laos, Cambodia, and also Myanmar. China has, together with the old military government, identified sites for dozens of hydropower projects. Some of them would be among the largest dams in the world.

When it comes to how the Myanmar people regard China, that’s a bit trickier. On the one hand, there is a big Chinese minority in the country—about three percent of the population. There are also ethnic armed organisations with very close ties to China. The largest one, the Wa State Army, is estimated to have 20,000 to 30,000 soldiers. In the border regions, some people have closer ties to China than to Myanmar proper. But at the same time, the majority of people regard China’s economic activities in the

country negatively. They believe that China is only stealing and plundering their resources, and is basically bullying Myanmar. So it’s kind of a schizophrenic situation. On the one hand, it’s clear that Myanmar cannot really go ahead without taking into account what China thinks. On the other hand, people dislike China to a certain degree.

In your article, you also spoke about

land grabs being carried out either by the government directly or under

laws that had been passed by the government. How widespread is the

problem of land grabbing? What effect

is it having?

Although we at HBF are not the chief experts on land issues, it is well known that the problem of land grabbing is very widespread. According to the Central Committee of Confiscated Farmlands and Other Lands, at least 2 million acres or 800,000 hectares have been grabbed, primarily by the government and the military in the past decades. Every month, you will see two or three articles in the Myanmar Times on issues where farmers even go to jail for protesting against land grabs.

The problem here is that legally and traditionally, land titles are not issued in Myanmar. This is the case in most countries in the region: farmers had user rights rather than official land titles. Only now is this changing. There is now a move towards officialising ownership rights.

Under the Myanmar Constitution, the ultimate owner of land is the union government— that is, the central state. This obviously opens, and has opened, a lot of room for expropriation. In many cases, you don’t even have to expropriate because legally or officially traditional land users don’t even have a land title. Legal titles do exist, but they are rare. So what basically happens is that the government, the army or companies affiliated with the military claim that they need some land for whatever purpose — for building army barracks or for building some kind of industry plantation — and they simply send people away. Proper compensation in line with the market price has hardly ever been paid to the people who have been evicted. You read quite often in the Myanmar Times about how farmers protest against this, but when they go back on their land,

this is considered trespassing and so many of them are jailed. This problem is widespread and is a major cause for conflict at the local level.

When you say cause for conflict on

the local level, do you mean between

farmers and the authorities?

Yes. According to the new government, the 800,000 hectares of grabbed land can, to a large part, be attributed to the army. The army in Myanmar is not like what you see in western countries. It is also an economic complex. There are a lot of companies that are owned by the army or by people close to the army.

Often what happens is that local governments give concessions to either the army-affiliated companies or to private people. The legality of these concessions is always very questionable.

What are the impacts of systematic

land grabbing?

The rural population is the most vulnerable population in Myanmar. Given that the land is actually owned by the government, the question of whether the rural population has any legal rights is extremely tricky. Land grabbing creates instability at the local level. A lot of people feel alienated by business interests and by the army.

Land is one issue; the other is mining. The struggle around natural resources fuels resistance. Natural resources are by far the most productive factor in Myanmar’s economy, especially in the ethnic regions. Ethnic people for the past decades have had the impression that they have no authority over what they perceive as their own resources. However, the constitution says that all of the resources belong to the national government.

In 1947, when the first Panglong Conference took place, ASSK’s father, General Aung San, was discussing with ethnic group leaders about the union and the federal state. He promised them a high degree of autonomy and a federal state. On the basis of this promise, the ethnic groups did not ask for independent states, which they may have done, especially the larger ones; they were talked into this union. This never materialised, however, so they never had autonomy or a federal state. This is why there are strong feelings

of being cheated – they could have had their own countries and their own states, and with that, ownership of and control over resources in the region. They feel that the central government is stealing their resources and undermining their economic wellbeing.

The topics that we’ve been discussing

paint quite a bleak picture of the situation in Myanmar. Do you think there are any positives?

The positive thing about Myanmar is that the country is on a path to democracy. Compared to 2010 and the years before, Myanmar is much more open now. In 2013, the price of SIM cards went down from $250 to $2.50, with the effect that Myanmar is now one of the fastest-growing markets for mobile telephones in the world. At least in all the urban areas, you have a mobile telephone network and I think that about two-thirds of the people potentially have access to the Internet because they own smartphones. So the country has become much more open, and I think it will be difficult to roll back the improvements that have happened.

People are also becoming more

courageous, in part due to the elections. I would say that ASSK, to a

certain extent, has a rather top-down approach. But through the fact that the army is, at least officially, not in charge anymore, people have become more outspoken, and they are better organised. I would also say that capacity is increasing. There is more discussion and debate in the public domain, as well as more media coverage through print and television media like the Democratic Voice of Burma. So all of this is happening. The question is how much impact civil society and public discourses will have on political decision-making.

ASSK was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. However, she has

attracted fierce criticism in recent

years in her role as Myanmar’s de

facto political leader. What is ASSK’s

legacy in terms of human rights and

environmental justice?

It’s a double-edged sword. You expect a person who has won a Nobel Peace Prize to be much more serious about human rights issues. And to a certain extent, you can see this. I don’t think that she would put people in prison for

political reasons. But it still happens. And then, of course, the question is whether she has the ability to prevent these transgressions from happening.

When it comes to environmental justice, I have the impression that the environment is not so high on her agenda. I think that the peace process and economic development are what interest her the most. I’ve never really heard her say anything concrete about environmental justice. What she is struggling with are things like the Myitsone Dam, where she knows she is squeezed between different interests, and that her own people would not want the dam project to proceed. But she has to balance all of these different interests and see what is best for her government. It’s very tricky for her.

Basically, people are a bit disappointed. They thought that ASSK would be much more proactive when it came to improving human rights. But we have seen, for example, that the number of people imprisoned under article 66D of the Telecommunications Law has increased since the NLD [National League for Democracy] came to power. Article 66D is basically an online defamation article, but a very vague one. It lacks a clear definition of what defamation means, so anyone can accuse someone else of having defamed them, the leadership, the army, or whomever on the internet. Now the question to me is whether the NLD is supporting this. Are they okay with the fact that people are being jailed for criticising ASSK, the army leadership, the president, or whomever on Facebook? Or is it that the NLD simply has limited ability to act against this? At the same time, we have also seen a lot of discussion on amending or even abandoning this article, yet the NLD has not been proactive. They’ve been quite lukewarm on this issue.

Our impression is that civil society isn’t being regarded as an important actor in decision-making processes. The government is still not very transparent. There is hardly any contact with the media. ASSK herself has been giving very few interviews and press conferences. There is very little interaction between the government, the ministries and civil society. We

would like to see an open debate on

issues, and we would like to see strong

participation of local populations, of

civil society organisations, and so on.

What do you think the future holds for


What I fear is that Myanmar will simply follow the path of its neighbours. In my opinion, the example set by its neighbours is not the best. The Asian tiger countries – Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia – they have pushed economic growth and economic development over everything else. These countries have achieved economic growth and development; to a certain extent, they have achieved welfare. However, these achievements have come at the expense of the environment and natural resources.

  • I wonder how long this can continue.

  • I hope that Myanmar can implement

a different development paradigm. We have some partners with whom we want to promote and foster dialogue on this issue. But I fear that economic development issues will remain dominant. We have seen a loss of natural resources on a major scale already, and I fear that there is much more of this to come.

Sean Bowes was the Human Rights Defender Student Editor for the

summer semester 2016/17.

Mirco Kreibich is the Director of the Myanmar Program for the Heinrich Böll Foundation.

  • 1 Amnesty International (2017) Myanmar 2016/2017,


  • 2 E. Albert (2017), ‘The Rohingya migrant

crisis’, 12 January, Council on Foreign Relations, http://

  • 3 A. Kronholm (2016) ‘In Burma’s north,

thousands protest continuing low-grade war’, 9 October,

  • 4 Human Rights Watch (2016) Burma:

Dismantle infrastructure of repression, 29 June, https://

  • 5 Human Rights Watch (2016) Burma:

Farmers targets of land grabs, 3 November, https://www.

  • 6 B. Santa Maria and I. Pietropaoli (2015)

Burma’s human rights abuses highlight alarming

corporate failure, 21 February, Guardian, https://www.

  • 7 M. Kreibich (2016) ‘Burma’s rocky path

to democracy—the role of natural resources’, 1 April, Heinrich Boll Stiftung Myanmar, https://mm.boell.

Photo © Prachatai 2014. Re-printed under a Creative Commons Attribution License.
Photo © Prachatai 2014. Re-printed under a Creative Commons Attribution License.

Between 2005 and 2010, Chinese foreign direct investment in Myanmar increased dramatically from a

negligible amount to almost US$900

million. 1 Since 2011, however, the Myanmar government has taken a more distant attitude towards China in a bid to reduce the country’s economic dependence on their powerful neighbor. This comes at a time when serious human rights and environmental concerns have been raised over Chinese investment projects, especially those involving resource exploitation supposedly at the sacrifice of Myanmar people. The Myitsone dam and the Letpadaung copper mine are cases in point, having

spurred criticism of environmental damage, problematic land acquisitions and unfair compensation. But while Chinese investment dropped drastically to $217.8 million in 2011 from $875.6 million in the previous year, China remains the largest investor in Myanmar. 2

In May 2016, sponsored by the United Nations Development Program’s (UNDP) China country office and supported by the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation (CFPA), I conducted field research (with assistance from a CFPA coordinator) over the course of ten days in three cities in Myanmar: Yangon,

Kyaukpyu and Monywa. 3 This article is based on the interviews and meetings conducted during this field research trip with Myanmar government officials, international non-government organisations, civil society organisations (CSOs), village chiefs, local residents, as well as Chinese businesses. 4 Here, I provide an overview of the social, environmental and development issues that have been raised by Myanmar civil society against Chinese businesses operating within the country. In so doing, I seek to offer insights into how Chinese businesses might better contribute to environmental and social justice in Myanmar.

The challenges of doing business in Myanmar

As Myanmar opens up and restrictions on the freedom of speech, association and media are relaxed, human rights and environmental activists in the country have become increasingly emboldened. It is in this context that the country’s growing number of human rights groups and environmental activists have voiced concerns over the repercussions of China’s hydropower dams, oil and gas pipelines and other infrastructure projects, which have displaced thousands of communities, negatively impacted farming and fishing

How Chinese businesses are seen in Myanmar: a survey of key social, environmental and development issues

Yuan Wang

livelihoods as well as local biodiversity. 5 Given the popular belief that Chinese investment projects benefit China more than Myanmar, Chinese investors have grown increasingly wary of the country-wide, unfavourable public opinion towards Chinese companies in the country. To mitigate this negative perception, Chinese businesses need to tackle the concerns that have arisen in relation to the transparency, human rights implications and environmental consequences of their infrastructure projects in Myanmar.

Lack of transparency in business


The lack of transparency in business operations is a commonly heard complaint against Chinese companies in Myanmar. The majority of Chinese investment projects are of the government-to-government variety. Myanmar’s restrictive military rule

in the previous decades has led the

Myanmar people to lose trust in their government—an impression that has, in turn, contributed to the negative perception within Myanmar of the opaque dealings of Chinese multinational corporations (MNCs) which do business with the Myanmar government. 6

Local CSOs frequently criticise such practices for encouraging corruption and ignoring the suffering of the local people. Indeed, Chinese projects tend to be accused of poor information disclosure to the communities affected by major infrastructure schemes. During my interview at the site of Project A 7 , which is a project jointly run by a Chinese MNC and a consortium of foreign companies, the farmers who were directly affected by the project did not have access to basic information about the project, nor did they even know the full names of the companies involved and their responsibilities. As a result, the farmers could not anticipate the project’s level of environmental impact, and could not prepare for the subsequent social changes that would affect their livelihoods such as the loss of farmlands.

During an interview session with local communities in Kyaukpyu regarding

another Chinese-run project (Project B), a civil society representative complained how: ‘[the] community has no clue of how the project [will] look like; we have to know whether it is a tiger or an elephant so as to decide our reaction towards it.’ CSOs similarly complain about the lack of an effective communication channel with Chinese businesses. ‘They seldom consult the local community when doing projects in this country, we don’t know what is going on behind those closed doors,’ a representative from an intergovernmental organisation (IGO) explained during another interview. Some other CSOs have also pointed out how they would like to communicate with and even work with Chinese companies, but that no dialogue channel exists. The CSOs interviewed report that when they approach a Chinese company, they are normally met with a ‘closed-door’ attitude. All of this is assuming that they are lucky enough to find the company’s office location in the first place.

Problematic human and labour rights track record

Much criticism has come to light over the questionable Chinese business practices that reportedly infringe on human and labour rights, particularly vis-à-vis poor working conditions and land-grabbing behaviour. Labour

management laws in Myanmar remain

largely incomplete, and as such, this significantly complicates efforts to monitor and enforce social and labour safeguards in Chinese project development. Labour and human rights-focused CSOs have expressed concern over, for example, the long working hours, failure to respect minimum wages, the verbal and sometimes physical abuse of local employees, along with the failure to provide basic facilities such as drinking water and toilets, in Chinese projects. According to one labour rights CSO practitioner, ‘these problems are not only [unique to] Chinese companies of course; Korean, Japanese and Thai companies also have the same problem. But usually Chinese firms [are] worse.’

Related to this is the question of whether Chinese MNCs are creating genuine employment opportunities for local Myanmar people. A complaint

commonly raised in the interviews conducted is that Chinese companies are accused of bringing workers over from China instead of hiring and training a local workforce. This highlights a major obstacle facing Chinese MNCs. As noted by one Chinese manager, ‘it is quite challenging to find someone who can speak English well to do marketing or administrative work.’ For Chinese companies seeking a competitive edge, investing in the training of new unskilled employees continues to be seen as compromising efficiency. However, failing to do so will lead them to be further denounced for poor social engagement.

Moreover, Chinese hydropower, mining and infrastructure projects that involve the displacement of local communities have also served as clear targets of popular resentment. Although the Myanmar government is contractually responsible for relocation and land compensation processes, critics often place blame squarely on Chinese companies for turning a blind eye to the opaque relocation and compensation mechanisms put in place by the Myanmar government. In fact, Chinese businesses have already begun to express serious concerns over the Myanmar government and local officials’ ineffectiveness in dealing with land acquisitions and compensation issues, poor basic infrastructure, the frequent eruption of regional conflicts, and the legal system and industrial policy that require updating.

Crucially, this problem then converges with the previous one: when farmers’ lands are taken away from them,

the impact of losing their traditional livelihood is further exacerbated, should these affected farmers not be given work by the company involved. Even when employment opportunities are

created, Myanmar workers are usually

hired as temporary daily workers only

during the construction period, and are laid off after construction is completed. As explained by interviewees, they

are also mostly employed as manual

labourers, responsible for tasks such as digging soil, carrying sand, stones, and cement, working as night watchmen, cleaners, cooks, and so on. The interviewees also revealed how jobs that require more professional,

specialised skills (e.g. driving and maintaining machines, and engineering)

are often filled by Chinese nationals.

Environmental degradation and injustice

The majority of the Myanmar government’s revenue comes from natural resource exploitation, especially gas and hydropower. Natural resource exports account for 70 per cent of national exports, or around 11 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2012-13. 8 Investment largely originates from countries within the region—most notably, resource- and energy-hungry China, India and Thailand. Hydropower projects constitute an instructive example. An estimated 48 hydropower projects are currently being planned, constructed or already exist in Myanmar on major rivers and their tributaries; up to 90 per cent of the output from the hydropower dams is expected to be exported to neighbouring countries. 9

With respect to investment projects involving resource exploitation, Chinese companies continue to be faced with problems concerning biodiversity conservation, waste management and proper impact assessment. The Myitsone dam, planned at the confluence of the Irrawaddy River, is a case in point. The dam stands to submerge around 766 square kilometres of old-growth rainforest situated in the Mizoram-Manipur- Kachin rainforest region, one of the world’s richest biodiversity hotspots. At the construction site of the aforementioned Project A, the Chinese company in charge was widely criticised by local residents for irresponsibly dumping bottles that contained highly toxic chemicals which could have extremely damaging long-term impacts on surrounding waterways and aquatic life. After the project’s completion, construction-related waste such as stones, cement bags and pieces of metal used for welding remained, having been scattered across the farmlands adjacent to the pipelines’ route.

Similar complaints have also been leveled against another Chinese- financed project (Project C), which has been accused of contaminating groundwater and creating significant health risks for local residents. Environmental impact assessments (EIAs) are usually conducted before

these projects commence, yet the

majority of the EIAs are conducted by the Chinese companies themselves rather than through independent assessors. Currently, with the recent implementation of a new EIA policy by Myanmar’s Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry in December

2015, an independent EIA is now legally

required for all investment projects. Yet, ongoing regulatory oversights mean that Chinese businesses continue to be perceived negatively by the Myanmar public, as they are charged with the unfair appropriation of the (economic) benefits and environmental costs of their investment projects.

Lessons for the future?

The key concerns voiced by Myanmar communities and CSOs about Chinese businesses stem from their vulnerability and insecurity towards the consequences that obscure Chinese investment projects are expected to have on their livelihoods. Given how Myanmar is still in the process of undergoing a transition of political system, Chinese companies often find themselves entrenched in the complicated political situation, including mistrust between the previous military government (with whom many existing contracts are signed) and the Myanmar people, as well as the power competition between national, district and state governments.

While much of the responsibility in regulating investment lies with the Myanmar and Chinese governments,

obtaining a social license to operate

(SLO) remains crucial to the success of Chinese companies in Myanmar— now more so than ever before. The SLO concept first emerged in the mining sector as a means to

encourage businesses to engage with local communities and for mining investment to generate good social outcomes. To obtain SLO in Myanmar, Chinese companies need to work in the following three areas. 10 First, they must work on fostering multi-stakeholder

dialogue and engagement, as trust

provides a solid base of social capital when developing a specific project or dealing with a crisis. Second, they need to commit to the full disclosure of their social and environmental performance over time, especially against standardised reporting criteria, as this will also help to build trust

with external stakeholders. Finally, Chinese companies need to adopt best practice principles vis-a-vis corporate governance in order to cultivate greater transparency in their operations.

Yuan Wang is currently completing a MSc in Politics Research at Oxford University, and has worked at the China country office of the United Nations Development Programme and the Nairobi office of the Sino-Africa Centre of Excellence Foundation.

  • 1 Data taken from the Global

Environmental Institute (GEI) (2016) ‘Chinese

Investment in Myanmar: A scoping study’, GEI China Going Global Series, https://

  • 2 GEI (2016) ‘Chinese Investment in

Myanmar: A scoping study’.

  • 3 Kyaukpyu and Monywa each host a

mega-Chinese investment project. The CITIC Con- struction Group is planning to construct a special

economic zone and a deep sea port project in Kyaukpyu, while the Wanbao Letpadaung Cooper Mine Project is located in Monywa town.

  • 4 A questionnaire-based survey was

administered to six Chinese enterprises and CSOs

in Myanmar. Following completion of the survey, a series of open-ended questions were given to the informants. Each interview lasted between 1 and 1.5 hours on average. Two focus groups were also included: one comprised of five CSOs, and the other with two households in Kyaukpyu.

  • 5 Many policy reports have been

produced by CSOs active in Myanmar. See Transnational Institute (2016) ‘China’s Engage- ment in Myanmar: From Malacca Dilemma to Transition Dilemma’, Myanmar Policy Briefing 19; Burma Environmental Working Group (2011) Burma’s Environment: People, Problems, Policies (Chiang Mai: Wanida Press); Myanmar China Pipeline Watch Committee (2016) In Search for Social Justice Along the Myanmar-China Oil and Gas Pipeline; Lawyer’s Network and Justice Trust (2013) Report of Evidence Regarding Controver-

sies at Letpadaung Hill Copper Mine Project.

  • 6 See P. Yeophantong (2016) ‘China’s Hydropower Expansion and Influence Over

Environmental Governance in Mainland Southeast Asia’ in E. Goh (ed.), Rising China’s Influence in Developing Asia (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

  • 7 The Chinese investment projects,

companies and interviewees cited in this article will remain anonymous in light of the sensitivity

of this topic. Instead, a coding system has been used.

  • 8 International Monetary Fund (2015)

‘Myanmar: Selected Issues’, IMF Country Report

  • 9 See P. Yeophantong (2016) ‘China’s

Dam Diplomacy in the Mekong Region: Three

Game Changers’ in D.J.H. Blake and L. Robins, Wa- ter Governance Dynamics in the Mekong Region

(Selangor: Strategic Information and Research Development Centre), 126-127.

  • 10 These three points are adapted

from B.F. Yates and C.L. Horvath (2013) ‘Social License to Operate: How to get it and how to keep it’, 2013 Pacific Energy Summit Working Papers,

Economic growth and development in Lao PDR:

Who pays for progress?

Kearrin Sims

In many respects, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR) is a development success story. Since 2006, the country’s average economic growth rate of 7.9 per cent has made it one of the ten fastest growing economies in the world – and seen its income categorisation rise from a low-income to a lower-middle income economy. 1 During the past decade, foreign direct investment has grown dramatically, gross national income has doubled and the official poverty rate has declined from 33.5 per cent to around 23 per cent. 2 Economic growth has been accompanied by progress on many

of the country’s former Millennium Development Goal (MDG) targets, and in 2010, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) labelled Lao PDR as the sixth most successful country for improved human development in the past 40 years.

Unfortunately, however, Lao PDR is also governed by an authoritarian regime with a shameful human rights

record – the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP). Ranked by Freedom House (2016) as one of the world’s most politically repressive societies and by Transparency International (2015) as among the world’s thirty most corrupt countries, the LPRP maintains its leadership through a pervasive culture of fear that is reinforced through unlawful arrest, enforced

disappearances, strict media controls

and the repression of civil society.

As such, economic growth and socio- economic advancement have come with heavy costs to both the natural environment and basic political freedoms.

From green hills to dollar bills

Since the early 2000s, the Government of Lao PDR (GoL) and many of its development partners have welcomed foreign direct investment as a means to transform ‘untapped natural resources’ into productive assets. 3 Unsurprisingly, this policy of ‘turning land into capital’ has seen land access become increasingly competitive and, by 2010, around 3.5 million hectares, or more than 20 percent of the country’s total land area, had already been allocated to foreign investors in the form of land concessions. 4 Hydropower and mining projects, legal and illegal logging, agribusiness plantations, and new built environments have all seen the appropriation of arable land from private citizens and, according to the GoL’s National Land Management Authority, more than 50 percent of the 2,000+ land concessions in the country have resulted in ‘detrimental effects’ to the environment and local residents. 5 Such detrimental effects include, but are not limited to, insufficient compensation for lost land and other assets; the imprisonment of those that have opposed forced resettlements; rapid depletion of non-forest timber products; illegal logging; pollution of rivers and water sources through extractive industries; and the large- scale plantation of environmentally deleterious monoculture plantations such as rubber. 6

Concerns over land access are more than environmental and livelihood debates. Rather, following the Internal Land Coalition’s May 2011 Tirana Declaration—and its call for land governance to better meet the needs of marginalised land users— ‘land grabs’ and their associated forced displacements are now widely considered by poverty and environmentally focused civil society organisations as potential catalysts for human rights violations. 7 This is particularly so in agrarian-dependent economies such as Lao PDR, where around two-thirds of the population remain dependent on farming for their subsistence, and access to arable land is crucial to both livelihoods and food security. In such a context, the granting of large-scale land concessions may constitute a direct violation of people’s most basic rights to ‘life, liberty and security of person’, as stipulated in Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 8

Indeed, the relationship between human rights violations and environmental degradation in Lao PDR is not limited to land access. Rather,

the intersection of natural resource management and human rights is also a pertinent issue within the country’s hydropower sector. As numerous studies have now demonstrated, the ongoing construction of hydropower dams on the Mekong mainstream river is likely to severely affect fisheries and reduce agricultural irrigation both in the Lao PDR and within the downstream Mekong countries of Cambodia and Vietnam. 9 With millions of people dependent on the Mekong River for their incomes and subsistence, protecting the life, liberty and security of vulnerable persons from the impact of mainstream dams remains a serious ongoing challenge.

While some may question the invocation of human rights discourses in regards to the livelihood implications of land grabbing and hydropower development in Lao PDR, such ‘indirect’ consequences of environmental justice issues have also been accompanied by numerous, targeted, human rights violations.

You talk, you disappear

One of the most violent mechanisms by which the LPRP has suppressed political debate on land concessions, environmental justice and other contentious issues has been through the harassment, imprisonment, eviction and enforced disappearance of ‘regime dissidents’. Media and research constraints make it difficult to obtain detailed information on such human rights violations; however, some notable cases have managed to reach an international audience.

The first prominent case of an environmental justice-related enforced disappearance in Lao PDR is that of Somphone Khantisouk – the co-owner of an ecotourism guesthouse and outspoken critic of Chinese-funded agribusiness plantations in the country’s north. According to statements released by Human Rights Watch, Somphone was abducted on 23 January 2007 when four men in police uniforms stopped his motorbike on the side of the road and loaded him into a sport utility vehicle. 10 Prior to his abduction, Somphone had been well regarded by many local communities, who he had assisted in establishing grassroots tourism programs. He has not been seen since.

In similar circumstances to Somphone Khantisouk’s abduction, at around 6pm on 15 December 2012, the Ramon Magsaysay award-winning, community development worker Sombath

Somphone was widely believed to have been abducted by police, having been stopped at a police post in Vientiane and not been seen since.

While the motives behind Sombath Somphone’s abduction cannot be confirmed, there is considerable speculation amongst those working in the field of development in Lao PDR that his disappearance is linked to his involvement with the 2012 Asia-Europe People’s Forum (AEPF), which took place two months prior as part of the 9th Asia-Europe Meeting—a biennial intergovernmental process established to foster dialogue and cooperation between Asia and Europe.

Held in Vientiane, the ninth AEPF brought together civil society organizations (CSOs) from across Asia and Europe to build collaborative partnerships and discuss common issues, including land grabbing. Unfortunately, however, reports from attending CSOs suggest that the

LPRP did not respond well to critical

comments made regarding land

concessions. Lao participants at the event were photographed by individuals believed to be LPRP members, and attending CSOs have offered a confidential written report to this author detailing how one rural farmer who spoke on issues relating to land concessions received threatening text messages and intimidating visits from the police following the event.

Returning to Sombath Somphone, those closest to him believe his attempts to ensure the safety of those who presented at AEPF—and his role in facilitating the forum – was the cause for his abduction. Again, such beliefs are impossible to confirm and the GoL has, of course, denied any involvement in Sombath’s disappearance. However, given the circumstances that surround his case, the failure by relevant authorities to offer information on the progress of investigations, and a complete lack of media reporting on the abduction within Lao PDR, as such denials are unconvincing. 11

Finally, although not strictly an enforced disappearance, a third case which powerfully highlights the severity with which the GoL has responded to public opposition against land concessions and environmental degradation is that of Mr Ounkeo Souksavanh. Ounkeo was the host of a highly popular call-in radio program that facilitated discussion on a range of ‘sensitive’ topics including land grabbing. He arrived at work in January 2012, only to be informed that his program had been cancelled by the

Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism – effective immediately and without explanation. 12 Shortly after the program’s cancellation, Ounkeo also received phone calls from concerned (politically-connected) friends warning that his life may be in danger and, consequently, he has since fled to the United States.

While the international community could certainly do much more to address such violent and explicit human rights abuses in Lao PDR, one notable consequence of recent violations has been the United Nations 2015 refusal to grant the country a seat on its Human Rights Council. 13


Lao PDR has made considerable and

commendable progress on many

development indicators. Economic growth and poverty alleviation are genuine objectives of the GoL and central determinants of the LPRP’s ability to maintain single-party rule. However, in order to maintain the march of progress, the LPRP has also encouraged large-scale investment into land and the rapid extraction of natural resources. This has resulted in both

widespread environmental degradation and severe human rights abuses against those who have attempted to challenge such an unsustainable path to growth.

While it is important to acknowledge that the GoL has made attempts to reduce large-scale land acquisitions—

most notably in May 2007 and June

2009 through moratoriums on land concessions—it is also crucial to stress that these ineffective bans have been accompanied by continued (state- sanctioned) concessions and the silencing of public opposition to forced resettlement.

As such, those paying the greatest price for Lao PDR’s ‘successful’ development are often those confronted by state and private sector land acquisitions, those who seek to protect the vulnerable from forced resettlement, and the future generations who will suffer the consequences of the current government’s privileging of economic growth over sustainable resource management.

Kearrin Sims is a lecturer in development studies at James Cook University. For more of his work on

human rights in Lao PDR, see Sims, K. (forthcoming), ‘More Growth Less Freedom? Charting Development Pathways in Lao PDR’ in B. Howe (ed), Statecentricity in East Asia: Structural Impediments to Good Governance (Palgrave Macmillan).

  • 1 World Bank (2011) Lao PDR Now a Lower- Middle Income Economy,


middle-income-economy; Central Intelligence Agency (2016) Laos,


  • 2 World Bank (2016) Lao PDR, http://data.

  • 3 O. Schönweger & P. Messerli (2015) ‘Land

Acquisition, Investment, and Development in the Lao

Coffee Sector: Successes and Failures’, Critical Asian Studies 47(1), 97.

  • 4 M. Dwyer (2011) Building the Politics

Machine: Tools for Resolving the Global Land (Land Deal Politics Initiative), 311.

  • 5 ‘Laos losing out to land concessions’ (2011) Vientiane Times, 27 April, 2.

  • 6 I.G. Baird (2014) ‘Degraded Forest,

Degraded Land and the Development of Industrial Tree Plantations in Laos’, Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography 35(3), 328-44; K. Sims (2015) ‘The Asian Development Bank and the Production of Poverty:

Neoliberalism, Technocratic Modernization and Land Dispossession in the Greater Mekong Subregion’, Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography 36(1), 112- 126; C. Friis et al (2016) ‘Changing Local Land Systems:

Implications of a Chinese Rubber Plantation in Nambak District, Lao PDR’, Singapore Journal of Tropical

Geography 37(1), 25-42; M. Kenney-Lazar (2016) Linking Food and Land Tenure Security in the Lao PDR (Land Issues Working Group, Global Association for People and the Environment and Village Focus International).

  • 7 Schönweger & Messerli, ‘Land Acquisition,

Investment, and Development’, 94. The International Land Coalition (ILC) is a coalition of 206 organisations from 64 countries that work together to promote secure and equitable access to land for rural people, mainly through capacity building, knowledge sharing and

advocacy. The ILC’s Tirana Declaration was signed by 150 representatives of civil society organisations from 45 countries at the 2011 ‘Securing Land Access for the Poor in Times of Intensified Natural Resource Competition’ conference in Tirana, Albania.

  • 8 Schönweger & Messerli, ‘Land Acquisition,

Investment, and Development’, 94-122; United Nations General Assembly (1948) Universal Declaration of Human Rights,


  • 9 I. G. Baird (2011) ‘The Don Sahong

Dam: Potential Impacts on Regional Fish Migrations, Livelihoods, and Human Health’, Critical Asian Studies 43(2), 11-35; R. Cronin (2009) ‘Mekong Dams and the Perils of Peace’, Survival: Global Politics and Strategy 51(6), 147-60; S. Katus, D. Suhardiman & S. Senaratna Sellamutu (2016) ‘When Local Power Meets Hydropower:

Reconceptualizing Resettlement Along the Nam

Gnouang River in Laos’, Geoforum 72, 6-15; M. Smits (2012) ‘Hydropower and the Green Economy in Laos:

Sustainable development?’ in A. Hezri and W. Hofmeister (eds), Towards a Green Economy: In Search of Sustainable Energy Policies for the Future (Konrad Adenauer Stiftung).

  • 10 Human Rights Watch (2015) Human

Rights Watch Concerns on Laos,


  • 11 K. Sims (forthcoming), ‘More Growth Less

Freedom? Charting Development Pathways in Lao PDR’ in B. Howe (ed), Statecentricity in East Asia: Structural

Impediments to Good Governance (Palgrave Macmillan).

  • 12 Human Rights Watch (2015) Human

Rights Watch Concerns on Laos,


  • 13 ‘Lao Court Jails Polish Activist Following

Online Criticism of Government’ (2015) Radio Free

Asia, 1 October,



‘For Nature, Our Life’: Fighting to protect Cambodia’s environment

Fran Lambrick

Photo © Shelmac 2011. CAMBODIA - Mangrove forest.

In Koh Sralav, a small island in the southwest of Cambodia, mangroves dip long black roots into the salty water. When you are quiet, there is silence, except for the occasional pop of seedpods exploding, and the calls of birds. Tiny crabs appear and disappear in the pale sand. Small fish dart between the protective, interlocking roots, and people have lived here for decades—fishing, crabbing, and catching lobsters and shellfish.

For the last eight years, companies such as the local Cambodian firm, Direct Access, have dredged these waterways for sand—a literal land grab, enriching a few company owners, while causing the mangroves to collapse, destroying the spawning grounds for fish and crabs, and the communities’ livelihoods. A study by the International Union for Conservation of Nature showed that fish catches in the Tatai river and the estuaries around Koh Sralav declined by 70 to 90 per cent due to dredging. 1 Millions of tons of sand are exported every year, mainly sold to Singapore to be used in construction, creating

concrete, and literally building out

Singapore’s landmass, which has expanded 25 per cent since the 1950s.

In 2015, three activists in their twenties were leading a campaign to defend the mangroves. Sun Mala, Try Sovikea, and Sim Somnang protested the sand dredging, and were thrown in jail. Ten months later, they were finally released, but convicted of threatening to destroy the property of Direct Access. This is a claim that the activists deny. The three were ordered to pay US$25,000 compensation in damages—to the company that they fought to stop 2 — despite the fact that there was no damage to the dredging boats.

Members of Mother Nature Cambodia and Not1More, two activist campaign groups, went to the appeals court to demonstrate against Mala, Sovikea and Somnang’s conviction the day the verdict was released. I was nervous because the previous day, the Council of Ministers spokesperson, Phay Siphan, was quoted as saying in the Phnom Penh Post, ‘No matter [whether you’re] Cambodian, as well as foreigners, tell all your friends, if you support the colour revolution, prepare your own coffin.’ 3 The ‘colour revolution’ is the ruling Cambodian People’s Party’s term for peaceful assembly.

Since the arrest of several human rights defenders in April last year, Cambodian civil society has responded with a weekly protest, wearing black every Monday to represent the bleak state of human rights in Cambodia. Ingrained in our minds, the murders of political and environmental activist, Kem Ley, and forest defender, Chut Wutty, make such a statement hard to dismiss.

So we took large photographs of the mangroves, printed on board, that we had shown in an art exhibit in Phnom Penh in early 2017. We intended for our demonstration to be informative, rather than overtly confrontational, with the idea that we would talk to people about Mala, Sovikea and Somnang’s work to protect the environment. We wanted to simply show the mangrove forest, the molluscs on the sand: the land that is being taken.

When we arrived outside the appeals

court, police already outnumbered

activists. I handed out the photos. The media were there filming, and I was next to Mother Nature activist, Ratha. Ratha has been at the forefront of the campaign—speaking in a video, viewed over 700,000 times on Facebook that probed the government on the sand missing from official records, worth hundreds of millions of dollars. I could tell he was anxious, police were surrounding us, but he continued speaking and his voice didn’t falter; there were just tiny goose bumps across his skin. He said Mala, Sovikea and Somnang love their country. He said that families depend on the sand for fishing and crabbing. He said, ‘This is not justice.’ Then, the police started grabbing the photographs. I let mine go as we were pushed. They jostled with us for a minute, and then retreated.

We were just a handful of people, a murmur of dissent, there to support these three young men who have been criminalised because they tried to protect the natural heritage of their country. The police grabbed the photos of the green leaves and dark, interweaving roots, of the shellfish and fishing nets, as if the beauty and integrity of what is left would remain a free and living ‘colour revolution’ long after all us protestors are in our coffins.

Alongside us were women from Boeng Kak Lake, demonstrating for the appeal trial of Tep Vanny—a land rights

activist. They were wearing black. They had their children—five and six year olds—running through the gate of the courthouse, joining the chants and holding banners. One girl with a toothy grin was punching her fist in the air; a mirror image of her mother who stood behind her, also punching her fist in the air with a smile. Luckily, we are nature too—like the forests that regenerate, even as we’re cut down. We are not so individual as capitalism makes us think, or as the assassins wish.

After the police grabbed our photos, Ratha turned to the cameras and said, ‘Actually, we’re glad they took them. Maybe they will look at them in the police station, and slowly learn to love the forests and the estuaries that we are fighting for. Perhaps the images will stir memories in the heavy set police officer of quiet mornings on the river, fishing with his father.’

Watching Ratha speak, I thought, ‘they

could shoot him.’ Not in that moment.

But some morning, like Kem Ley

drinking his coffee. I had an urge to stop him talking, to turn away the cameras.

I remembered Wutty in his car, driving out of the forest after the soldiers attacked him in Prey Lang. He said that he was worried about his car. It often broke down. The next morning in the guesthouse I asked, ‘Why do you keep doing this work?’

‘If I don’t do it, no one would. People are too afraid.’

Five months later, Wutty was shot through the door of his car after it didn’t start, as he tried to evade the military police on a road in the Cardamom Mountains. The way Ratha spoke reminded me of Wutty—strength and conviction overriding fear. It’s bitter, this courage, it leaves you like a promontory, a lonely spine of sand thrust out into the sea, withstanding pounding waves. People don’t want to be seen with you, let alone give you money for a new vehicle.

On the one hand, support is scarce and hard to gather. On the other, the ruling regime, built on the sands and timber of the country, keeps a tight grip on resistance. If you speak out, you’ll be made to pay. Kim Sok,

a political commentator, is currently being sued for $500,000 for saying on Facebook that the ruling party is behind the murder of Kem Ley. Sam Rainsy, longtime leader of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, said the same thing and another court case was added to his collection. The Cambodian government recently passed a law that will make it possible to dissolve a political party if the leaders have court charges.

The cost of speaking your mind is your freedom, your life, or democracy. Activists are isolated, challenging the sale of the country’s land and forests. And the stakes are getting higher. Yet at this moment, when allies are most needed, the international community still holds an undignified silence. It is not enough to honour people after they are dead.

Fran Lambrick is the director of the documentary I Am Chut Wutty ( iamchutwutty), and co-founder of the campaign Not1More (www.Not1More.

org), which seeks to fight against the ongoing murder of environmental


  • 1 B. Kastl, K. Kimsreng, S. Kong,

S. Chuerattanakul, N. Prohorsarith & O.

Ran (2012) Coastal Mangrove Forest Devastation and Channel Sedimentation in Koh Kong Province, Cambodia, International

  • 2 C. Channyda (2016) ‘Koh Kong

dredging activists found guilty for “threats”’,

  • 3 T. Sokha and L. Kijewski (2017)

‘PM files lawsuit against analyst’, 14 February, Phnom Penh Post, http://www.

Photo © Gavin White 2011. HANOI , VIETNAM - Urban pressure, rural Hanoi. Re-printed under a

Photo © Gavin White 2011. HANOI , VIETNAM - Urban pressure, rural Hanoi. Re-printed under a Creative Commons Attribution License.

Tainted (blue) gold:

The peri-urban water crisis in Hanoi, Vietnam

Blake Lambert and Michael Thai

The collision of rural and urban spaces—a growing phenomenon in the mega-cities of Southeast Asia—creates a fusion of once divided activities. Crop lands and corporate hubs, fields and factories now share common space, with connected water systems in new ‘peri-urban’ areas forming on the outskirts of major cities. ‘Peri- urbanism’ refers to interweaving rural and urban neighborhoods, activities and interactions. Large populations, continuous processes of change, vast unevenness and inequality, define peri- urban cities. Governing these cities is, by any measure, a formidable task.

This fusion of traditionally divided worlds has resulted in a complex array of social, political and environmental problems, all of which are represented by the criss-crossing waterways of peri-urban Hanoi in Vietnam. Since 1960, Vietnam’s population has tripled from 30 million to well over 90 million. Over the same time period, the urban share of the total population has increased from 15 per cent to 34 per cent. 1 Sweeping market reforms, which privatised markets previously controlled by the state (e.g. the housing market), have drastically changed how people interact with each other in Hanoi. 2 Although the executive committee of Hanoi (i.e. the city’s local government)

has made some progress in managing this rapid change—for example, by attracting investment in clean water extraction and supply—they are still failing to meet the increasing demand for safe water on the part of the city’s residents.

In this article, we provide an overview of the water crisis in Hanoi, detailing the impacts of industrialisation on Hanoi’s water supply and quality. Three ways through which a more environmentally-equitable water service can be provided to Hanoi’s peri- urban residents are also outlined. We posit that although increases in water infrastructure investments are vital, local participation in the policy-making process remains integral to the delivery of just and equitable water supply outcomes.

Environmental injustice in peri-urban


In 1986, Vietnam began its pursuit of Doi Moi modernisation. Aimed at stimulating an economy beset by stagnant growth and crippling inflation, the Vietnamese government implemented a series of reforms that opened up the economy to market

privatisation. 3 Since then, Vietnam has undergone a sustained period of economic growth, boasting an average GDP per capita growth rate of over 6.4 per cent throughout the 2000s. 4 However, while this rapid growth has led to increased economic activity, it has also resulted in heightened population pressures in some of Vietnam’s largest cities, leading to intense resource competition in new, hybrid rural-urban environments. This competition for resources, especially in the form of access to clean water and land, brings to light issues of environmental injustice—understood here as the situation where the poor and marginalised are disproportionately burdened by pollution and environmental degradation. 5

A problematic legacy of Vietnam’s reform period stems from rapid land-use transformation—that is, the repurposing of large swathes of land in the country’s peri-urban areas, such as those on the fringes of Hanoi, for industry and urban development. Repurposing land for industrial use has had long-term effects on the city’s landscape: aside from raising demand for clean and usable water, it has also resulted in an increase in instances of water pollution, as untreated industrial residue and urban sewerage continue to be deposited into local canals. In peri-urban Hanoi, local villagers are unfairly affected by this pollution as they are located further down the water access chain, usually relying directly on natural water sources that constitute the final destination of polluted wastewater from urban and industrial users. Villagers relying on clean water for daily use and subsistence farming on the most peripheral of these peri-urban areas consequently see diminished access to clean water, with the use of polluted and potentially hazardous water concomitantly increasing health and food security risks.

Environmental justice outcomes are further eroded by the inability of local populations to meaningfully participate in policy and decision-making processes. 6 Within peri-urban Hanoi, unequal power relations between policymakers and those affected have perpetuated rigid state control over water resources. The consequences of such participatory exclusion are revealed in the lax enforcement of environmental regulations against

urban and industrial polluters,

inequitable distribution policies that propagate insecure access to usable water, and the social marginalisation of the peri-urban poor. 7

Yet, the importance of local participation in the policy-making process is clearly highlighted in the case of peri-urban Hanoi’s Soc Son district, where the government had sought to put in place a water distribution system using household meters. This project imposed on each household, an initial investment cost of VND600,000 for the meter, in addition to the cost for pipes to carry water from the meter into the home. However, despite this considerable investment, many residents have refused to use the water due to the smell and the monthly minimum charge, preferring instead to use traditional water sources. The result: under-utilisation of expensive water distribution infrastructure. 8 This is an outcome that could have been avoided through active community engagement and, more specifically, by addressing local concerns over the cost, quality, design, and implementation of the new water management system. 9

Addressing Vietnam’s water

management: three necessities

Vietnam’s water management system is implemented in a top-down, bureaucratic and largely inefficient manner, especially with respect to its ability to achieve equitable outcomes for residents of peri-urban areas. To address this structural problem, three key policy measures need to be adopted in order to improve the quality and quantity of Hanoi’s water supply. First, the Hanoi executive committee and related agencies, including the (provincial) Department of Construction and Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, must put in place better communication mechanisms to facilitate more effective coordination between government agencies, as well as improved policy design and implementation among the city’s four main water supply companies—the private firms, Vinaconex and Acuatico, and state-owned enterprises, HAWACO and HAWATER—for meeting future water demands. 10

Second, Vietnam needs to transition from groundwater to surface water

extraction. Currently, 80 per cent of the water in Hanoi is exploited from underground water sources. Such a transition is necessary for improving water quality, as it will help to prevent the problems associated with degraded drilling wells, polluted water sources, as well as the collapse and settlement of soil ground and ammonium pollution, which in the south of Hanoi is estimated to be five to ten times the regulation standard. 11

Furthermore, according to the

Vietnamese government’s Capital Water Supply Scheme up to 2030 and Vision to 2050, water demands across the country are expected to double within thirty years from 1,560,000

cubic metres per day in 2020 to 3,150,000 cubic metres per day in

2050. 12 Increased investment in surface water extraction from the Da, Red and Duong Rivers—all of which hold sufficient quantities of water to meet these demand projections—is thus crucial. Currently, the government is working to attract local and foreign investment in surface water extraction by offering companies tax breaks and fee exemptions to extract from these three rivers. Even so, whether such an initiative will lead to greater environmental justice and social equity will depend considerably on whether the subsequent increase in water supply is proportionately channelled to meet the water needs of poorer communities.

Third, waste management systems that treat waste deposits before they

re-enter the local canal system are essential to reducing the effects of

contaminated water on downstream

canal users. The Vietnamese government must, therefore, continue to encourage investment in wastewater treatment to meet the current investment shortfall in treatment plants. In particular, a focus on developing wastewater plants with large daily treatment capacities is critical to mitigating water pollution, as it stands to address the problem of untreated

sewage overflow, where sewage stored in septic tanks ends up contaminating groundwater sources. 13 Careful and systematic treatment of wastewater

will enable poorer agricultural users on

the peri-urban periphery to gain access to water of the same quality as those

supplied to industrial and urban users in

the (geographic) centre.


Environmental injustice has persisted in the newly emerged peri-urban areas of Hanoi, where poor and marginalised communities are subject to water policy outcomes that often fail to meet their needs. Better coordination between government agencies, a transition to cleaner surface water extraction, and improved waste treatment remain the key to producing more equitable water outcomes for Hanoi’s peri- urban residents. Nevertheless, such technocratic solutions can only work when combined with an appropriate level of local engagement. 14

Civic activism and social movements in Vietnam have, however, focused less on

water access and more on addressing

other pressing environmental issues, such as the management and protection of forests. 15 Moreover, due to national legislation that effectively restricts civic engagement and an independent media (e.g. the 2016 amended Press Law), attempts by non- governmental organisations to close the gap between civil society and the government have thus far met with limited success. 16 In the absence of an urban planning vision that better aligns the needs of stakeholders in Hanoi’s peri-urban areas, the Vietnamese government runs the risk of developing solutions to the country’s water woes which, while potentially marking an improvement in water management and extraction technology, will ultimately fail those with the greatest need for clean water access. Bridging

the gap between the public and the public sector ironically remains the foremost challenge to equitable water distribution—and by extension, to social equity and environmental justice—in peri-urban Hanoi.

Blake Lambert is completing a Bachelor of Commerce (International Business)/ Bachelor of Arts (Development Studies) degree at UNSW Sydney.

Michael Thai is a fourth-year student in the Bachelor of International Studies (Development Studies) degree programme at UNSW Sydney, and has completed an exchange programme at the University of Oslo.

  • 1 World Bank (2016) Data: Vietnam,

  • 2 H.-A. Tran & N.-M. Yip (2008)

‘Caught between Plan and Market:

Vietnam’s Housing Reform in the Transition to a Market Economy’, Urban Policy and Research 26(3), 309-323.

  • 3 L. E. Grinter (2006) ‘Vietnam’s

Thrust into Globalization: Doi Moi’s Long

Road, Asian Affairs’, An American Review 33(3), 151-166.

  • 4 World Bank, Data: Vietnam.

  • 5 M. Toffolon-Weiss & T.

Roberts (2005) ‘Who Wins, Who Loses? Understanding Outcomes of Environmental Justice Struggles’ in D.N. Pellow & R.J. Brulle, Power, Justice, and the Environment:

  • 6 G. Walker (2012) Environmental

Justice: Concepts, Evidences, and Politics

(New York: Routledge).

  • 7 E. E. Sajor & R. Ongsakul (2007) ‘Mixed Land Use and Equity in Water

Governance in Peri-Urban Bangkok’, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 31(4), 782-801.

  • 8 A. Daniere, L. Drummond,

A. NaRanong, & V.A. Thi Tran (2016) ‘Sustainable Flows: Water Management and Municipal Flexibility in Bangkok and Hanoi’, Journal of Environment & Development 25(1), 47-72.

  • 9 Daniere et al., ‘Sustainable Flows’.

    • 10 Stoxplus (2013) Vietnam Water

Supply Sector Report (Hanoi: Stoxplus Corporation).

  • 11 L. Van Duc (2012) Statement

at East Asian and Middle-South American Conference on Environmental Industry, 2.

  • 12 Van Duc, Statement.

  • 13 H.R. Bohm et al. (2011) ‘The

semicentralized approach to integrated

water supply and treatment of solid waste and wastewater—a flexible infrastructure strategy for rapidly growing urban

regions: the case of Hanoi/Vietnam’, Clean Technologies & Environmental Policy 13(4),


  • 14 S. Unsworth (2009) ‘What’s

politics got to do with it?: Why donors find it

so hard to come to terms with politics, and why this matters’, Journal of International Development 21, 883-894.

  • 15 N. KimDung, S.R. Bush & A.P.J.

Moi (2016) ‘NGOs as Bridging Organizations

in Managing Nature Protection in Vietnam’, Sage Journals 25(2), 191-218.

  • 16 KimDung et al., ‘NGOs as Bridging


A Critical Appraisal of the Environmental Justice Movement (London: MIT Press).

The AHRCentre Annual Lecture 2017

will be delivered by

Professor Philip Alston

UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights

Thursday, 10 August 2017



see for more details

co-hosted by AHRCentre, UNSW Law and UNSW’s Grand Challenge on Inequality

The AHRCentre Annual Lecture 2017 will be delivered by Professor Philip Alston UN Special Rapporteur on
Image © Lydia Morgan 2017.
Image © Lydia Morgan 2017.

China is known for having a restrictive political regime. Between July and September 2015, the Chinese government reportedly detained 280 human rights activists and lawyers. 1 It put in place a suite of laws aimed at tightening state security and counter-terrorism efforts, but which also threatened to limit freedom of speech and religion within the country. 2 Such developments speak to China’s questionable human rights track record, as well as the sizable constraints that remain in terms of the Chinese public’s ability to participate in official policymaking. Indeed, the Chinese government continues to resist the notion of universal human rights, with some even labelling such an idea as amounting to ‘foreign infiltration’. 3

and maintain a ‘harmonious society’. 4 Crucially, growing social concern and popular unrest over deteriorating environmental conditions in the country have contributed to opening up new channels of public participation in policy-making, as the Chinese leadership seeks to mitigate eroding public confidence in the government. 5

In this way, environmental activists in China have been successful in securing concessions from the government in terms of their ability to mobilise, stage public displays of resistance, and effect policy change. This effectively raises the question: can environmental activism preface the institutionalisation of broader rights and freedoms in China?

There are promising signs of change, however. As the basis of government legitimacy gradually shifts from

communist ideology to good

governance, Chinese officials are now appealing to traditional Confucian ideals, such as communitarianism and a strong sense of duty, in a bid to create

As discussed in this article, empowered by growing media coverage of controversial environmental planning decisions, the relative success of Chinese civil society activists and their unique brand of digital activism in pushing for greater environmental rights gives hope for similar action over

Environmental activism, the internet and rights in China

Ming En Chin

human rights. 6

The state of environmental governance in China

China’s environmental protests should not, however, be interpreted simply as a struggle for individual rights, as usually seen in Western societies. Rather, the Chinese public often engages in a form of ‘embedded activism’, masterfully exercising their limited political rights to achieve community-based outcomes that align with, but also subvert, government policies. 7

This pragmatic approach is partly a by-product of the Chinese system of environmental governance. China’s environmental protection agencies form a decentralised, top-down system established at four administrative levels. The national-level Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) directs the environmental protection bureaus (EPBs) of the three lower administrative levels. Overwhelming pressure on local officials to meet economic objectives has, however, often left EPBs and the MEP with little discretionary power and inadequate funds to enforce the law. 8 As a result, the incorporation of public participation measures in existing policies tends to be a ‘box-ticking exercise’. 9

Public participation is also hindered by a pervasive lack of environmental awareness. In principle, new revisions to the Environmental Protection Law give the public right of access to environmental information and public interest litigation. 10 Citizens can also file complaints with the MEP, which possesses better law enforcement capabilities than ever before. Journalists also have greater freedom in reporting on environmental issues than on any other issue. 11 Yet in practice, the Chinese public still suffers from limited awareness of environmental problems, as they remain largely dependent on information from the government. 12

Here, the Chinese media assumes an especially pivotal role in promoting environmental awareness and, in certain cases, instigating civil society

activism. For example, in April 2016, the government news broadcaster Chinese Central Television (CCTV) reported that nearly 500 students at Changzhou Foreign Languages School displayed health abnormalities, linking the illness to elevated concentrations of toxic chemicals, including chlorobenzene, in a neighbouring site. 13 The CCTV report highlighted the clear breaches of government environmental standards and mistakes made in environmental planning. Crucially, construction of the school commenced seven months before environmental evaluation of the site was complete, with site rehabilitation occurring just 50 metres from the school rather than the legal minimum of 300 metres. Prominent Chinese environmentalist Ma Jun compared the situation to the infamous 1978 Love Canal disaster in the US, where an elementary school and housing was built on land harbouring toxic waste. 14 In response, Chinese authorities published reports that suggested there were only around 100 health abnormalities. 15 To demonstrate their commitment to preventing pollution, they also alluded to the prospective implementation of national soil pollution laws. 16

The promise of digital environmental


Digital activism, largely staged by Chinese youth ‘netizens’, is particularly noteworthy in terms of its effectiveness in galvanising public support for an environmental cause. The most vocal youth critics, Fen Qing or Angry Youths, have used the Internet to criticise everything from foreign views of China to domestic policy. They follow in the footsteps of major youth-led movements, such as the 1919 May Fourth Movement and the 1980s Democracy Wall Movement, both of which had progressively challenged the prevailing political climate. 17 In 2016, as China recorded a historic 710 million

Internet users and 242 million Weibo

(China’s Twitter equivalent) users, 18 the Fen Qing along with other digital activists arguably have the broadest reach of any of these movements.

While many netizens complain that

circumventing strict government censors remains a tedious exercise, digital activists such as the Fen Qing have managed to challenge government authority by utilising innovative methods and relying on the anonymity afforded by digital media. For instance, they often evade government censors by employing egao, a form of spoofing that utilises humorous homonyms to facilitate discussion on politically sensitive topics. 19 One such example is a playful reference to the Chinese government’s harmonious society policy, where youths would refer to the censoring of online posts as ‘being harmonised’. Back in 2008, a group of Fen Qing had also successfully organised street protests against French supermarket chain Carrefour under the cover of Internet anonymity and by using instant messaging services. 20

Evolving socioeconomic and political circumstances have further facilitated a changing climate for popular protests in China. Whereas protests in the pre-1990 period were rare events unless sanctioned by the government, today these are seen to offer not only an opportunity to expand the human rights space in the country, but also as providing the Chinese government with a means to gauge public opinion. The anti-PX protests are a case in point. In 2007, environmental activists in Xiamen first made use of mobile text- messaging services to organise large street protests against the construction of paraxylene (PX) factories in their city. Protestors came from different walks of life: from students to police officers. To evade Internet censors, they used egao tactics, whereupon the peaceful protests were euphemistically termed as ‘strolls’. 21 While the first anti-PX protest campaign in Xiamen employed

relatively low-reach text messaging, more recent anti-PX protests in Shanghai—involving around 50,000 people—have been mobilised via popular Chinese social media tools like Weibo. 22

In these recent campaigns, activists drew extensively from the experiences

of previous protests as well as on their

social networks to raise awareness

and plan rallies. Extensive media reporting on these displays of digital environmental activism have also served to further legitimise and publicise these protests, encouraging

even more people to take part. Significantly, protestors in Xiamen, Dalian and Ningbo, among other cities, have enjoyed unprecedented success in pressuring the Chinese authorities and petrochemical companies involved to relocate planned PX factories and even to cease operations. 23


Cases of successful environmental activism should, nevertheless, be treated with caution. Although the

recurring anti-PX protests and similar

campaigns against incinerators in

Beijing and Guangzhou may seem to demonstrate weakening government control, this is simply not the case. Indeed, although the Chinese government has displayed greater tolerance of environmental activism,

supposedly in a bid to appear more

accountable to the Chinese public, it can still work swiftly to mute political opposition. 24

There are also concerns about the over-representation of highly educated, urban youth in digital activism and the ability of the media to distort public opinion. Rural Chinese account for only 26.9% of the country’s Internet users, 25 but are at greater risk than their urban counterparts from environment-related problems such as pesticide pollution. 26 As urban Chinese youths gain greater access to and mastery of digital media, they may inadvertently direct government attention away from the needs of rural Chinese people.

Even so, the development of environmental activism in China remains a positive trend. Environmental activists—and in particular, those utilising new digital media platforms—are not only bringing to light the environmental costs of unchecked economic growth, but are also contributing to the expansion of a ‘green public sphere’ in China by engaging in ‘not-in-my-backyard’ protests. 27 As the quality of public

education and media coverage of rights- related issues improves in China, there is hope that the country’s younger generation may be able to engineer novel responses to environmental problems and also to broader human rights issues. There is yet hope for even more change.

Ming En Chin is completing a Bachelor of Engineering/Bachelor of Arts (Development Studies) degree at UNSW Sydney. He has also worked with Thirst, an international NGO that engages Chinese youths on water


  • 1 Human Rights Watch (2016) Human

Rights Watch: World Report 2016, 175.

  • 2 Human Rights Watch, Human Rights

Watch: World Report 2016.

  • 3 Human Rights Watch, Human Rights

Watch: World Report 2016.

  • 4 H. Wen and W. K. Akina (2012)

‘Human rights ideology as endemic in Chinese

philosophy: classical Confucian and Maoist perspectives’, Asian Philosophy 22(4), 403.

  • 5 N. W. M. Wong (2016) ‘Environmental

Protests and Nimby Activism: Local Politics and

Waste Management in Beijing and Guangzhou’, China Information 30(2), 154-55.

  • 6 Some examples of successful civil

society action aided by digital activism include the relocation of incinerators in Beijing and Guangzhou, and the suspension of the Nu River dam cascade. See W. X. Kang (2014) ‘Hydropower Development in China: History and Narratives’ [unpublished manuscript]; P. Yeophantong, ‘River activism, policy entrepreneurship and transboundary water disputes in Asia’, Water International 42(2), 163-186.

  • 7 P. Ho and R. L. Edmonds (2007) ‘Perspectives of Time and Change: Rethinking

Embedded Activism in China’, China Information 21(2), 334.

  • 8 E. Economy (2014) ‘Environmental

Governance in China: State Control to Crisis

Management’, Daedalus 143(2), 189. Johnson (2014) ‘Good Governance for Environmental Protection in China:

Instrumentation, Strategic Interactions and Unintended Consequences’, Journal of Contemporary Asia 44(2), 246.

Changzhou: pollutants in school surrounds 100000 times above standards’ [in Chinese], CNTV,

Concentrations of chlorobenzene were more than

90,000 times the allowable national limit.

  • 14 T. Phillips (2016) ‘China’s toxic

school: officials struggle to contain uproar over

sick students’, Guardian, 19 April, http://www.

uproar-over-sick-students; K. Logan (2016) ‘What

Can China Learn from Love Canal?’, The Diplomat,

  • 15 ‘China school: Officials deny soil

and water contamination’ (2016), BBC, 19

  • 16 C. Zhang (2016) ‘Changzhou pollution

scandal highlights holes in China’s environmental

enforcement’, China Dialogue, https://www.

  • 17 L. J. Yang and Y. N. Zheng (2012) ‘Fen

qings (angry youth) in contemporary China’,

Journal of Contemporary China 21(76), 653.

  • 18 China Internet Network Information

Center (2016) 38th statistical report on internet

development in China 1, 36. Weibo is a popular

Chinese social media platform.

  • 19 A. Nordin and L. Richaud (2014)

‘Subverting official language and discourse

in China? Type river crab for harmony’, China

Information 28(1), 49

  • 20 Yang and Zheng, ‘Fen qings’, 650.

  • 21 Yang and Zheng, ‘Fen qings’, 650.

  • 22 L. Qin (2015) ‘Shanghai residents

throng streets in ‘unprecedented’ anti-PX protest’,

  • 23 K. Lee and M. Ho (2014) ‘The

Maoming anti-PX protest of 2014: An

environmental movement in contemporary

China’, China Perspectives (3), 35.

  • 24 J. Liu (2016) ‘Digital media, cycle of

contention, and sustainability of environmental activism: the case of anti-PX protests in China’, Mass Communication and Society 19(5), 620.

  • 25 China Internet Network Information

Center, 38th Statistical Report, 1.

  • 26 H. Li, E. Y. Zeng and J. You (2014)

‘Mitigating pesticide pollution in China

requires law enforcement, farmer training and technological innovation’, Environmental

Toxicology and Chemistry 33(5), 963-971.

  • 27 G. B. Yang and C. Calhoun (2008)

‘Media, Civil Society, and the Rise of a Green Public Sphere in China’ in P. Ho and R. L. Edmonds (eds), China’s Embedded Activism: Opportunities and Constraints of a Social Movement (Milton Park: Routledge), 71.

  • 10 National’s People’s Congress Standing

Committee (China) (2014) Environmental Protection Law of the People’s Republic of China

[in Chinese], arts. 53, 57-58.

  • 11 L. Xie (2009) Environmental Activism

in China (Milton Park: Routledge), 32.

  • 12 L. Xie (2016) ‘Environmental

governance and public participation in rural

China’, China Information 30(2), 193.

  • 13 X.P. Jiang and B. Li (2016) ‘Nearly

500 students found with health abnormalities in




Holden Eleanor Can you tell us a bit about how you initially came to work in

Can you tell us a bit about how you

initially came to work in the human rights field, and a bit about your main areas of work over the years?

getting a research job in the University of Nottingham. I started in late 1992 as a research fellow doing research on an edited collection on the UK and the International Covenant of Human Rights.

  • I fell into academia, and therefore

human rights, quite by accident in a

way. When I was in law school I had no intention of becoming an academic, and human rights wasn’t really a subject at Sydney University, where I went in the 1980s. It really started when I did my masters degree at Cambridge in 1991, and one of the subjects I did was Human Rights. Having said that, I was quite used to black letter subjects from

my undergraduate degree at Sydney

University, so I found it difficult and it

wasn’t surprising that was my worst

mark. Nevertheless, after the Masters,

  • I wanted to stay in the UK and do

some travelling, so I needed money.

  • I wasn’t really qualified for anything

apart from academia so I ended up

There was a gap between applying for the job and getting it, because the position was dependent on a grant that didn’t come through until September. So, while I was waiting for that job, I went with some friends in the entourage of a busking band to Eastern Europe, which was pretty exciting in 1992 with the wall having just come down. From there, I went to Poland and visited Auschwitz. It is a very profound experience for anyone to go to Auschwitz, and while I was there,

it dawned on me that I really did want the research job and to be involved in

human rights, rather than simply using it as a means to the end of getting

money to travel.

What have you found to be the biggest changes to human rights law since you have been involved with it?

Given I started in the UK, one massive change has been the Human Rights Act in the UK. The domestication of the

European Convention on Human Rights

in Britain is [also] huge. I come from

the state of Victoria and now there’s [a] Human Rights Act there. Human rights, if anything, has really become more prominent and sophisticated. There are very sophisticated cases over in Europe, and more coming out of the UN.

And there has been an absolute explosion of human rights law within academia. One thing I have noticed

recently is that the more junior

academics seem more specialised, less

on general human rights and more on specific aspects such as Indigenous rights or refugee law. I wonder if this is

partly because a PhD is now an entry- level requirement, so people enter academe with a more specialised focus.

Human rights has become much more ubiquitous. Arguably, in some ways, it has become a little bit too ubiquitous. I’m not sure that I’m a huge fan of the way human rights seeks to inject itself into almost all debates—the ‘human rights approach to climate change’, the ‘human rights approach to development’ and so on. I’m not antagonistic to those ideas, but the ‘human rights approach to’ can tend to obfuscate [the broader issue].

You have written about the interplay

of social media and human rights –

do you think it is a good platform to

address human rights on?

Social media is a very important form of modern media; it’s a tool. So obviously, it is going to be a tool for conveying human rights ideas, and, in fact, conveying ideas of all sorts. I don’t think whether social media, on balance, is good or bad for human rights can be empirically proven. It of itself is neutral. It can be used by people who are pro- human rights. It is a great platform, and

obviously an even better platform if you have a lot of followers. And it can also be used to promote ideas that are antagonistic to human rights.

It has a very, very important role to play in regards to witnessing, [which] is providing evidence of human rights abuses. An obvious example of that is the footage that has come out around the shooting deaths of black people in America by police. We have seen how much video matters in regards to people caring about human rights abuse. When it comes to Don Dale, we all care because Four Corners showed it on television, which isn’t strictly social media, but all the evidence of Don Dale was already out there and nothing had really happened. Basically, anybody who is around with a mobile phone can record what is going on. The other classic example of social media being good for human rights is that it is a great way for organising protests or demonstrations, with the classic example being the Arab Spring.

But at the same time, let’s not glorify social media as some new, amazing representation of free speech. I am constantly surprised that in the age of social media, we arguably have more restraints on free speech. One reason being that every time you put out a tweet, or even something on a private Facebook account, there is evidence of what you said. Therefore, you can be held more to account for what you have said, and there are sometimes disproportionate consequences.

The Castan Centre developed the ‘Have You Got That Right’ video series—how have you found using this format and who are the videos mainly aimed at?

The series is called ‘Have you got that right’ ( and it is supposed to be a bit of a play on words—whether you actually have the right to do something, or whether you have the correct information on that right. The idea behind that series is to educate the public on some basic human rights questions, and address these [questions] in an engaging way.

The creation of the videos, although they might look quite simple, has

probably been the hardest project I have ever worked on. Although we received funding for three series, the amount of pro bono help is enormous. We are very grateful to the many people, including industry professionals and actors, who have made their expertise available to us. With so many people involved, we had to make sure that the right hand knew what the left hand was doing and everything was proceeding in order. It has been a very complex project.

We are aiming them at anyone who wanted to have a look at them on YouTube. But to be more strategic, at high schools, anyone who wants to use them in their lectures—I have used them a bit in my lectures. They have been played at the Human Rights Arts and Film Festival in Melbourne. Obviously you can promote them on social media as well. They are there to educate people about human rights. Hopefully, people find them engaging and watch a few, and are then motivated to find out about more human rights.

What do you believe to be the biggest

challenges to protecting human rights

in Australia?

There are a lot of human rights challenges in Australia. But to start with, it is important not to exaggerate— Australia is, for most people, a nice place to live and generally people’s human rights aren’t routinely abused in this country. I’m not trying to shoot for a low bar there, but there are countries that have routine, horrendous abuses and we shouldn’t forget that. I think

you start to lose your credibility talking

about human rights in Australia if you make it out that it is the worst, as I don’t think that is the case.

However, Australia does have some very serious human rights challenges. The most prominent one at the moment is the treatment of refugees. I have to say that I was utterly astonished—I thought we had reached a low point [when I first heard] Peter Dutton’s response to The Guardian’s cache of leaked material. He gave the impression of someone who really did not care about the possibility that there are really serious human rights abuses going on.

For him to reference the fact that these people have paid people smugglers… If your human rights are being abused, if you are being subjected to assault and sexual assault, then the fact that you paid people smugglers is entirely

irrelevant. I really do think that this is getting into real ‘dark soul’ area for Australia. I know that people do care about what is being done in our name, but the broader Australian public is

seemingly content not to worry too

much about this, which is appalling.

We obviously have other longstanding human rights issues such as the treatment of Indigenous people. I am not an expert in Indigenous issues, so I am not certain if the gap is closing at all, but it certainly is not closed. We also have the revelations about the Don Dale youth centre and it was pleasing to see the response to that [when the revelations first surfaced]. Although, I go back to the question of whether we really need to see pictures before we respond.

Another shocking issue is that of violence against women. In Australia’s first universal periodic review, it was an issue that came up a lot. I was wondering whether it was so bad in Australia, and it turns out that it is. We are now hearing the statistic often that one woman a week dies, which is an appalling statistic and not something that got a lot of press a few years ago. That is clearly something that needs to be addressed.

to paint them as rights which are only of relevance to criminals and rights which have been promoted by an elite, unaccountable human rights industry. There seems to be an undue cynicism about human rights in this country, which I think is really unfortunate and in turn, slows down any real reform with regard to human rights. It can also help to facilitate to gross abuses, the kind of which we are seeing with the treatment of refugees.

Another big issue is, apart from the ACT and Victoria, the lack of remedies for human rights abuses. Even the remedies in the ACT and Victoria are quite weak, especially compared to the UK and its Human Rights Act. The lack of legal remedy has facilitated a real problem in Australia, which is the lack of human rights consciousness. Human rights [do] not seem to have the caché in this country that they do in other countries. It is too easy for opponents of human rights, or skeptics,

Eleanor Holden is a fifth year Art Theory and Law student, and was the Human Rights Defender Student Editor in semester two, 2016.

Professor Sarah Joseph is the Director

for the Castan Centre for Human Rights

Law at Monash University.

Upcoming seminar The never ending struggle for LGBTIQ human rights in the United Nations Monday, 6pm
Upcoming seminar
The never
ending struggle
human rights
in the United
Monday, 6pm
31st July 2017
The Hon Michael Kirby AC CMG
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More than a hot week

In February 2017, Australia experienced one of its most extreme heatwaves on record. New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory were all affected by the extreme weather event. New South Wales experienced its two hottest days on record, with the Rural Fire Service Commissioner warning that the fire danger in NSW was ‘without precedent’. 1 ‘Catastrophic’ fire warnings

had only been issued once before in

NSW. NSW’s maximum temperatures for February have been four degrees above average.

A single heatwave doesn’t prove

anything about climate change, just as

a single snowstorm doesn’t. However,

the important thing isn’t this week’s or last week’s weather, but rather the long-term trend: the earth is going to get much warmer. Since the mid-1970s,

global warming has accelerated due

to human activities. Sixteen of the 17 hottest years on record have occurred since 2000, with 2016 being the hottest. Heatwaves in Australia have also become hotter and more common. But a heatwave is more than a hot week. It is an issue of environmental justice.

An environmental justice perspective recognises that the benefits and burden of the physical environment are rarely distributed evenly. This is true of many environmental issues, from coal seam gas mining to the construction of roads. It is also true of Australia’s increasingly ferocious heatwaves.

Heatwaves impose significant burdens on affected areas. They cause power

blackouts, disrupt public transport and cost local economies billions in lost

productivity. They also pose health risks,

placing strain on health and emergency

services. Heat-related illness can cause irreversible damage and even death.

In fact, heatwaves are ‘responsible for

more human deaths [in Australia] than any other natural hazard, including bushfires, storms, tropical cyclones and floods’. 2 The 2009 heatwave in Victoria and South Australia killed 374 people

in Victoria alone. It is expected that the number of heatwave-related deaths will

increase rapidly in the next 33 years. 3 Heatwaves burden almost everyone in affected areas, but they do not affect everyone equally. Very young, senior and pregnant individuals and individuals with a medical condition are especially vulnerable to heat-related illness. People who have a lower socioeconomic status also face particular challenges during a heatwave: switching on a fan might

Sean Bowes was the Human Rights Defender Student Editor for the

summer semester 2016/2017. He is

in his final semester of a combined

Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Law at UNSW Sydney.

seem like a sensible response, but for a

family on a tight budget, the electricity costs can be prohibitive.

Some people have no choice but to suffer through the debilitating heat,

whereas others can mostly keep

themselves cool. This might explain why some people find it funny, whereas others are outraged, when government

ministers toss around a piece of coal in

the Parliament. We all have a lot to lose

from climate change, but some people will lose more and lose sooner.

  • 1 M. Evans, L. Hall and M. O’Sullivan (2017) ‘Sydney weather: Fire threat upgraded as NSW braces for unprecedented conditions’, 12 February, Sydney Morning Herald, http://www.

  • 2 AdaptNSW, ‘Heatwaves’, NSW

Environment & Heritage, http://climatechange.

  • 3 Australian Government Department

of Infrastructure and Transport (2013) State of Australian Cities 2013, https://infrastructure.

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Image © Gustavo M 2008 CHENGDE, CHINA.

Image © Gustavo M 2008 CHENGDE, CHINA. Human Rights Defender Highlighting critical human rights issues

Human Rights Defender

Highlighting critical human rights issues