Source: Frontier Myanmar

Date: 19 February 2018


​The recent resignation of a minister in Ayeyarwady Region has cast doubt on the future of fisheries industry reforms, under which leases were taken off local investors and given to groups of fishermen.

By HEIN KO SOE | FRONTIER
Photos NYEIN SU WAI KYAW SOE

IN MOST parts of Myanmar, inland waterways are public spaces. You can swim, fish or navigate a small vessel without asking for permission. In some places there are restrictions – in busy ports, near hydropower dams, close to naval bases – but waterways are generally open to everyone, rich or poor.

Ayeyarwady Region is different. Each year, more than 1,000 of its waterways are closed off to the public. They are patrolled by security; farmers aren't even allowed to take water from them. For a person from Yangon, it's a shock to see these waterways in private hands.

These private interests pay significant sums to gain the fishing rights for what are known as inn: ponds and lakes of varying sizes, some of which are natural and others man-made. Tenders are held for licences, which are the single biggest source of revenue for the Ayeyarwady Region government. A January 2017 study by the Renaissance Institute, a National League for Democracy-aligned economic think-tank, found that fisheries licences contributed 56 percent of total revenue to the regional government, excluding transfers from the central government.

The privatisation of the waterways and development of fish farming has encouraged a massive intensification of production. Once the rice bowl of Asia, it could now better be described as the fish bowl.

But the system has come at cost to communities, many of which have been blocked from local water sources. A fisheries governance project in Pyapon and Dedaye townships supported by the Livelihoods and Food Security Trust Fund and implemented from 2011 to 2014 concluded that fisheries policies and laws, including the tender system, were "unequal" and favoured "rich and powerful private sector groups" at the expense of small-scale fishermen or landless farmers.

This inequity over fisheries resources has sparked conflict and anger that has occasionally ended in bloodshed. In October 2012, workers from a fishery business in Kyonepyaw Township allegedly killed a fisherman after he encroached on their concession; his death sparked a riot and police fired on the crowd, killing two people. Three months later, thousands of people joined a protest against the confiscation of land and licensing of waterways.

Shortly after the National League for Democracy government took office in March 2016, Minister for Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources U Ba Hein announced sweeping changes to the fisheries licensing system aimed at empowering small fishermen and alleviating poverty. But fisheries business owners – known as inn thar gyi – have fought back, complaining to Nay Pyi Taw that the changes Ba Hein introduced were unlawful.

Now Ba Hein is gone – he resigned in January, ostensibly due to ill health – and Ayeyarwady's fisheries industry is once again at a crossroads. Will businessmen or fishermen prevail?