BANGKOK, Thailand — Truckloads of illegal timber cross the Myanmar border to sawmills in China, while markets along the Thai border openly sell bear paws, tiger skins and elephant tusks.
Further inland, the repressive military regime plans to dam one of Asia's purest rivers, and allows gold and gem mines to tear up hillsides and pollute groundwater for quick cash.
Myanmar has become notorious in the region for ignoring international and its own environmental laws in a single-minded effort to make the money that environmentalists say helps keep the regime in power.
"They may have laws on the books but they mean extremely little," said Sean Turnell, an expert on the Myanmar economy with Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. "I would say environmental considerations mean zero to them. It wouldn't even enter their heads."
After decades of self-imposed isolation, the junta in the late 1980s began courting foreign investors with offers of stakes in gem mines, forest tracts and hydroelectric projects. Foreign investment allowed the regime to double its military to 400,000 soldiers while offering neighbors like China and Thailand access to cheap raw materials and energy to feed their growing economies.
A Myanmar government spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on its environmental record. Chinese government officials could not be reached for comment and Thailand denied its investment in Myanmar contributes to the country's environmental destruction.
Hardest hit in the rush to develop the country formerly named Burma have been its rivers and forests, environmentalists say.
Dams built, forests destroyed
Over the past decade, they say, two dozen dams have either been built or are scheduled to be built mostly with the help of Chinese and Thai firms. They accuse the government of uprooting tens of thousands of villagers to make way for the dams to provide electricity mostly to Thailand and China.
Among the planned dams are at least five on the Salween, which rises in Tibet and is considered one of Southeast Asia's last untamed rivers. A first dam is also planned on the Irrawaddy, which activists fear will result in the forced relocation of 10,000 villagers and the decimation of its shoreside fishing communities.
"This region is one of the world's biodiversity hot spots," said Naw La of the Kachin Development Networking Group, a coalition of environmental groups watching Myanmar. "If this dam is built on the Irrawaddy, the fish populations will decrease. A lot of people will be suffering because their livelihoods will disappear."
Global Witness said most of the logging takes place in an area described as "very possibly the most biodiverse, rich, temperate area on earth," home to red pandas, leopards and tigers.
About 95 percent of Myanmar's total timber exports to China are illegal, Global Witness said, costing its treasury $250 million a year. Much of the profits go to Chinese firms as well as regional military commanders and ethnic guerrilla groups, it said.
Animal body parts sold
The borders along China and Thailand also are host to massive, unregulated markets that sell everything from illicit gems to animal parts. At the Tachileik market on the Thai border and Mong La market on the Chinese border, vendors openly sell tiger and leopard skins, bear paws, ivory and live turtles.
"Given the high demand and extent of the trade in Myanmar, many species will be lost," said Chris Shepherd, a senior program officer for conservation watchdog TRAFFIC. "Rhinos in Myanmar are probably already extinct due to trade. Tigers are on a huge decline. Elephants are in huge decline. The list goes on and on."
Even the few environmental success stories in Myanmar seem to have a dark side.
The junta in 2001 created the world's largest tiger reserve in Hukaung Valley with help and funding from the U.S.-based Wildlife Conservation Society. It contains as many as 150 tigers — about a third of the total in Myanmar.
But the Kachin group says the junta has allowed widespread gold mining in the reserve. Three gold mines are polluting the rivers through the valley with mercury, cyanide and other chemicals, the group said in a report released this year.
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