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Rules of Engagement

Last year, Sylvester Stallone was looking for just the right location to film Rambo IV. As he told Entertainment Weekly recently, ‘’I called Soldier of Fortune magazine and said, ‘What is the most critical man-doing-inhumanity-to-man situation right now in the world? Where is it?’” The actor was pointed not to Sudan, North Korea, or the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but to Burma, whose military dictators have committed virtually every human rights violation imaginable. In July, the Senate voted overwhelmingly to renew sanctions against the regime, which took power in a 1962 coup and goes by the dubious title of State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). In a fiery plea, echoed by senators from both parties, Senator Mitch McConnell decried the junta’s many political prisoners (including Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s rightful president), its abuse of minorities, and its use of rape as a weapon of war. Others would add extreme secrecy, forced labor, and even genocide to the list. “The allies of the Burmese people,” McConnell railed, “have a moral obligation to continue to stand against the SPDC.”

But Alan Rabinowitz, director of science and exploration at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), has other priorities. Based in New York, WCS has been working in Burma since 1993 as part of its overall mission to save wildlife and wild lands around the globe. In that time, Rabinowitz has posted a number of conservation successes--establishing the world’s largest tiger reserve, for example, and discovering a new, rare species of deer. The splashy headlines, however, have come at a price. WCS’s work in Burma has provided the regime with money, information, and political cover for its abuse of ethnic groups, all while downplaying its human right violations. WCS has stood not against the regime but with it.

The current U.S. sanctions against Burma, first adopted in 1997, are designed to keep money from the regime. Burmese officials are banned from using U.S. financial services, and U.S. companies are prohibited from importing Burmese goods or, with few exceptions, investing in the country (a grandfather clause let some companies stay). As Edith Mirante, an author and activist working on Burma issues for over 20 years, puts it, the sanctions “were never designed to bring the junta to its knees, but to prevent them from getting rich.” NGOs like WCS can work in Burma for humanitarian activities if they fill out a licensing application, and Rabinowitz denies that any WCS money goes directly to the junta. But, over the years, his organization has poured thousands of dollars into the coffers of the forest ministry, which is very closely tied to the military.

Rabinowitz’s earliest work in Burma is detailed in his 2001 memoir, Beyond the Last Village. After befriending the forestry minister, General Chit Swe, Rabinowitz was given almost free rein to pursue his conservation goals in Burma. In 1996, he obtained permission to explore the remote northernmost region of Burma, around Hkakabo Razi Mountain. He spent $16,000 outfitting the survey expedition for its two months in country, and, after injuries and weariness caught up with his team, he hired a military helicopter to lift them out. The initial amount requested by the military was a staggering $50,000. The amount paid, $1,500, may seem like a bargain in comparison, but in poor, starving, and overly militarized Burma, it is also enough to hire a handful of soldiers and pay them for a year.

On the expedition, which took place in 1997, Rabinowitz discovered that the Hkakabo Razi region hosted many species either previously unknown to the area or unknown to science altogether. He drew up boundaries for a new national park and recommended that WCS spend at least $20,000 more on its infrastructure--barracks, educational centers, and stipends for forest department staff. His proposal was eventually embraced by the generals, and, when it was created, funding for the park came from both the Burmese government and from WCS.

Using the Hkakabo Razi project as its model, WCS has continued to collaborate with Burma’s dictators to establish other parks (five in all), including the blue-chip Hukaung Valley Tiger Reserve, created in 2004. In each case, WCS has spent money on park infrastructure and even, in the case of the tiger reserve, provided housing and incentives for a park police force. And more money is on the way. This summer, WCS announced its Tigers Forever initiative, which earmarks $10 million for Asian tigers over the next ten years. Rabinowitz confirmed the Burmese forest ministry will certainly be a recipient.

Rabinowitz’s work supports the junta in other ways as well. For one, the regime clearly uses conservation to gain some measure of acceptance from the international community. Once, instead of the personal meeting with General Chit Swe he had expected, Rabinowitz found himself side by side with him in front of TV cameras at a press conference. (He and the general joked good-naturedly like old friends.) The parks also solidify the regime’s control over natural resources like timber and gold (the mining of which, ironically, causes considerable pollution).

Setting up the parks has also given the regime strategic advantage over Burma’s battered ethnic groups--allowing it to monitor them more closely, force rebel factions to the negotiating table, or possibly even wipe them out. Rabinowitz admits that one of the regime’s motivations for creating the Hukaung Valley park was to use conservation to lure ethnic Kachin, who control parts of the valley, into discussions with the junta. And, on his 1997 survey of Hkakabo Razi, his group included a retinue of civil servants and minders who, Rabinowitz writes in his memoir, gathered “information on the people we met and their activities.” WCS, in other words, sent a fact-finding excursion into the most remote corners of Burma, not only with forest officials and university lecturers who had legitimate conservation aims, but also people working for military intelligence.

It’s true that Rabinowitz is not the only one to try engagement with Burma. In 1997, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations adopted so-called “constructive engagement” to justify doing business with the regime. “This was a really bad idea, as they only engaged economically,” says Aye Chan Naing of the Democratic Voice of Burma, a nonprofit media organization based in Norway. “When it comes to politics, they disengage themselves from Burma, saying that this is an internal affair.” Rabinowitz takes the same approach: “Politics has got no place in conservation,” he says.

But Rabinowitz has gone beyond willful ignorance of Burmese atrocities; he has actually been an active apologist for the junta. In Nature last year, Rabinowitz said, “[H]aving worked in the country for ten years, traveling to the most remote areas, I think [the human rights violations have] been blown out of proportion.” When he was questioned about human rights violations at a 2002 slideshow at the Smithsonian to promote Beyond the Last Village (with a Burmese diplomat in the audience), Rabinowitz responded, “I personally never saw any of that. I don’t know how to address it any other way. I didn’t see anything.”

Even so, Rabinowitz seems to realize that the SPDC is up to no good. He acknowledges that General Chit Swe “did not reach his position without breaking eggs” and that, as the overseer of “perhaps the most lucrative sector of the government, there was no shortage of rumors regarding timber deals ... and personal wealth he’d acquired.” He also alludes at least twice in his memoir to the regime’s use of forced labor: In anticipation of a visit to a survey area by one of the highest generals, he writes that “a new dirt road had just been opened to the village using ‘voluntary labor,’” and he also reports not being allowed into certain zones where there were “problems.” He does not wonder what those might be.

Yet, for all his euphemisms, Rabinowitz makes no apologies for his cozy relationship with the junta. General Chit Swe’s cooperation, he writes, “was the key to ... accomplishing anything for conservation.” (Chit Swe was forced to retire in 1997, but Rabinowitz has continued to work closely with his replacement.) At the end of the day, only results counted. “I came to realize that the most important rule about setting up [parks] ... can be expressed in one sentence: Take whatever you can get, under whatever conditions are mandated, and do whatever you have to to make it work.”

Few would argue that Burma has excelled at conservation. The world’s tiger population has declined from possibly as many as 100,000 a century ago to fewer than 5,000 today. So, on the surface, the WCS’s tiger reserve is commendable. And it’s clear that there are many sincere staff members in the Burmese forest department who want to preserve nature.

But concern for wildlife should not trump concern for human beings, and conservation should not proceed with blind disregard for human costs. Susanne Kempel of Global Witness, an NGO that deals with the link between conflict, corruption, and the exploitation of natural resources, says, “There is a middle ground in terms of reaching conservation aims but including local people.” Global Witness, like WCS, looks carefully at the forests and collects data on logging and the treatment of ethnic groups--sometimes even meeting with members of the junta as part of its work. But Kempel adds a caveat that is obviously foreign to Rabinowitz: “It’s a mistake to pretend you’re working in a political vacuum.”