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Myanmar’s ‘green princess’ is a humble activist on a mission

An image from Alex Bescoby's documentary, "Burma's Lost Royals." Image courtesy of Alex Bescoby

An image from Alex Bescoby's documentary, "Burma's Lost Royals." Image courtesy of Alex Bescoby

  • Thant Cin, the great-granddaughter of Burma’s last royal family, King Thibaw and Queen Supalayat, is considered one of Myanmar’s first environmentalists and works to fight deforestation and environmental degradation in the Southeast Asian nation.
  • She is the founder of the environmental activist organizations Global Green Group (3G) and the Myanmar Green Network.
  • Despite having lived the life of a commoner, Thant Cin still considers it her royal duty to look after the interests of the Burmese people by fighting to protect the environment.

Devi Thant Cin lives on one of the most prestigious roads in Myanmar, just a few feet from the famous Shwedagon Pagoda and next to the tomb of the country’s last queen, but her humble home is more difficult to find than you would expect. As well as being an environmental activist – possibly Myanmar’s first, and certainly one of its most prominent – Thant Cin is also a princess. She is the great-granddaughter of Burma’s last royal family, King Thibaw and Queen Supalayat. They were deposed and exiled by the British colonialists in 1885, just over 130 years ago.

She lives not in a palace but in a modest two-story, half wooden, half concrete house in Yangon. But Thant Cin finds it funny that people are surprised by this.

“I have lived here for 50 years,” she said simply. “It was given to my grandfather for religious purposes, to look after the tomb [of Queen Supalayat].”

She shares the house with two other royally descended families, and her attitude toward the house is indicative of her approach toward her glittering genealogy. For Thant Cin, royalty – even remembered royalty, like her own – is more about duty than palaces.

“What I do is as important as who I am,” she said. By all measures, her chosen contributions have been significant.

Thant Cin, 69, is a leading light in Myanmar’s fledgling green movement. In a country where the focus is on much-needed development of the economy rather than protecting its resources, the work of environmentalists like her is vital.

‘Green princess’

She’s been dubbed “Myanmar’s green princess” by filmmaker Alex Bescoby, who is making a documentary about her family called “Burma’s Lost Royals.” Thant Cin isn’t afraid to use her heritage to get her message across; at least once people have already started listening.

“I don’t want people to come and look at me like in a zoo, to see the last descendants,” she said. “I want them to accept me and allow me to talk to them based on my work.”

It’s an impressive body of work, built up in challenging circumstances, including the risks of being an activist of any kind during the dark decades of military rule in Myanmar (also known as Burma). Things are improving now: the country began to emerge from its isolation in 2011, when the military handed over power to a military-backed civilian government. In November last year, in the first free elections for decades, the people voted in democracy hero Aung San Suu Kyi.

Devi Than Cin in her home in Myanmar recently. Photo by Jennifer Rigby

But Thant Cin remembers the difficult years all too well. She lost her job because she took part in a protest. Her father was imprisoned for his activism. And there didn’t seem to be any focus on the environment.

She dismisses questions about whether her work is dangerous, adamant that the far greater danger is what lies ahead if the world doesn’t wake up to environmental threats.

But despite her bravado, it is still a risky area to work for environmentalists and journalists.

According to the non-profit Global Witness, in 2015 alone two people in Myanmar were killed defending the land or the environment. Though that pales in comparison to the 50 killed in Brazil in the same year or even the 12 deaths in neighboring Thailand, both environmental activism and journalism remain highly risky. In December, Burmese journalist Soe Moe Tun – who was reporting on illegal logging in the northwest of the country – was found dead by the side of a highway in Monywa, Sagaing region. Police believe the Eleven Media Group reporter was beaten to death.

Sensitive topic

Passions run high when it comes to environmental issues in Myanmar: it’s a high-stakes, expensive game for the businesses who want to develop the country’s rich natural resources, and many of the sites being eyed for development are located in areas long plagued by ethnic conflict – areas where the authority of the central government does not always reach. Thant Cin is not frightened.

“I have to be an activist because we are all living on this planet. We aren’t separate from the environment. If we cut down the trees, drain the oceans, the mountains, the air – it is all connected, because we are living on earth,” Thant Cin said. “In Myanmar we have flood disasters every year now – why? It’s because we had 70 percent [forest coverage] many decades ago, and now it’s all industry. And so far, there are barely any rules and regulations for the environment.”

According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, Myanmar lost nearly 15 million hectares of forest and other wooded land between 1990 and 2015. Since 2010, it has lost half a million hectares of forest every year – an area about the size of Brunei.

That means there are just 29 million hectares of forest in Myanmar today, so just less than half of Myanmar is still covered in forest, according to the FAO. Much of it is at risk due to rampant illegal logging, despite a government-instituted logging ban.

A multi-faceted strategy

In the face of these challenges, Thant Cin’s strategy has been three-fold, and centered on raising awareness. In a country which only officially opened its Ministry of Environmental Conservation in 2011, it’s a good place to start.

Her initial strategy in the early 2000s was to write about environmental issues, and in 2007 she launched her own – which was Myanmar’s first and, still only – Burmese-language environmental magazine, “Aung Pin Lae.”

It was a struggle. She started with around $1,120 from one of her friends and there were many occasions when she battled to keep the publication afloat. Her royal background does not come with a royal allowance. But as interest in the environment increased, so did sales.

Her secondary strategy was to help unify Burma’s burgeoning green movement. She gathered together the country’s handful of environmental activists in 2006 to form the Global Green Group (3G), followed closely by the Myanmar Green Network. The group is made up of shifting numbers of mining engineers, meteorologists, lawyers, civil engineers, activists, researchers and journalists.

“Our main aim is to be the check and balance between the government and civil society,” Thant Cin said. What this means in practice is standing up for the environment – and the people living within it – when either or both are threatened by rampant development.

One of its roles is publishing informational pamphlets for people living near proposed developments. Often, these pamphlets are the first some local people have heard about construction plans. The group also carries out impact assessments and organizes protests.

Most famously, this has meant standing up against the Myitsone dam, a controversial project backed by China at the mouth of the Irrawaddy River in northern Kachin State that could cause widespread environmental devastation if it goes ahead.

“For the whole of Myanmar, the Irrawaddy is like the mother river,” Thant Cin said. “If there is dam construction that they shouldn’t do, we point out that it’s not the time to do it.”

In part thanks to Thant Cin and other protestors’ efforts, the project is currently on hold. A governmental decision is expected in the next few months, and if the project gets the go-ahead, Thant Cin and her colleagues will not take it lying down.

New focus

Thant Cin’s latest initiative is bamboo, which grows throughout Myanmar, with the Bamboo Lovers Network. The organization aims to teach people about the value of bamboo and the importance of protecting it.

“Our people, they just cut it and use it, they do not re-plant. They think there is lots of forest, there’s no need to plant again. So we educate them and give knowledge on this,” Thant Cin said.

According to one forestry expert, the network could have an economic benefit as well as environmental. Speaking to the Myanmar Times when the network was launched in 2014, San Win, pro-rector of the University of Forestry in Myanmar, said that although the country has the third-largest bamboo reserves globally – after India and China – its income from bamboo is minimal at around $2 million in 2010 compared to $1.74 billion for China.

Thant Cin has quite the to-do list, and is busy: her phone rang almost non-stop during a recent interview with a Mongabay reporter. But she sees her voice as vital in opening people’s eyes. In fact, she sees it as her duty as a princess.

“We have had difficult times in my country, and my father always taught me that we have royal blood,” she said. “It is different from the civilians. We came from the ruling people, so you must always look after people. It is your duty to your country and your people. So I am standing on that still now.”

Banner image: An image from Alex Bescoby’s documentary, “Burma’s Lost Royals.” Image courtesy of Alex Bescoby.

Jennifer Rigby is a UK-based journalist with extensive experience as a foreign correspondent in Myanmar. She is a recipient of a prestigious 2016 International Women’s Media Foundation’s reporting grant to write a book about women breaking stereotypes in Myanmar. You can find her on Twitter at @jriggers