The Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar officially emerged from military rule and geopolitical isolation in 2011. A civilian government now holds power, and the nation — home to more than 100 ethnic groups — is reopening itself to the world. Part of this reopening is in the realm of marine conservation: the government is partnering with international NGOs and experts to plan a system of MPAs in the nation’s Myeik Archipelago.

Phil Dearden is involved in the planning effort. Dearden leads the Marine Protected Areas Research Group at the University of Victoria (Canada) and has conducted extensive research in SE Asia, primarily Thailand. MPA News spoke with him about the Myanmar planning process and the array of challenges facing the nation as it builds an MPA system.

MPA News: You have been working on MPAs in Thailand for many years. What made you switch attention to Myanmar?

Phil Dearden: Although I had dived in Myanmar in the 1990s — when there were so many sharks in its waters — my recent interest in the nation crystalized following extensive coral bleaching on the Andaman coast in neighboring Thailand in 2010. One of my Ph.D. students, Petch Manopawitr, was looking at creating more resilient MPA networks in Thailand and found that much of the recovery process depended upon re-colonization from reefs farther north in Myanmar. He began documenting some of these stepping-stones and also invited me to join an IUCN-sponsored research cruise up through the Myeik Archipelago (MA), off Myanmar’s far south coast.

On that cruise I was both amazed and shocked at what I saw. There was a complete absence of sharks and almost all large fish, lots of illegal fishing damage, and unsustainable fishing practices. Yet there were still some standout features — reefs, mangroves, seagrass — in a thinly populated and very undeveloped area. The MA contains some 800 islands, the vast majority of which are unpopulated, absolutely outstanding places, but with very rapid deterioration taking place from overfishing and illegal fishing.

What is being done about the deteriorated marine environment in the area?

Dearden: Three locally managed marine areas (LMMAs) — each of them multiple-use with community-sanctioned no-take zones — have just been established in the MA under the guidance of Fauna & Flora International (FFI), an NGO. Furthermore we are working toward the designation of an MPA network, an ecosystem-based fisheries regime, and improved co-operation with the Myanmar navy on enforcement. The Government is very keen on this and several NGOs are assisting, especially FFI. Funding for the planning by NGOs is coming from multiple sources, including the EU and private foundations.

Myanmar is a very different country than it was five years ago when it first changed governments. It is much more accepting of outside advice now. The Government realizes the need for improved conservation. In fact nearly everyone does, ranging from individual fishing communities through to the Myanmar Fisheries Federation and the Navy. There is also a new air of consultation and community involvement. FFI, for example, undertook extensive community consultation for the LMMA establishment. That consultation is now being expanded to examine the potential MPA development. 

What are the main challenges so far?

Dearden: There are many, including limited enforcement capabilities, outdated legislation, and an absence of policy. There were very few spatial data available on marine ecosystems. FFI has trained a Myanmar dive team to undertake reef monitoring and has sponsored field studies, including inventories of coral, fish, seagrass, and birds. These studies have helped significantly: we can now identify and map priority areas for conservation. We have found these maps to be a tremendous help in community consultations, where villagers readily volunteer additional information.

What about the social environment?

Dearden: Our greatest challenge, I think. Although there is widespread acceptance of the need for improved conservation, there is a very diverse population (much of it newly emigrated to take advantage of the resources on the Islands), widespread poverty, and virtually no enforcement.

A particular challenge is incorporation of the views and interests of the indigenous Moken (or Sea Gypsy) population. Traditional hunter-gatherers of the Andaman coast, the Moken have different outlooks on life than other cultures, and much lower literacy rates, socio-economic status, and interest in getting involved in marine use decision-making, including MPAs. However, their culture is in the process of changing — going from a boat-based, mobile culture less than 20 years ago to some permanent settlements and increased inter-marriage with other ethnic groups. There are some things that cannot be rushed, and building good and respectful relations with the Moken to get them “inside” rather than “outside” the conservation tent is one of them.

There are also several Karen communities — another ethnic group — on the MA islands, who moved there from highland areas having grown disenchanted with continual warfare with the central government since 1948. They are very capable and adaptable people. Unfortunately they have adapted to reef compressor fishing and are taking a terrific toll on parrotfish, which are so necessary for maintaining healthy reefs.

What can be done to address these various social challenges?

Dearden: Helping develop sustainable livelihoods is a high priority, and the sooner the better. In addition to seeking more sustainable and value-added fisheries, and developing sustainable aquaculture, tourism is the word on many people’s lips. Across the border in Thailand, millions of visitors flock to the MPAs on the Andaman coast each year, generating the equivalent of millions of dollars for the Thai Government, businesses, and some local communities. In my opinion, the Myanmar coast is equally if not more spectacular than the Thai coast.

Tourism to Myanmar is still just a small fraction of Thailand’s tourism but is expected to continue to grow. Can you build that consideration into MPA planning in Myanmar?

Dearden: The Thai parks are full and and many are highly impacted by tourism. Ideally Myanmar will manage tourism development that reaps benefits for local communities and conservation without suffering the negative impacts seen in Thailand. This will take very careful planning, implementation, and management in a country where resources, experience, and capacities are limited. The NGOs are assisting the Government in its efforts in this regard. To some extent it is a race against time. We are seeking to reverse the current destructive marine trends, build sustainable livelihoods, empower communities, and enact good management systems before the additional pressures of large-scale tourism come. Only time will tell.

For further information:

Zau Lunn, Marine Programme Manager, Fauna and Flora International, Yangon, Myanmar. Email:

Robert Howard, Marine Programme Advisor, Fauna and Flora International, Yangon, Myanmar. Email:

Phil Dearden, Leader, Marine Protected Area Research Group, University of Victoria, Canada. Email: