Burmese environmentalists say that dozens of foreign investment projects linked to the country’s natural resources drive the recent increase in fighting between the army and ethnic minority groups in borderlands close to China and Thailand.
BANGKOK – Speaking at the launch of Burma’s Environment:People, Problems, Policies, a new report from The Burma Environmental Working Group (BEWG), Naw La, a Kachin whose family has been driven from their home by fighting between the Burmese military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), said that fighting started after the Burmese Government apparently did not listen to Kachin concerns about Chinese-backed hydropower dams in the northern region of Burma.
“The KIO (Kachin Independence Organisation) sent many letters to Naypyidaw and to the Chinese Government, objecting to the Myitsone dam”, he said, “and warning that there could be civil war if the dam is not stopped”.
According to the Kachin Development Networking Group (KDNG), which contributed to the BEWG report, the proposed dam will force 15000 people to leave their homes and flood about 766 km sq of land in the area, where the Mali and N’Mai rivers meet to form the Irrawaddy, Burma’s longest river.
“Most of the electricity will be sold to China with no benefit for locals”, said Naw La, who says that Kachin residents or representatives were consulted about the project by the Burmese Government or the main investors, China Power Investment Corporation and Asia World.
Around 16,000 people have been driven from their homes by the fighting since June 9, with Kachin exile groups in Thailand alleging that the Burmese Army gang-raped and in some cases murdered at least four women in Kachin State, and 18 others in Shan State to the south. Both the KIA and the Burmese government blame each other for breaking the 1994 ceasefire between the two sides. The state-run New Light of Myanmar has run recent stories alleging that KIA shot first, while implying the army is intervening to protect the public and investment projects, such as a July 6 article accusing the Kachin of “committing mine explosions on motor roads, railroads and bridges for killing and wounding the people in Kachin State due to the fact that the Tatmadaw opened limited fires for the sake of project and public security.”
The Burmese Army is said to be moving thousands of additional troops close to KIA headquarters, prompting fears that the fighting will intensify.
All told, an estimated 48 hydropower projects are planned or being built in Burma, 25 of which are ‘mega-dams’ similar to Myitsone. These will cost around US$35billion, will generate 40,000Mw of electricity, and will earn the Burmese Government an estimated US$4billion in annual revenue.
Noting the proximity of many China-backed investments to the KIA, Maung Zarni, a Burmese UK-based academic and dissident, opined that “the regime’s military attacks against the KIA – has absolutely nothing to do with the group’s refusal to be subjugated in the form of the Border Guard Force – the Wa, and other similar ceasefire groups have said No to the regime on this as well –but everything to do with the Burmese regime preempting any security risks posed by the KIA to the Sino-Nay-pyi-Taw commercial project.”
Another major source of revenue for the Burmese Government is oil and gas, with the country’s rulers netting an estimated US$4.6billion earned from the Yadana gas project between 1998 and 2009. The Yadana pipeline was rife with controversy from the outset, with allegations of human rights abuses by the Burmese army, which was tasked with providing security for the pipeline,which runs through ethnic minority areas to Thailand.
The new Shwe Gas project is expected to earn the Burmese Government US$1 billion a year in revenues, over three decades, when it is ready in March 2013, with pipelines running though Shan and Kachin ethnic minority areas in Burma’s north, en route to China’s Yunnan province.
The pipeline route is close to areas controlled by militias such as the KIA and factions of the Shan State Army opposed to the Burmese Government’s border guard force plan. Since 2009, the then-military junta has demanded that the ethnic militias merge with the army and restrict their activities to border guard duties as permitted by the central government. Most of the larger and more powerful militias, including the KIA, have refused to comply with the government’s demands.
Burma’s Government needs to involve local representatives and citizens in decision-making and implementation of its foreign-backed investment projects, says BEWG convenor Paul Sein Twa.
“As opposed to the Burmese regime’s strategy of political consolidation, many international treaties and conventions recognize the rights of local people as key stakeholders in decision making about the sustainable use and management of natural resources” he said.
However international involvement in Burma’s conflict-fuelling investment and natural resource sectors is part of the problem. Naw La said that Kachin “feel our situation is hopeless now”, with regional giants China and India battling for influence with the Burmese Government, and for investment rights in Burma’s natural resource-rich ethnic regions. “It seems like these countries just do not care”, he lamented.
Col James Lum Dau is a Bangkok-based spokesman for the KIO. He said today that the Kachin fighting is down to systematic denial of local rights by the Burmese government. “It is the same for the Kachin, and for all the ethnic groups”, he told The Irrawaddy, “under an undemocratic regime that breaks a ceasefire”.