Despite Ceasefire, Shadow Hangs over Border Economic Prospects

A branch of Kanbawza Bank in Myawaddy, a town in Karen State on the border with Thailand. (Photo: Pyi Taw Myint / The Irrawaddy)

KUALA LUMPUR — Dozens of civilians in Burma’s Karen State say they are not being consulted prior to commercial projects being undertaken close to their villages, in some cases complaining that their land has been expropriated to make way for dam building, mining, agriculture and infrastructure projects.

Research by the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG), based on a selection taken from over 2,500 pieces of information gathered during 2011 and 2012, suggests that legal gray areas could see investment in the conflict-stricken region, but at the expense of locals, hundreds of thousands of whom have migrated to Thailand to work or have fled to decades-old refugee camps on the Thai side of the border.

While welcoming steps undertaken by the Burmese government to curtail land grabs, which have seen violent protests elsewhere in the country, the KHRG said in a report released today titled “Losing Ground” that a combination of conflicting laws and a lack of access to information about existing laws is a violation of Karen villagers’ rights.

A January 2012 ceasefire between the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) and the Burmese government army has prompted hopes that some economic development could come to the impoverished region, the site of what is often described as the world’s longest-running civil war.

The KNLA has fought for greater autonomy off and on since the late 1940s. Between three and six million of Burma’s estimated 50-60 million population are thought to be Karen, living in Karen State or regions elsewhere in the center or south of the country.

A peace deal remains a distant prospect, however, and parts of Karen State are off-limits due to landmines. “While the cessation of armed conflict has made the area more accessible to investment and commercial interests, eastern Myanmar remains a highly militarized environment,” said the KHRG, which researches human rights issues in rural areas of eastern Burma.

Karen State and other ethnic minority regions of Burma are among the poorest places in Asia, with few jobs and most people living as subsistence farmers in rugged terrain.

And while the tentative peace between the KNU and the Burmese government could facilitate investment and, in turn, jobs for locals, that seems a long way off. In mid-February, leaders of the Karen National Union (KNU), the political wing of the KNLA, told Burmese Vice-President Dr Sai Mauk Kham that “the ceasefire between the government and the KNU hasn’t reached a lasting peace stage yet.” Karen News reported that the KNU leadership told the Burmese that “we need to have this in place before we can move forward to the development project stage [for Karen State].”

Nonetheless, governments in Burma and Thailand, backed by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), are keen to enhance transport links across the Thailand-Burma border, focusing on the Myawaddy-Mae Sot crossing, a key trade node between the two countries, which share a 1,800-km land border. Myawaddy is a border town in Karen State, linked by bridge to Thailand’s Mae Sot, where a Chinese delegation visited last weekend to assess prospects for business across the border.

Eighty-five percent of Burma-Thailand trade is overland, says economist Jared Bissinger, who describes the crossing as “the major corridor for moving goods between the countries,” with Mae Sot a six to seven hour drive to Thailand’s 10 million population capital Bangkok.

If the two countries can make progress on creating a so-called “special economic zone,” or zones, around the two border towns, it could boost economic prospects on the border, says Bissinger, a Rangoon-based economist.

“It makes geographic sense and that’s why people have been trading using this route for a long time. It’s definitely a viable and important project,” he adds.

The Myawaddy-Mae Sot hub could, in time, help link Rangoon with Thailand and the wider region.

“This corridor has the strongest economic rationale of land-based connections to neighboring countries in the short-to-medium term,” says James Lynch of the ADB, which as far back as 1998 marked out the Myawaddy crossing as key to its Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) transport links proposal, which would link Moulmein in Burma with Da Nang in Vietnam.

However, on the Burma side, road networks will require a drastic overhaul to cut drive times to the main commercial city Rangoon, currently a more than 10-hour drive from Myawaddy.

One road project coming under fire is the highway linking the proposed multibillion port in Dawei, on Burma’s southwest coast, with Kanchanaburi in Thailand, 250 km south of the Myawaddy-Mae Sot crossing.

In “Losing Ground,” the KHRG said that Karen villagers expressed “fears about destruction of land in K’Maw Thwe Village tract due to the building of the proposed Deep Sea Port Highway,” going on to say that representatives of Italian-Thai Development (ITD)—the Thai conglomerate that won the contract to develop the Dawei port—did not specify what compensation it would give to affected villagers.

In December 2012, ITD reportedly put $30million in total compensation money for people displaced from their lands around the port area, in Burma’s Tenasserim Division.

If it proceeds, the Dawei project will likely benefit Thailand more than Burma, meaning that industrial and port activities long stymied in Thailand due to environmental protests could proceed next door in Burma, where regulations are less strict.

However, Dawei is stalled, with the Thai government recently acknowledging that Japan, at one stage regarded as key backer of the project, is having second thoughts, focusing instead on developments closer to Rangoon.


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