Finland Defends Controversial Aid Project in Karenni State

By Seamus Martov 9 January 2015

Finland’s government has defended a project it funded in a conflict-affected part of eastern Burma as “successful” in assisting both villagers and government officials “to make positive changes.” The project, which came under the umbrella of the Norway-backed Myanmar Peace Support Initiative (MPSI), was heavily criticized in a report released last month by the Karenni Civil Society Network (KCSN), an NGO based in Burma’s smallest state.

In the report titled “Where is Genuine Peace?” KCSN accused the Finnish-funded program of encouraging internally displaced people (IDP) to return to an area controlled by Burma’s army where “their safety cannot be guaranteed.” Karenni State was until very recently home to a long running insurgency waged by the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP).

Since the KNPP signed a ceasefire with the government in early 2012, a number of foreign funded aid projects have begun in the state where such work was previously restricted. KCSN maintains, however, that Finland, Norway and other foreign donors have misinterpreted the KNPP’s ceasefire to justify supporting flashy peace-related development projects that overlook the still very precarious security situation on the ground.

“Instead of encouraging IDPs to return home before it is safe, international donors should be trying to ensure that the rights of conflict-affected villagers are protected,” KCSN said in a statement accompanying the release of their report.

The Finnish government disputes KCSN’s criticism. “[T]he project has not encouraged IDPs to return.  The project was initiated in support of the needs of IDPs who had already spontaneously returned,” said Juha Peltonen, a spokesperson for Finland’s Development Minister Sirpa Paatero, a claim contradicting a description of the project by the MPSI’s own personnel. A paper published in March of last year by Ashley South, an academic who serves as a senior adviser to the MPSI, described the project in Karenni’s Shadaw Township as being “specifically designed to help ‘resettlement site’ residents return to their previous villages.”

The US$79,000 project, which ran from September 2013 to June 2014, was implemented by the Kainayah Rural Social Development, a local NGO described by MPSI as being experienced with “participatory development approaches.” A report produced by MPSI described its own role in the project as one that brought together the donor—in this case Finland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs—with the implementing partner, and helping that partner to “formulate actions and budgets in terms required by funders.”

According to MPSI, the project supported those returning IDPs “to recover traditional land and livelihoods, emphasizing the empowerment of local people.” This was done through vocational trainings and the introduction of collective rice and seed banks. The MPSI’s project summary—available on the group’s website—did not include a description of military presence in the area. According to KCSN, a heavily fortified military checkpoint is located at the entrance to Shadaw on the road from Loikaw.

KCSN says that army personnel stationed at the checkpoint routinely compel civilian vehicles to carry soldiers, one of the more blatant examples of how the army presence in the area affects local civilians. According to KCSN, the checkpoint is manned by soldiers affiliated with the Army Battalion 552 Strategic Command Office, which is based nearby at a temple that has been commandeered by the army. A smaller police checkpoint is located further down the road.

The Finnish government’s spokesperson acknowledges the existence of the army checkpoint but says that when Finnish foreign affairs envoys visited the area it appeared unmanned. “We went by that fortified military check point… it seemed to be empty. We did not get any information from the local people who we met that there was any difficulties with any of the armed forces,” says Peltonen in a statement emailed to The Irrawaddy.

A KCSN spokesperson tells The Irrawaddy that despite the Finnish diplomats not seeing troops at the checkpoint, it is still manned by armed troops at all times. Since the KCSN report was published last month, the army has also established a large checkpoint on the eastern side of Shadaw close to the Salween River, according to KCSN.

KCSN says that the army has used the ceasefire with the KNPP to beef up its presence in Shadaw reinforcing and enlarging army posts and other related military infrastructure. The continued presence of the army in these areas remains a major concern for local villagers, according to KCSN. Shadaw was once home to many more villages than are currently there, but in 1996—following the collapse of a previous ceasefire between the KNPP and the government—army units carried out what KCSN describes “a mass forced relocation program.” Many of those forcibly relocated now reside in two Karenni camps located on the Thai-Burma border while others have been resettled from these camps to the United States.

KCSN claims that the MPSI’s assessment of the project was problematic and incorrectly claimed that the project assisted 1,431 IDPs to return to their villages in Shadaw, when KCSN’s research in the area found that the real figure was only about one third of that. Peltonen denied claims that the figures were inflated. “One factor behind this discrepancy might be that in the project area, families have their plantation gardens in the hills and therefore people may not spend much time in the villages as they are occupied with cultivating the plantations,” Peltonen explained.

According to Peltonen, both the KSCN report and an article on the report published by the Karen News website “make claims that grossly misrepresent the project in question. For example the title of the project is incorrect. It is not, as stated in the report, a ‘Model Village Project’ but ‘Community-led Recovery of Traditional Land and Livelihood of IDPs in Shadaw, Kayah State.’  Also, the project covers ten villages, but not all of the villages listed in the report are the correct villages,” he told The Irrawaddy.

KCSN spokesperson Ko Reh told The Irrawaddy that contrary to what Peltonen suggested, KCSN did visit and investigate all ten of the villages involved in the project. According to Ko Reh, there were discrepancies in village names because the KCSN report used local Karenni names for the villages instead of the official names used by the government.

Ko Reh said that MPSI and Finland must do more to consult with local people and civil society before they launch projects in contested areas like Shadaw, where the army has a major presence.

Ko Reh pointed to the report’s other findings, which detailed a wave of large-scale land grabbing by the Burma Army across Karenni State, to support KCSN’s claim that the army has continued to trample on the rights of Karenni villagers since a March 2012 ceasefire was reached with the KNPP. According to KCSN, more than 3,000 acres of land were confiscated from farmers in Pruso Township so the Burma Army could build a training school. Construction on the school began several months after the ceasefire was reached and the deeply unpopular project has continued with both the army and local government officials rejecting local villagers’ efforts to get their land back.

The continued army presence in Karenni State is a stark reminder to locals of who holds ultimate power in Burma today. “When I see soldiers everywhere, it reminds me our country is still under the military instead of being a democracy,” the KCSN report quotes one young villager from Shadaw as saying, a view that is unlikely to change no matter how much money Western donors pour into his state.