Japanese-Led Projects Risk Fueling Conflict in Burma: Activists

By Yen Saning & Saw Yan Naing 9 September 2014

RANGOON — Dozens of Karen civil society groups are calling on Japan’s international development agency to halt plans for development projects in southeastern Burma.

The Karen Peace Support Network (KPSN), which includes 28 civil society groups, says the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) has created a blueprint for development in Karen and Mon states that is intended to assist the eventual resettlement of refugees, but which could ultimately worsen conflicts in a region that is recovering from decades of civil war.

“This is the peace-building period. JICA is one-sidedly working with the Union government and the Karen State government, while neglecting communities and organizations,” Susanna Hla Hla Soe, director of the Karen Women’s Action Group (KWAG), told reporters in Rangoon on Tuesday.

After conducting a preparatory study, JICA is recommending large-scale projects such as roads, industrial estates and rubber plantations in the two states. The Japanese agency says a main purpose of the development projects is to pave the way for the return of some 130,000 Burmese refugees who are living along the Thai-Burma border after decades of armed conflict.

The Karen network said that if Japanese-supported economic projects strengthened the Burmese government while ignoring the concerns of local communities, the projects would fuel conflict. In a statement released last week, the network called for “a temporary moratorium on large-scale development projects in southeast Burma until a full peace agreement can be reached, democratic rights guaranteed and a decentralized federal union achieved.”

Time Constraints and Security Concerns

JICA on Tuesday welcomed the feedback. “Concerns we have received from the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN) are very much appreciated,” Hashimoto, a JICA official in the Karen State capital Pa-an, said in a statement, referring to one of the biggest civil society groups in the Karen Peace Support Network.

“They clearly show genuine concerns that they have for the protection and promotion of rights for the Karen people and other ethnic minorities,” he added.

He said the JICA consultant team met mostly with government officials but also some representatives of local residents during the preparatory study last year. “We conducted a social survey, but its coverage was unfortunately limited due to time constraints and security concerns,” he said, adding that the team still planned to examine the roles community-based organizations might play in development projects.

In Mon State, he said JICA had organized a joint meeting between government officials and ethnic minority groups, but that a similar meeting did not materialize in Karen State “due to the sensitive relationship between ethnic minority groups and the [Karen] State government.”

“Political progress by itself is beyond our control, but we expect that the ongoing political dialogue between ethnic minority groups and the Union government will be concluded in the near future. When this happens, southeast [Burma] will be ready to proceed with the regional development in full steam with priority development projects formulated by the participatory approach through the [JICA] project,” he added.

The Karen Peace Support Network requested a meeting with officials at JICA headquarters in March and June to discuss the Japanese agency’s plans, but the requests were turned down, according to Paul Sein Twa, executive director of KESAN.

“We want to understand their plan through a consultation meeting, so we can give advice. But it hasn’t happened yet,” he told The Irrawaddy. “The plan links humanitarian issues and development. We have no idea who will get involved, what the projects will entail or when they will begin. We recommended starting slowly with consultation.”

The Karen network urged JICA to commission conflict analysis, to guarantee humanitarian principles and due diligence, to conduct strategic environmental assessments, and to hold consultations while disclosing full information.

Japanese Donors

Japanese organizations are increasingly getting involved in development, humanitarian aid and even the peace process between the Burmese government and ethnic rebels in Karen State.

In August, Japanese government officials and donor organizations met in Rangoon with government advisors, Karen State officials and Karen rebel commanders to discuss the possible implementation of Japanese-funded development projects in rebel-controlled areas.

Hla Maung Shwe of the MPC said at the time that the Karen rebel leaders proposed development projects that would cost an estimated US$5 million. He said the projects were not large-scale economic and development projects such as hydropower dams and industrial zones.

“It is more like small projects such as schools, student compounds, clinics and health care centers, livestock and agriculture projects,” he told The Irrawaddy.

In January this year, the Japanese ambassador together with an influential Japanese charity, the Nippon Foundation, announced that Tokyo plans to spend $96 million in the next five years in order to improve living standards and promote peace in Burma’s war-torn ethnic areas.