RANGOON — A major highway project that will serve as a trade link between Burma and Thailand has been displacing local communities who live along the route in Karen State, southeastern Burma, say human rights organizations.
The Asian Highway project also connects the greater Mekong sub-region’s east-west economic corridor, and is leading to increased militarization and the risk of armed conflict, said three ethnic Karen organizations that conducted a study in the region.
In press conference on Friday in Rangoon, Saw Alex Htoo, deputy director of the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN), said that the areas in Karen State most affected by the project are villages in Kawkareik and Thinganyinaung regions.
“Rushing business projects and investments in conflict-torn areas that are partially controlled by several different militias leads to human rights abuses. When they [militias] fight to gain control in certain places, villagers have to flee. We are concerned about safety for civilians,” said Saw Alex Htoo.
According to a statement published on Friday, more than 1,000 local villagers were forced to flee their homes because of armed conflict in the area in July of last year. Sporadic clashes between ethnic Karen armed groups and Burma Army-backed militias were also reported, contributing to instability in the region.
Local villagers who live along the highway route “are subject to the whims of the Ministry of Construction, and have been displaced and coerced into accepting unfair compensation for the loss of their lands,” said the statement.
Naw Eh Thaw of Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG) said at the press conference that many of the 1,000 displaced villagers who fled in July 2015 still could not return home due to the risk of landmines and continued instability.
“Villagers, including children, are the most vulnerable people when fighting breaks out. They have to flee to the jungle. There are landmines, too. We learned that they [militias] planted more landmines. So I want to raise questions for the safety of civilians,” said Naw Eh Thaw.
Groups who partially control sections of the Asian Highway in Karen State include the Burma Army, the Border Guard Force (BGF) and ethnic armed organizations such as the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), Karen National Union (KNU), and another smaller Karen breakaway group known as KNU/KNLA Peace Council. Groups often collect taxes and toll fees in their controlled territories.
Mann Thein Zaw of THWEE Community Development Network said, “We villagers have been suffering from conflict as we live in areas controlled by many different militias. So we want stakeholders to ensure that they will address the suffering of local people.”
Rights groups said that the Asian Highway project linking Kawkareik and Thinganyinaung has been completed and a new road connecting Kawkareik and Eindu region will now be expanded. The Asian Highway projects are financed by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and Thailand’s Neighboring Countries Economic Development Cooperation Agency (NEDA).
The rights groups also said that the ADB and NEDA disregard “international safeguard standards, causing highly destructive environmental and social impacts.”
They called on the ADB and the Burmese government to properly consult with local communities and address their grievances before starting the expansion project from Kawkareik to Eindu.
In its report, titled Beautiful Word, Ugly Actions: The Asian Highway in Karen State, the rights groups reveal how various development actors and financiers contribute to massive infrastructure plans that lead to human rights violations such as forced displacement, and little or no compensation to affected communities.
“It is highly irresponsible for the ADB to finance and endorse a development project in an area where land rights are not clearly defined, and where armed clashes are liable to break out at any time,” according to the statement.
They also called on the Burmese government, its Ministry of Construction, and the ADB to “halt the dispossession of people’s lands and suspend construction activities in an active conflict zone.”