YANGON — The Karen National Union (KNU) has asked the government to hold negotiations before construction of a highway from the Dawei Special Economic Zone in Tenasserim Region to the Thai border resumes.
In a statement issued Thursday, the ethnic armed group said the government must negotiate with it on the implementation of such development projects as per the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), which it signed in 2015.
The road project is in an area controlled by the armed wing of the KNU, the Karen National Liberation Army. The road has already been partially built, but has yet to be laid with cement. The government hopes the upgrade will attract more Thai investors in the special economic zone, where construction has also halted according to some locals.
The road runs 150 km from the special economic zone to the ethnic Karen village of Htee Khee on the border with Thailand, which has offered Myanmar a 4.5 billion baht ($143 million) loan for its construction.
“We want their project to be presented to the public for free, prior and informed consent. The project they are going to do needs to have environmental and social impact assessments. If they do this, they will have good security for the project,” KNU Secretary-General P’Doh Saw Tah Doh Moo told the Irrawaddy on Friday.
He said the NCA also requires that the government consult with locals, ethnic armed groups and nongovernmental organizations whenever planning a development project in a contested area.
When the project originally began the KNU let it proceed, thinking it would be a small road that would not damage the environment and have little impact on the properties of local residents.
But once heavy equipment started arriving in December in preparation for work to resume, the KNU realized the road would be bigger than it expected and now believes it is likely to encroach on many properties.
“We know their project will have benefits for our local people. But we want them to negotiate with our local people in order to have peace,” said P’Doh Saw Tah Doh Moo.
Some local Karen are also upset because they have not yet been fully compensated for when the original dirt road was built.
The KNU says the government has to conduct the impact assessments and show that the project will not damage the environment or local properties before accepting Thailand’s loan. However, it says the government is breaking with the rules by planning to ask the national Parliament to accept the loan first.
“If they do not do it [the assessments], there will be unnecessary problems on the ground,” P’Doh Saw Tah Doh Moo said.
In its statement, the KNU made three requests of the government: that it negotiate with stakeholders; proceed only with free, prior and informed consent; and design the road to minimize environmental damage. It also asked that Japan and Thailand, which back the special economic zone, carry out impact assessments adhering to international standards, Myanmar law, and the KNU’s forestry policy.