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Ethnic minorities in Burma fear an increase in rights abuses associated with natural resource development in the wake of the government’s reform programme, according to a new field-based study.
Research by the UK-based NGO Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust (HART) reveals that locals in Shan, Karen and Kachin states are deeply worried by the international community’s enthusiastic endorsement of recent changes in Burma.
“There are deep concerns that development aid ($66 million reportedly requested) and potential massive economic investment from the international community may be used in ways that are harmful for the ethnic nationals, exploiting their land, dislocating their local communities, and triggering armed resistance,” cited the report.
There was an overall sense among those interviewed that the Burmese government is getting everything they want for limited concessions.
“When foreign leaders stepped on Burmese soil, they brought great advantages to the [Burmese Government] and nothing to the ethnic national peoples,” said a Shan leader, who was quoted in the report.
The suspension of the controversial Myitsone Dam project was dismissed as a “tactical move” to gain international and local support for the new government. “None of the equipment has been removed and local people have not been allowed to return to their land,” cited the report.
More than 25 additional mega-dams are under construction, mainly in ethnic areas, and have led to the displacement of local populations without consultation or compensation.
Karen River Watch warned today that the push by investors to proceed with the Hatgyi dam near the Thai border in Karen state is threatening to undermine the ceasefire negotiations between the Karen National Union (KNU) and the Burmese government.
“At this fragile stage of the ceasefire process, pushing ahead with the Hatgyi dam will reignite conflict and derail the talks,” said Saw Paul of Karen Rivers Watch. “Investors are sabotaging the hopes of Karen people for lasting peace.
“The Burmese government should show its sincerity by halting all mega-development projects in ethnic areas until there is genuine peace and political reform which guarantees the rights of impacted communities,” he added.
Despite growing local resentment, the Burmese government has refused to address their concerns, fuelling suspicions that ceasefire talks are a smokescreen for gaining access to resource-rich rebel-held territories.
Earlier this week UN human rights expert Tomas Quintana also warned that economic reforms could lead to an “increase in land confiscations, development-induced displacement and other violations of economic, social and cultural rights.”
According to the HART report, ethnic minorities comprise about 30% of the country’s population and occupy 60% of the land.
“It is therefore essential for the international community to recognise the concerns of the ethnic national peoples and to ensure their full participation in any political agreements affecting the Burmese nation,” said Baroness Caroline Cox, Executive Director of HART.