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Clashes have erupted along a key overland route that will link the Tavoy deep-sea port megaproject in southern Burma to Southeast Asian economies, once again highlighting the volatility of large-scale infrastructural ventures in Burma.
Burmese troops have been stationed along several locations between the port and the Thai border where work is underway to build a multi-lane highway to the town of Kachanaburi, and then on to Bangkok.
Fighting broke out on Tuesday last week close to the town of Myitta, through which the road will pass.
Territory controlled by the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA)’s Brigade 4 lies close to the region of Tavoy that is being transformed into Southeast Asia’s largest industrial complex, and the group has actively opposed the project: Zipporah Sein, the general secretary of the KNLA’s political wing, the Karen National Union (KNU), told Karen News Group in July that companies that did not get the group’s permission to enter the region “will be regarded as military dictatorship-backed companies”.
The clash last week, which erupted after a landmine was detonated by the KNLA close to a Burmese army battalion, lasted only 10 minutes, but resulted in several casualties. “The enemy suffered three injuries: a private and two corporals,” said a KNLA Brigade 4 spokesperson. “I don’t know whether there was any death or not.”
He said the Burmese battalion, in a bid to send those injured in the clash to a nearby outpost, had forced civilians to porter supplies and blocked many from attending their farms around Myitta.
Similar clashes in July close to a construction workers’ camp forced 50 workers from the Thai engineering giant behind the project, Ital-Thai, to flee into Thailand.
Despite efforts to negotiate a ceasefire with several armed groups, the Burmese army is increasing its presence in the country’s southern Tenasserim division where the port is being built. It will house petrochemical plants, fertiliser factories and a steel mill, and is expected to cover up to 200 square-kilometres of land. According to the Bangkok Post, the vast deep-sea will be able to accommodate 55 vessels at once.
Ital-Thai said earlier this year that at least 10,000 people would be forcibly relocated. Local sources have told DVB the total number of those affected could be closer to 30,000. The effect on the local environment could also be significant, with a 3,000 MW coal-fired power plant also due for construction.
“Previously, [the Burmese army] had only two battalions in this region but that has now increased to five,” said the KNLA spokesperson. “Since they are increasing troop numbers and entering our territory, we have to fight them back.”
In November, a KNU delegation met with Burmese officials in northwestern Thailand to attempt to formulate a truce. The talks broke down, however, and three days later clashes took place further north in Karen state. A similar stab at a ceasefire on 7 December also failed to net a result.