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Time is running out for the ethnic villagers of Tang Hpre, who have been told to leave their homes near the birthplace of Burma’s mighty Irrawaddy to make way for a huge new reservoir.
The dam being built in northernmost Kachin state is expected to inundate dozens of villages, displacing at least 10,000 people and irreversibly damaging one of the world’s most biodiverse areas.
“The people are terrified,” said a 70-year-old village preacher. “The State Peace and Development Council [the military junta] came and said we have to move. We can’t say no.”
Electricity from the hydropower project is destined for neighbouring China, hungry for Burma’s rich natural resources, while the revenues are expected to line the pockets of the junta and their cronies.
For the people of Kachin, the Myitsone dam symbolises the struggles they have faced for decades as a marginalised ethnic group in the repressed nation, which has been ruled by the generals since 1962.
“The dam issue is an identity issue,” said a Kachin civil society worker, who asked not to be named for fear of political repercussions. “The people feel they have been exploited over and over again.”
Although Burma is preparing for its first election in 20 years on Sunday, the controversial 7 November poll will not offer the Kachin people an opportunity to air their political grievances.
The junta has scrapped the ballot in swathes of ethnic areas deemed unable to hold a “free and fair” vote, including villages in Kachin, Karenni, Karen, Mon and Shan states – a move that bars hundreds of thousands of potential voters.
The regime has refused registration to three Kachin parties and related independent candidates, denying the ethnic group any genuine representation. The only Kachin party contesting the poll is backed by the junta.
“People don’t really believe in this process,” said the civil society worker. “Throughout history, trust has been broken again and again.”
After Burma gained independence in 1948, civil war broke out between the regime and ethnic rebels seeking more autonomy and rights, including an uprising in Kachin that gathered momentum from the early 1960s.
Decades of violence, entailing grave human rights abuses and the displacement of tens of thousands of people, ended with a fragile ceasefire between the government and the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) in 1994.
The KIO has since been allowed to control sizeable chunks of the border state, but Kachins say the government has continually failed to meet their demands for greater self-rule and ethnic minority rights.
“The KIO can’t surrender arms until there is a political solution,” said James Lumdau, the group’s deputy chief of foreign affairs, defending their refusal to disarm their militia, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).
Ahead of the elections, the government has pressured the KIA and former rebel armies in other ethnic states to give up their weapons or come under state control – a move most have resisted, sparking fears of renewed conflict.
“Within six months, there are most likely to be serious military operations against ethnic groups. This will be the fight of their lives, a fight for survival,” said Burma expert Maung Zarni at the London School of Economics.
While the regime is likely to face pressure from key backer China to avoid sparking an exodus of refugees across the border, tensions are growing.
The authorities recently blamed a deadly landmine blast in Kachin on KIA “insurgents” – the first time it has labelled them as such since the truce, suggesting a toughening position against unsubmissive ethnic groups.
One of the largest and most formidable of these, the United State Wa Army, is not allowing elections in the land under its control, while in other areas a number of “ethnic” party candidates stand accused of being pro-junta.
But where genuinely representative parties have been approved, the mood is more upbeat.
The Shan Nationalities Democratic Party (SNDP), for example, is confident of support from the vast majority of eastern Shan state’s voters to secure a voice in the new parliament, where 25 percent of seats are reserved for the army.
“In the future, civilians will participate in the administration with 75 percent – and isn’t getting 75 percent better than nothing?” SNDP leader Sai Aik Paung said in an AFP interview in August.
The mood is less optimistic in the parts of Shan and other unstable ethnic regions where peace pacts are yet to be reached.
A six-decade-old conflict continues in eastern border areas, where the junta has waged a brutal counter-insurgency campaign involving the rape, torture and murder of villagers whose homes are routinely destroyed, rights groups say.
Educational and employment opportunities are low despite the investment projects of the Chinese, who often bring their own workers across the border as they tap natural treasures such as gems and timber.
“People have stopped trying, they have given up,” said a 26-year-old hotel worker in Myitkina, Kachin’s main town.
With ethnic minorities comprising more than a third of Burma’s estimated 50 million people, experts say a lasting political solution in these states is crucial for stability.
“There has to be a new system that respects their political rights,” said Burma analyst Tom Kramer of the Transnational Institute, a Netherlands-based thinktank. “Without that, the prospects for peace and democracy are grim.”