Monday, April 23, 2012

Development drive sees ethnic groups displaced by land grabs

As Myanmar's opening economy is celebrated, rights activists warn it will see people who have lived in areas for generations forced out under 'legal' means that merely cover mercenary greed 

At the ramshackle Ei Tu Hta camp more than 4,000 displaced people fear not just the the Myanmar military downstream on the Salween River, but also a constitution that will ''legally'' dispossess them of the land they were forced to flee.

''We hear rumours that our land and farms have been sold and in some cases even sold again,'' said camp leader Saw Nya Ter, who was a rice farmer before he was displaced in 2006. He said the military had built a road from Kler La to Khaw Thay Deu to Buhsa Kee over destroyed betel nut plantations.

''To walk the length of the destroyed land would take two days,'' he said. ''The army paid nothing, didn't even discuss it. They just destroyed the plantations and built the road.''
Saw Nya Ter says that most people in the camp do not have the identity cards issued by the Myanmar government or proof that they owned their land. Before the 2006 offensive he grew paddy rice, vegetables and beans on 3.2 hectares of land which has now turned back to jungle.
''Some may have had them in the past, but nobody around here now has papers. People can't go back until they are guaranteed security and access to their farms.''

Based on past experience, Saw Nya Ter believes it is too early to say if the current ceasefire with the Myanmar army will last.

''We have 4,124 reasons here why we don't trust ceasefires; we have to have guarantees before we can go home.''

Saw Nya Ter says the government has two weapons _ the constitution and the army _ to get people off their land.

 Chapter One, clause 25(a) of the constitution, spells out what Saw Nya Ter says people are scared of.

''The state is the ultimate owner of all the land, and natural resources above and below the ground, above and beneath the water and in the atmosphere within its territorial boundary,'' Saw Nya Ter said, quoting the clause.

''They beat us in law and if that doesn't work they burn us off our land. Villagers look around and say how can we have a ceasefire when there are now many more soldiers in our land. If they want a ceasefire, they should leave our land and return to the army camps.''

Saw Nya Ter believes one of the main objectives of the offensive was to drive people off land where they had grown rice, fruits and nuts. ''The Burmese [Myanmar] army destroyed many farms, thousands of acres of rice and plantations all gone _ what a waste.''

Saw Nya Ter estimates that the majority of people living in Ei Tu Hta refugee camp owned land and says many camp residents are worried about their legal status in relationship to the ownership of their land.


The Salween, at 2,812km, is Southeast Asia's longest free-flowing river. It is the last of the great rivers not yet dammed, but environmentalists and villagers living along its banks fear this will end. The Karen National Union, although opposed to damming the Salween, caved in to pressure from the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (Egat) and China's Sinohydro Corporation to allow a survey of the proposed Hatgyi dam site.

The Salween runs down from China through Myanmar and separates Thailand's Mae Hong Son province from Myanmar's Karen State. But it is much more than the vast stretch of the Salween's coffee-coloured waters that separates the two countries.
 The trading hamlet of Mae Sam Lab, on the Thai side of the Salween, is bustling. The small shops that line the dead-end concrete road are stocked with engine spare parts, packaged consumer goods, iced beer and soft drinks, dried and fresh fish, large iceboxes and oil and petrol. A line of new, green-tiled, concrete picnic shelters dot the Thai riverbank.
Porters over-laden with goods stumble their way through truck-sized boulders and sand dunes to rows of waiting, smoke-belching cargo boats.

The contrast on the opposite side of the river is stark _ a cluster of makeshift wooden and bamboo buildings on a bare dirt hill denotes the presence of a Myanmar army camp. There are no roads, electricity pylons or shops _ soldiers from the camp hitch a ride to the Thai side for goods, drink and simple meals from street stalls.

 Further north, another two ramshackle Myanmar army camps are located back from the water's edge. Bamboo poles, tied together, make a frame to dry washing on. A line of bobbing plastic bottles indicates fish traps. After an hour and half of river travel a large sandy beach is a sign Ei Tu Hta camp is reached. A 30m high sand dune conceals the 700 small bamboo huts of the camp from the river traffic.


There are signs Myanmar's authoritarian government is creeping its way towards change. To date it has released hundreds, but not all political prisoners, eased censorship and lifted some restrictions on the media, amended electoral laws to allow Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy to contest and win parliamentary seats and started ceasefire talks with most of the country's armed ethnic groups.

In exchange for doing this the Myanmar government is confident Western governments will remove international sanctions and investment dollars will begin to flow into the country.
 But not all regional politicians agree lifting sanctions is a valid solution. The Asean Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus (AIPMC) welcomes signs of the country's political reforms, but warned that removing sanctions could threaten the reform process.
''Myanmar lacks the laws and infrastructure to cope with the consequences of an influx of foreign investment. The negative experience of sizeable investment from China and other neighbours in Myanmar over recent years testifies to the social, environment, political and economic impacts that come with foreign investment and large-scale development projects,'' said Eva Kusuma Sundari, Indonesian MP and president of AIPMC.

''History has shown, independent corporations cannot be trusted to act in the interests of the people of the countries they are investing in; they must be regulated by both local and international laws.''
Warnings from the Asean MP on unregulated investment concern environmentalists and activists who say the military build-up in ethnic areas is a strategy to provide security for dams, oil pipes, gas terminals and the construction of infrastructure needed to service development projects.

A report released in March by Arakan Oil Watch, ''Burma's Resource Curse'', points out that ''projects that extract and export natural resources, have directly led to human rights abuses such as forced labour, land confiscation, displacement, sexual violence as well as destroying the environment.''
 Arakan Oil Watch goes a step further and accuses the government of misappropriating revenue from the extraction and sale of natural resources for the enrichment of government and senior military officers.

Jockai, a director of Arakan Oil Watch, told Spectrum: ''The country's major businesses are controlled by military companies and cronies. Natural gas exports in 2013 are expected to generate an estimated US$4.1 billion [127 billion baht] a year. Nobody knows, except the high-ranking officials, where this money is kept or goes.''
Arakan Oil Watch's report blames the lack of transparency around Myanmar's development projects for the country's notorious reputation for corruption.

''The secrecy and lack of accountability mechanisms around oil and gas revenues provides a perfect enabling environment for corruption.''

Jockai explains the sleight of hand used to ''bury'' investment money. Gas revenues in Myanmar are ''recorded at the official exchange rate of six kyat to the US dollar _ the market exchange rate ranged between 800 to 1,000 kyat. This leaves billions of dollars unaccounted and kept out of the country's public accounts by the government. These funds are definitely not being used to build roads, hospitals or pay farmers compensation for their land _ the country or the people are not benefiting.''

Jockai says in some cases compensation is paid by foreign investors for villagers' land taken for development: ''Daewoo, the South Korean company paid above the market value for land they needed to build their gas terminals at Kyauk Phyn Township. The money was paid, but some villagers have had to pay at least half of it back to local officials. These people had no choice, they had to sell, even though the land had been in their families for more than a 100 years.''

 Jockai says land acquired by the China National Petroleum Corporation _ to build its oil terminal and seaport to take oil from tankers coming from Africa and the Middle East and pipe it to China _ was confiscated from villagers by the Myanmar government.

''Villagers were paid limited compensation _ authorities took most of the money that was paid. Many people are still waiting to be paid, but their land has already been confiscated.''


'Arakan Oil Watch is not alone in documenting the human rights abuses and land confiscations linked with development projects. A vast number of reports have been produced by Amnesty International, CorpWatch, the Karen Human Rights Group, EarthRights International, Thai Burma Border Consortium, International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School and the New York based Human Rights Watch.

Amnesty International's Annual Report for 2011 confirmed that ''the army committed human rights violations in connection with oil, gas, mining and hydropower development projects, including forced labour, killings, beatings and land confiscation''.

The Amnesty International report also gave detail to some of the abuses.
''In late May and early June 2011, authorities began forcibly relocating several villages in Kachin state as part of the ongoing Ayerarwaddy Myitsone Dam project. The authorities confiscated land without compensation and forcibly displaced villagers in Rakhine state as construction of the Shwe gas and oil transport pipelines began.

 ''Battalions providing security for the Yadana, Yetagun and Kanbauk-Myaing Kalay natural gas pipelines in Tanintharyi Division and Karen state forced civilians to work on barracks, roads and miscellaneous projects, and committed at least two extrajudicial executions.''

The Shan Women's Action Network in their report ''Burma Army Tracks'' note that the former military government confiscated around 1,620 hectares for the building of a railway between Mong Nai in the south and Kentung in the east of Shan State.

The Human Rights foundation of Monland documents ''the confiscation of over 1,000 acres [405 hectares] of land on Kywe Thone Nyi Ma Island'' from 240 rubber plantation owners for a naval training ground and that the Myanmar Navy surveyed an additional 1,200 hectares.

The Ta'ang Students and Youth Organisation estimates that in northern Shan State, government authorities confiscated 17,377 hectares. In Karen state villagers accuse the government's militia, the Border Guard Force, of confiscating 1,214 hectares.

The Thai Burma Border Consortium (TBBC) latest report, released in 2012, ''Displacement and Poverty'', says that despite some Myanmar government reforms, ''militarisation continues to pose the greatest threat to human security in the southeastern states and regions, with more people forced to flee from their homes during the past year'' than in the previous 10 years the TBBC has been documenting displacement.

The report estimates that ''at least 112,000 people were forced to leave their homes during the past year'' in southeast Myanmar.

But it is not only environmentalists and activists spotlighting the land grabs and abuses associated with Myanmar's development projects. In March, in a speech to the UN Human Rights Commissioner's Office, Tomas Ojea Quintana, the special rapporteur for Myanmar, spelt out his concerns over unfettered economic development, land confiscation and human rights abuses.

''Given the wave of privatisations last year and the expected increase in foreign investment, along with the new government's plans to accelerate economic development, I also fear an increase in land confiscations, development-induced displacement and other violations of economic, social and cultural rights.''

Mr Quintana underlined the need for Myanmar's government to develop a legal system of international standard to protect citizens and the environment.

''The government should develop the necessary legislative framework, in line with international standards on corporate social and environmental responsibility, regulating the prevention of, protection against and reparation of the adverse impacts of activities by private and state-owned companies, mainly in the extractive and large-scale energy-related sectors.''


Paul Sein Twe, a spokesperson for an alliance of grass-roots based organisations that operate as the Burma Environment Working Group (BEWG), insists Myanmar's investment laws and regulations governing development projects are ineffective and offer no legal protection to citizens.

''Land ownership is difficult, most of the villagers we surveyed had documentation from local organisations, not from the government _ their land tenure is based on these local documents. The majority of ethnic people don't have ID cards. It is crucial that the Karen National Union negotiate land titles in their peace talks, otherwise it will dissolve into a big mess. Many people who had documents lost them when they fled to the jungles.

''Companies want the cheapest option, and in a country without laws or mechanisms to control what companies can do or can't do the impact on communities and the environment will be irreversible. If there's development there's displacement. Corporate responsibility should mean that before starting a project an environment impact assessment [EIA], a social impact assessment and a conflict impact assessment should also be carried out,'' said Paul Sein Twe.

He added that without evaluating the impact of large-scale development projects on communities or the environment there is a huge potential to reignite armed conflict.

''There is tension within the ethnic armed groups at the local level and at their head offices over the selling of resources. In Karen areas Malaysian companies want to establish palm oil plantations. They have government permission, but not from the KNU. Without proper consultation these projects have the potential to spark a conflict.''

Paul Sein Twe shakes his head and says it is incredible that the Italian-Thai Development Company, the Thai company constructing the deep sea port and industrial park at Dawei on the Andaman Sea, only agreed that they would carry out an EIA when the Karen National Union demanded one. He believes there is a strong case for having all mega-developments shelved until there is a legal framework to deal with all related issues _ land rights, environment, pollution, compensation and complaints.

''We call on the ethnic armed groups, the government and the business community to freeze developments until the ceasefires are negotiated and there's rule of law in the country to protect both people and the environment. Now there is no rule of law or mechanism to address the grievances of the people.''

Paul Sein Twe says the government and regional investors regard refugees and displaced people as future sources of cheap labour for the planned economic zones. He says the government is sending out the wrong signals that will attract unethical investors.
''It's all designed to be attractive to foreign investors. Economic zones, eight-year tax free incentives, the East-West Corridor linking eastern Burma, China and Thailand. It will also sideline the ethnic armed groups _ they will not be able to resist the pressure or operate freely,'' said Paul Sein Twe, adding that development projects have already robbed thousands of villagers of their farms and land to unscrupulous government authorities and there is little villagers can do without legal protection.

''The huge mega developments _ dams, deep sea ports, hydropower dams, mining, deep sea drilling, logging and construction of the infrastructure needed for transport _ are being done without a legal framework in place. There's no pressure or any basic requirements for developers to carry out EIAs or social assessments. We know from many previous examples that environmental disasters do happen _ oil leaks, logging, mining pollution _ and we know from experience around the world that companies are often not so good at self-regulation.''