Thursday, March 20, 2014


General Baw Kyaw Heh, the Karen National Liberation Army’s vice-chief-of-staff, in an exclusive question and answer interview with Karen News discussed the consequences of mega- development projects, hydro-dams, armed conflict, corruption, the current ceasefire, peace talks and the militarization of Burma.

Why are you opposed to a dam?

Many reasons – too many dams bring too many problems, costs and suffering, and the Hatgyi dam has already brought too much of that for the Karen already. The many problems and conflicts surrounding the project have been deliberately hidden, ignored or just not recognized. The connection between military operations, dam security and the number of refugees and IDP’s is clear to us – but they will never acknowledge it. If they don’t then how can this hydropower development not harm the peace-building process?

The dam agreements were signed under the dictatorship, just like with all the dams in Kachin State and look at what has happened. How will the companies acquire lands in the conflict areas? Who will solve land disputes in these conflict areas? Do they plan to set up land dispute mechanisms? They have had plenty of time to start one, so where is it?

There are no proper mechanisms in place to ensure that benefits will go Karen people or that, problems will be avoided or solved. When there is still no rule of law, especially in the recent and ongoing conflict areas, how can anyone be sure that the impacts would be protected against? There are not even good laws or proper social and environmental policies.
If the new government or the companies were going to treat people fairly, freely and openly why haven’t they done any of this already before they start work? We don’t see anything being done to resolve these burning issues.
Things like providing full information about the project, getting local peoples freely given consent, and providing fair, full and timely compensation for all negatively affected people all need to be addressed before things can be allowed to proceed.
The Burmese, Thai and Chinese officials and companies involved, need to be sincere in their dealings with Karen people, not secretive and devious.
Peace and political solutions must be at the top of any reform and development agenda. Rushing ahead with economic development projects brings up many sensitive things like compensation and resettlement that are dangerous to peace building. They do not contribute to a political solution for KNU, its people or for other ethnics. It can even jeopardize the peace-building process because politically the dam will undermine the KNU’s political stand and struggles. For security reasons the government’s military presence will slowly –or quickly – continue to increase.

Why is it important to get dam development right?

Developments should bring benefits to all stakeholders, not just costs for some and benefits to others. There must be equality and fairness, as well as careful consideration of all the needs and potential issues. There are so many issues with big dams, some of them becoming worse over time. Issues like loss of fertility in the floodplains downstream can be an enormous cost over time. The threat of a whole series of dams breaking in a chain reaction will grow with every additional dam built upstream. Some of these problems cannot be fixed without very careful planning and serious investment. The developers are not even studying these things, [they] never mention them. People are losing – or have already lost so much land and everything else. There is no fair and inclusive compensation plan for all the affected, especially not those who have already become IDPs or refugees. These dams will give big benefits and profit for some people, but little or nothing for the people of the land.

Describe what the ethnic people lose when their lands are taken for dams?

We also have to consider what they have already lost in the long struggle to control the wider area around the dams to make the dam builders feel secure. So many have been driven away from their villages and farms by the successive military offensives to control the area. Tens of thousands of people have had to flee, have had their villages burnt to the ground. So many have died. How do you count them? How do you say these people are not in reality affected by the dam projects? Even if they are only indirectly affected but have lost everything, do they deserve nothing? How should those who deserve compensation and restoration of their lands be determined from those do not? When you ask, ‘what the ethnic people lose when their lands are taken?’ how do you measure the loss of a family’s land? How do you measure the pain? How do you measure the damage to your community, your culture, your hopes and dreams?

Will ethnic people or people in Burma benefit from a dam?

The great majority will not. How many ethnic or even Burman villages have electricity supply? Mostly it is only people in cities or the military bases that have electric power. Some ethnic leaders will be promised benefits for allowing the dams to be built, and some may accept. Some may even get what they are promised and enjoy some benefits. The KNU will probably get some one time royalty fees or bonus for allowing the project, but the KNU will have to carry the long term political costs of the dam projects. The Karen and other ethnic people will have to carry the long-term social and economic negative consequences. These will add up to much more than any one-time payment for allowing the dam to be built.

Who will the electricity benefit?

It has been reported that 90% of the electricity will go to Thailand and the Thais. That leaves 10% for Myanmar. The “developers” and industries are hungry for power. Will the Karen get any? Perhaps those in Hpa-an, but it will be a small number of people who will get a small amount of benefit. Most Karen will get nothing, only lost.
You should ask about the other “benefits” – it is not only about electricity. These dams are about money. Serious huge amounts of money – billions of dollars – so many opportunities for corruption. Corruption and dams often go together – and we live in a region famous for corruption. Myanmar has for years been rated among the top three most corrupt countries. Some of the strongest political backers of the Salween River dam plans are well known for it. We Karen fear the corruption that can affect our own people from the “benefits” of money in exchange for not resisting the dam.

Could the dam start conflict?

Conflict over this dam has already started, restarted and restarted again. The dam plans were born in war. They are part of the military strategy to consolidate control over the Manerplaw area where the KNU and democratic alliance forces were headquartered.
If you ask could the dam restart the conflict yet again, the answer has to be yes, if the Burmese military continue to try and grab and hold territory, the people continue to suffer and their rights continue to be abused. The dams, the roads, the associated mines and the military bases to secure it all that

The ceasefire appears to be all about development – is this a priority?

NO! Without genuine peace and reform development project will never lead to good development that benefit the people of Burma, especially ethnic groups. Look at the kind of development they are pushing for – it is has no sensitivity to our culture, the environment or the future. It is all just to exploit the natural resources and make money quickly.
The name of the earlier military government, the State Peace and Development Council make very clear that it was and remains the current government’s priority and strategy. Not all Karen leaders have the same ranking of priorities: some are following along with development as a path to peace, others are more concerned to have peace built on a sound political base before proceeding with big developments on an unreliable foundation. If you have a weak foundation in an area prone to earthquakes, the likelihood of the dam breaking is increased. The chance of the dam breaking may be less than 1%, but the devastation that would follow would be unthinkable. Unless your family are far away in some other place…

Do villagers need to be involved in these mega developments, especially when they have so much to lose?

How would villagers be involved? There is no meaningful process of consultation, participation or consent. Only a small number of token villages remain in the area for show. These are basically kept to maintain an image of the project being normal. People cannot express themselves openly and without fear. When the DKBA expressed opposition to the Hatgyi project, which is very close to their headquarters at Myaingyingu, a pretext was made to use the Border Guard Force [government controlled militia] to attack them in early 2013.

Your alliance with environmentalists seems like an odd mix – it is not usual to see environmentalists and soldiers on the same side – can you explain the relationship?

The dam is part of the military strategy to occupy, dominate and exploit Karen lands, just like the logging concessions and the Yadana gas pipeline was before. Under the dictatorship the Burmese military was able to build itself up and completely rearm itself with money from selling off the resources from ethnic lands. There may be a preliminary ceasefire with few guns being fired, but these strategies are still in operation. Burmese soldiers are still trying to occupy Karen lands but by other means. The Hatgyi Dam would be a permanent foothold in the Karen heartland.
The soldiers continue to stand with the affected people that they have tried to defend throughout the nearly 65 year long civil war. A soldiers’ duty is to protect the nation. The natural richness and beauty of Kawthoolei’s environment supports the Karen people and our culture. They are part of the whole, and the whole needs to be protected. Will a nationalist – someone who claims to loves his nation – destroy or allow the destruction of the beauty of his own land? Will he sell off the forests, waters, the fertile lands and other resources that the people depend on for their livelihood and the future of their coming generations? What kind of nationalism would that be?
When the environmentalists work to protect the communities, the people’s culture, their lands and the natural environment that all depend on, they are also defending the nation. This makes us natural allies. Actually a soldier’s duty is usually understood to only defend their own nation, while environmentalists help to defend the whole planet. What is done in the name of ‘development’ is often like war on Nature, using bulldozers, chainsaws and tools more powerful than many weapons. So much has been damaged or destroyed in just one generation and it is hard to see how the next generations will survive. It can be argued that it is the duty of everyone, soldiers, civilians and officials to defend the natural environment that no living thing can live apart from for long.

What will happen if the Burma Army is deployed as ‘security’ for the dam as happened in the past with oil pipelines?

It has already been happening since before the first ground surveys began for the dam. When a big development project like the dam or the Yadana gas pipeline are being planned in a warzone, it is a clever strategy to clear all the people who could rightly claim compensation away from their lands and destroy all evidence that they lived there. So many villages have been burnt to the ground, wiped off the map. People have few ways to prove their customary ownership of their lands. This saves the developers extremely large amounts of money. Foreign governments who support and resettle refugees effectively cover the huge cost of resettlement and relocation.
When the attacks on the EGAT surveyors happened – immediately blamed on the KNU, despite forensic evidence to the contrary such as South Korean hand grenade fragments – the EGAT governor pulled EGAT workers out saying that they could not return without adequate security being provided.

The Burmese government has taken pains to see to it quietly without drawing embarrassing attention to the dependence of the Thai investors on the Burmese military security presence. Security for the Thai and Chinese companies translates into insecurity for the Karen communities many miles from the dam site.

There has not being any information on ceasefires and the peace talks – is this a lack of transparency or a tactic to slip agreements through without proper consultation?

Many in the wider Karen community suspect it is both. The lack of transparency in the negotiations with the Burmese government and military over the peace talks can easily breed suspicion of collaboration or of corruption. This contributes to divisions that weaken trust in the KNU. This only benefits opponents, who are masters at divide and rule tactics.

All the previous agreements on the dams, even the Environmental Impact Assessment done by the Thai university, were done under secrecy clauses. The dam builders have always tried to advance their projects little by little in secret. Burmese government is trying to get world wide recognition for signing on to the EITI (Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative), but all details about the dam projects remain closely guarded secrets. With this EITI process, “Free, Prior, Informed Consent” must be in place for in any development project. This is completely lacking
Will a nationwide ceasefire allow the government military to expand its militarization of the whole country and in doing so ‘protect’ its mega development projects such as oil pipelines, dams, logging, mining and extensive mono-farms?

The Tatmadaws’ [Burma Army] continuing occupation, arms stockpiling and strengthening of its fortified positions in ethnic lands indicates that this is indeed something to fear. It would simply be a continuation of a long trend. We can see what happened in Kachin State over the Myitsone and Tarpein dams, where Burmese moves to extend control over these strategic resources may well have been the real trigger for the resumption of the civil war after more than a decade of ceasefire without any political resolution.

The Kokang experience, a critical area for the Chinese gas pipeline is nearly complete and the big Kunlong dam construction is already underway is very similar. Central Shan State where the long ceasefire with the SSA North has broken down over control of yet another planned dam site is the same.

A nationwide ceasefire would result in other countries with big companies investing in ethnic lands, especially China and Thailand, being much more willing to support the Myanmar government sending the Tatmadaw to defend their “national interests”. Again, that is part of the original strategy.

If any ethnic group opposes so-called “development projects” that harm the interests of their communities and environment they will not be able to take effective action to prevent the harm or protect their resources without being accused of terrorism or being anti-development even while the military resists reform, accountability for its countless past abuses and continues to claim it only never acts offensively. General Min Aung Hlaing’s reported comments that, “Our troops will never attack first, but they (meaning we ethnic groups) cannot destroy the peace of the country or the administration of the government. We cannot tolerate it if people are hurt and also, we cannot remain tolerant if they destroy roads and transportation important to security.” When the army commander says things like that, given our people’s long and painful experience of suffering their offensives, how can we trust them to honor their easy promises?

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