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Karen Civil Society Rallies Around Japan’s Harmful Plans for Eastern Burma

By Burma Partnership  •  September 16, 2014

13 September 2014 Photo By KwekaluJapan’s lofty development plans for eastern Burma were very publicly rejected by the Karen Peace Support Network (KPSN) at a press conference in Rangoon, citing lack of consultation with communities and the potential for such plans to fuel conflict.

Based on a blueprint for extensive development projects produced by the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA), the overseas development arm of the Japanese government, 28 Karen civil society organizations that form the KPSN, released a report to outline their concerns and recommendations. JICA’s blueprint, in which its main goal is to support the return of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), contains four main components; economic corridors, free trade zones and industrial estates, industrial clusters, and urban development. The Japanese government has been working closely with both the Union level and State level Burmese Government in the development of this plan.

For Karen civil society, however, there are many concerns, as outlined in the report released on 9 September. Although the blueprint aims to “promote peace through development,” JICA has not conducted a conflict analysis on what is an extremely complicated and fragile context. In fact the plans could serve to exacerbate conflict by facilitating land confiscation, one of the loci of tension in the ceasefire process. Also, improving transport and road access to areas traditionally held by ethnic armed groups such as the Karen National Union (KNU), allows easy access for Burma Army soldiers to the heart of Karen areas. We must not forget the abusive nature of the Burma Army that has been terrorizing civilians for decades and continues to do so, despite a ceasefire in place. Will exposing more communities, who are already vulnerable to abuses, to the unreformed Burma Army really aid peace?

In addition, JICA’s blueprint sees the potential of the region to provide market access and foreign investment, especially with their plan of having refugees return to provide a cheap labor pool. The blueprint seems to be focused on poverty, and therefore, sees industrial development as the solution to the ongoing conflict. However, as stated in KPSN’s report, the “refugees and Internally Displaced Persons fled attacks by the Burmese military and the burning of over 3,000 villages; they did not flee ‘poverty’.” Therefore, until and unless safety and security in Burma can be guaranteed, repatriation will lead to further suffering for refugees who have already experienced persecution and human rights abuses.

A third concern is the lack of consultations with the communities affected. Indeed as the KPSN report points out, JICA “appears to be making development plan for the people of Karen and Mon states, not with them.” Most consultations have taken place in Naypyidaw, while refugees, who are intended to be the main beneficiary of this blueprint, have not been consulted at all. Furthermore, by meeting predominantly with government officials and leaders of armed groups, this limits the participation of women in this process.

KPSN also points out the difficulties in promoting the capacity of the State Governments who are mostly not recognized as legitimate by Karen and Mon communities, while many of the government departments involved in these development plans are also heavily implicated in the conflict. Thus, this blueprint serves to take sides, and strengthen one party over another. The report also flags issues over the economic underpinnings of the blueprint, for example the lack of analysis on the effects of migration or from previous development attempts. Lastly, the report highlights environmental concerns such as the impact of hydropower dams and the lack of a strategic environmental assessment.

The release of this report is timely and important. The fate of Burma’s refugees is something that many in positions of power and money are currently talking about but very few are actually talking to refugees and incorporating their concerns into decision-making. This is why we join the KPSN’s calls for meaningful consultations with affected communities and to ensure it does not negatively impact the peace process. As Saw Paul Sein Twa, one of the coordinators of the KPSN stated, “JICA is ignoring the people it is claiming it wants to help and could end up actually hurting them rather than helping them.” We, therefore urge JICA to read thoroughly the KPSN report, to engage with this network, and to incorporate their recommendations into any future plans it has for Karen State.

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