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Will Burma’s development projects smash ethnic livelihoods?

A giant construction project managed by an Italian-Thai company has come across a number of major barricades in Karen State, according to Karen News on Tuesday. Villagers say they have not been compensated for the loss of their land and the Karen National Union has stopped it building a highway to Thailand.

The Thai industrial giant behind a controversial deep-sea port project in Burma (Myanmar) said that 10,000 people would have to leave their homes to make way for the development, according to the Straits Times web-news based in Singapore 8 June.

Ital-Thai Group is in charge of building and attracting investors to the Dawei Development Project, which is set to change a sleepy strip of southern coastline with a deep-sea port and 250 sq km industrial estate.

The Kachanaburi-Tavoy highway is part of the mega Tavoy (Dawei) Development Project that is estimated to be worth more than US$60 billion that was awarded by the Burmese government to the Italian-Thai Company. The project includes a deep-sea port, a giant industrial zone, roads, railways, transmission lines and oil and gas pipelines.

The company confirmed the project would displace local inhabitants, but insisted the villagers would be well provided with new settlements.

“There is a population of only a little more than 10,000 people that have to be relocated,” said Premchai Kanasuta, president of Italian-Thai Development, the subsidiary in charge of the project.

Concerns about human rights and the environment have been raised about the scale and nature of the port plans because of a lack of regulation in Burma, which remains military-dominated despite a new namesake civilian parliament.

The huge project has attracted both critics and supporters. Some business groups claim it could revitalize Burma’s economy and develop regional trade, while international humanitarian groups say Burma’s human rights record means more forced labor, forced relocation and abuses against villagers.

According to Karen News, an officer of the Italian-Thai Development Company based in Tavoy informed that the first batch of villages to make way for the construction are Nga Pi Teh, The Byay Mu Du, Htait Gyi, Le Shawn, Pra Det and Nyaw Bin Hseit will affect more than 2,000 households. However, villagers say they have not received any compensation. They were just told that they will be put somewhere else.

Construction work was stopped east of Tavoy, between Myitta village to Klo Hta village, by the Karen National Liberation Army. The Italian-Thai Development Company has begun negotiations with the Karen National Union to try to restart work on the Kanchanaburi-Tavoy Highway project after Karen soldiers stopped its construction in early July.

The KNU confirmed that they had met with representatives of the Italian-Thai company on July 16 but said it is too early to disclose details of the talks.

The KNU, general secretary, Naw Zipporah Sein told Karen News.

“The KNU’s position on foreign development projects in Karen state is to assess the impact the development will have on civilians’ livelihood, their indigenous way of life, the environment and our security. Now there is no peace in Burma, the government refuses to hold political dialogue – it makes it difficult to carry out mega development projects.”

Naw Zipporah Sein explained that Burma’s civilian government is just a proxy for the military.

“The new Burma military government uses development as a weapon to destroy and wipe out the resistance groups and to persuade ethnic groups to forget about their struggle.”

Naw Zipporah Sein said she would not reveal the KNU’s current position on the Tavoy Development Project to the media.

Karen villagers claim the Burma government has sold their lands to companies with links to senior military officers. The Italian-Thai Company has admitted to Thai media that the local people will be moved to make way for the project.

On June 8, the president of the Italian-Thai Development Company, Premchai Kanasuta, told reporters in Bangkok that, “There is a population of only a little more than 10,000 people that have to be relocated.”

In April around 50 people from 13 villages in the Ka Moe Thway area met with Italian-Thai Company representatives and demanded compensation. The company agreed to pay, but villagers say there has not been any action taken.

Millions of ethnic people have been expelled from their homes to make way for development projects such as hydropower dams, reservoirs and sea-ports. However construction and engineering companies close to the government benefit from those projects.

They receive millions of dollars for designing and building development projects. The high-ranking officials of the military-dominated Burmese government take advantage of the development plans in many ways – illegal taxes, kickbacks and inducement – during construction of a project.

On the contrary, the local inhabitants, especially ethnic people, have lost their homes and livelihoods. Consequently, their children cannot go to school, cannot enjoy healthcare and they have to live under poverty-line for life.

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