Japanese government officials and donor organizations met with government advisors, Karen State officials and Karen rebel commanders to discuss the possible implementation of Japanese-funded development projects in rebel-controlled areas during the peace process, a government advisor has said.
The meeting took place at the government-affiliated Myanmar Peace Center (MPC) in Rangoon on Tuesday.
“We facilitated the meeting between the KNU [Karen National Union] representatives who want to set up small development projects in their respective areas, and [Japanese] donors who are interested in such development projects,” Hla Maung Shwe, a senior advisor at the MPC, told The Irrawaddy.
Representatives of the Japanese Embassy, the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA), the Nippon Foundation and the Japan Platform held discussions with the MPC, senior Karen State officials, including Karen State Border Security Affairs Minister Col. Aung Lwin, and commanders of KNU brigades 1, 4, 6 and 7.
Hla Maung Shwe said Japanese donor organizations were interested in funding projects in KNU-controlled areas and the brigades’ representatives had put forth proposals of projects that they would like to develop.
“These are not big projects, such as building dams, industrial zones, infrastructure, huge bridges and roads. It is more like small projects, such as schools, student compounds, clinics and health care centers, livestock and agriculture projects,” he said.
“[Japanese] donors seem interested in funding these projects, they said they will try their best and consider providing funding for the projects,” he said, adding that the total costs of the KNU-proposed projects would be between US$4 million and $5 million.
Hla Maung Shwe said the MPC wants to encourage development projects in conflict-affected, impoverished ethnic areas now that the KNU has a bilateral ceasefire and nationwide ceasefire negotiations are ongoing. He added that the Japanese organizations were also interested in funding projects in Mon State.
In January, the Japanese Ambassador together with influential Japanese charity the Nippon Foundation announced that Tokyo plans to spend $96 million in the next five years in order to improve living standards and promote peace in Burma’s war-torn ethnic areas.
It was announced that the large sum of aid money would be spent through Japanese donor organizations, but details of the plans were scarce.
The Nippon Foundation has long taken an interest in Burma and has become increasingly active in the country following the introduction of reforms and lifting of international sanctions. It has moved in tandem with the Japanese government and businesses, which have been expanding economic and political relations with Naypyidaw.
However, opinions differ among KNU brigade leaders and Karen civil society groups on whether to proceed with aid projects and infrastructure and business investments in conflict areas before there is a comprehensive nationwide peace agreement.
Commanders of KNU brigades 2, 3 and 5 did not attend the meeting in Rangoon on Tuesday.
KNU’s Brigade 5 leader Gen. Baw Kyaw Heh, who is deputy commander-in-chief of the KNU’s military wing, Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), has previously said he is wary of implementing aid and development projects before a peace agreement is reached as he feared that the government would use the projects to strengthen its presence and influence in Karen areas
“It is like a cold war. You turn off your weapons, but you strengthen your control through social developments. So, I’m worried that the conditions here will be like that,” he said in January.
Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN), a Thailand-based NGO, has voiced concern over a JICA study released in February that laid out plans to develop a port in Mon State and develop infrastructure links between Burma and Thailand that run through Mon and Karen states.
The Japanese agency also suggested constructing free trade zones, industrial estates and urban development in the states, as well as developing infrastructure and basic services in remote, conflict-affected areas.
KESAN criticized the JICA plan, saying it lacked transparency and had not consulted Karen communities, who could suffer from a rise in land grabbing as a result of expanding infrastructure links.
In Tenasserim Division in southern Burma, new road links connecting Thailand with the Dawei Special Economic Zone project have cut through Karen communities living in the Tennaserim Hills and given rise to a rapid increase in illegal land seizures by businessmen.