An ethnic Karen group has criticized an extensive report by the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) about proposals for development projects in southeastern Burma.
The 593-page report by JICA and Burma’s Ministry of Border Affairs proposes wide-ranging development projects for Karen and Mon states, with the purpose of facilitating the eventual return of Burmese refugees. But the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN), a Thailand-based NGO focused on land rights and peace in Karen State, blasted the report on Wednesday for lacking input from local residents.
The group said in a statement that the report, which was published in October, also fails to adequately address the development challenges created by decades of armed conflict in the region, while suggesting projects that could open the door to land-grabs.
Saw Paul Sein Twa, director of KESAN, said the Japanese government’s aid agency wrote the report after consulting with the Ministry of Border Affairs, the Karen and Mon state governments, and ethnic armed groups, but did not meet with local residents who would be most affected by the proposed projects.
“We were surprised that we, the Karen people, did not know about the study or the plan,” he told The Irrawaddy, explaining that he became aware of the report only after it was published recently on JICA’s official website.
He said proposals to build and expand roads might encourage the seizure of land. “Because Karen people still do not have proper documents to prove the land belongs to them,” he said. “It will take time for that, and before they can prove it, big development projects will come in, pushing them out to the margins.”
In June last year, JICA met with leaders of the Karen National Union (KNU), the political wing of a major Karen armed group, to discuss the report.
“They took recommendations from us. They explained their vision after having already discussed their plans with the government,” said Mahn Mahn, secretary of the KNU. “We want to be informed about how local people can be integrated into the process. Public opinion should not be left out.”
He added that implementation of development projects should not be rushed, and should allow time for dialogue to solve political issues, including through a nationwide ceasefire. “Only after that should the projects begin,” he said.
He added that the KNU would meet with Japanese INGOs later this week to discuss refugee repatriation and regional development.
The JICA report is a preliminary study that examines existing conditions and development issues in Karen and Mon states, which both lack infrastructure and basic services in remote areas due to decades of fighting between the government army and ethnic rebel groups. The report proposes specific projects to support regional development in both states, to help facilitate the return and resettlement of refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs).
These proposals include the expansion of transnational road infrastructure from Thailand to Moulmein, to link a new port proposed at Kyaikkami in Mon State. The report also proposes upgrades to domestic road infrastructure, the establishment of free trade zones and industrial estates, and urban development in Moulmein, Pa-an and Myawaddy.
A spokesman at the Ministry of Border Affairs in Naypyidaw declined to comment on the development plans in a telephone interview.
JICA were not able to offer comment on Wednesday or Thursday in response to the criticisms by KESAN. However, in a summary of the report, JICA clarified that the proposals were put forward “only as candidates for possible implementation.”
“They should be discussed with stakeholders including ethnic minority groups as well as local residents, and their implementation will be subject to the result of the discussions,” it said.
Under the former military government, refugees fled across the Thai border amid Burmese government military offensives, the persecution of ethnic minorities and the suppression of political dissent. President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government has since 2011 signed ceasefire deals with most ethnic armed groups, including in Karen and Mon states.
As the peace process continues, the government is planning for the eventual repatriation of Burmese refugees in camps on the Thai border. However, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has repeatedly said that conditions in southeast Burma are not yet suitable for the organized return of the refugees.