Monday, May 13, 2013

The Hidden Cost of Freight and Logistics Development in Myanmar

NGO's warn that high profile projects are responsible for diaspora and deaths
Shipping News Feature

BURMA/MYANMAR – The widely hailed opening up of Myanmar – generally known as Burma by the rest of the world – has got Western politicians and companies, including those in the field of freight and logistics, scrambling to get a piece of what one investment specialist described as '…probably the best investment opportunity in the world right now'. With the freeing of Aung Suu Kyi and sanctions now largely dropped by the United States and the EU despite clear evidence of ongoing unrest, many energy and resource exploitation corporations now consider that Burma is ripe for development and major infrastructure developments are already having concrete poured to meet the expected demand. With accusations that greed and corruption involving energy interests have fathered the growth of violence and piracy in other regions such as the Niger Delta the ethics of development must be watched carefully.

Unfortunately it seems some old habits are proving hard to kick for the Burmese government with Human Rights Watch stating that they believe that the EU’s scrapping of targeted sanctions on Burma is premature and recklessly imperils human rights gains made so far. Controversy surrounds several high-profile projects under development in the country particularly the behaviour of those responsible for securing the land rights necessary for the schemes. With finance coming in from China and beyond both the Shwe pipeline and railway, which will run between the Arakan coast and China, and the USD $8.6 billion Dawei deep-water port have been beset by problems.

The port, first reported here in 2009 since when developer ItalThai has reportedly had to ask the Thai government to help to obtain more funding from the Japanese, and the railway have both been accused of being both environmentally damaging and responsible for incidents involving driving villagers off their land at gunpoint and their use as forced labour. Statements from villagers moved from Dawei proliferate all saying they were told to accede to demands to agree the sale of their lands at deflated prices or be thrown off with no compensation.

Nor is it just new set-piece projects that are causing concern. Burma’s power system is going to need a major boost to its generating capacity if it’s going to provide electricity to these new developments. Fortunately a vast source of untapped hydro energy lies in the countries remote north and east, unfortunately it lies in regions populated by some of Burma’s ethnic minorities, who have been fighting against a sixty-five year war of genocide perpetuated by the Burmese military.

Though notionally many of these conflicts are in ceasefire after agreements reached over the last two years the Burmese army has recently shown that it is happy to break these if commercial interests are at stake by attacking the Kachin and Shan – these last noticeably after the government decided that a number of new dams where to be built in Shan State. In addition the non-governmental organisation KHRG, who highlight the plight faced by ethnic Karen in Burma, have published a report stating that dam developments in the state are forcing thousands of people off of their land.

New developments in eastern Burma are also encouraging the construction of new roads into a region that has traditionally been extremely remote. This is viewed with some trepidation by the ethnic minorities who dwell in the Karen, Shan and Karenni states as a two-edged sword. Whilst many understand that improved communications are important to them achieving their aspired goals of a better life for them and their children away from traditional subsistence farming, they know only too well after years of fighting that roads can provide an easy route for the authorities to persecute them if their elimination is politically desirable.

Recent evidence suggests that this may be the case. The humanitarian group the Free Burma Rangers reports that villagers in Karen State simply crossing roads within sight of army troops are fired upon indiscriminately as a matter of course. Meanwhile the tension between Buddhists and Muslims continues to rise with many deaths reported over the past few weeks.

Of course all major infrastructure development projects bear a cost but the question which those in the West and beyond should be asking themselves as they flock to engage with a regime in the throes of change, is whether they are actually encouraging progress, or merely financing people who a mere year ago were international pariahs, simply for the sake of gaining a foothold in a place which could prove economically important to the whole of South East Asia.

Photo: The Free Burma Rangers discovered the site of this house apparently burnt down by government troops.