A giant construction project managed by an Italian-Thai company has run into a number of major stumbling blocks in Karen State. 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 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.
Work was stopped east of Tavoy, between Myitta village to Klo Hta village, by the Karen National Liberation Army.
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.
A KNLA battalion 10-commander, who spoke to Karen News on condition of anonymity, said the construction of the highway was stopped after villagers who are adversely affected by the construction complained. The commander also said the KNLA position is to assess mega-development projects that will have impact heavily on civilian populations and the environment.
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 military 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 huge project has attracted both critics and supporters. Some business groups claim it could invigorate Burma’s economy and revolutionize regional trade, while international humanitarian groups say Burma’s human rights record means more forced labor, forced relocation and abuses against villagers.
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 disclose the KNU’s current position on the Tavoy Development Project to the media.
The first stage of the 160-kilometer road linking the Tavoy deep-sea port to Phu Na Ron village in the Thai province of Kanchanaburi is nearly completed and the company plans to now start laying the concrete surface.
Most of the160km road passes through 21 Karen villages. A section of the road passes through eight Karen villages abandoned in 1997 after Burma Army attacked them. The villagers are now refugees in Tham Hin camp in Thailand.
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.”
An officer of the Italian-Thai Development Company based in Tavoy informed Karen News that the first batch of villages that will be relocated 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.
A Na Bu Le villager told Karen News that the company had already collected data of the villagers and households that will be evicted so compensation could be paid. Villagers say they have not received any compensation, but have been told they will 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.
The Tavoy, Italian-Thai Company officer who asked for his name to be withheld told Karen News that the people will have to move to a designated location and each household could get up to a 60×80 square feet block of land for housing.