Karen organizations are accusing the government of abusing the ceasefire process to take advantage of investment opportunities with little regard for potential consequences to the environment or the local population.
The latest iteration of the long-standing complaint was lodged by handful of groups after the Kawthoolei Land Seminar on November 2-4. Over 370 participants representing 53 Karen organizations attended the event in the Karen National Union’s Pa An District and afterward issued a joint statement.
Some members of the Karen National Union (KNU) and civil society groups have long contended that under the current arrangement, the 2012 ceasefire is only a guise for the plunder of resources in ethnic minority territory.
This past week, the seminar attendees said the ceasefire has opened the floodgates to investors hankering to profit off of the area’s natural resources by establishing mega-projects or reaping agricultural land with controversial ownership claims.
“This area [the KNU-controlled area] and the areas sharing borders with the [KNU] controlled areas couldn’t be entered before the ceasefire. Now, it’s open so the investors have come in,” said Naw Khu Khu Ju, a spokesperson for the seminar. “For example, the farmland and land belonging to the local people was seized for the construction of the Myawaddy-Kawkareik Asia Highway. The local ethnic people suffered due to [the project’s] lack of accountability.”
After the seminar, the groups accused the government of territorial expansion. Under the pretence of environmental conservation or development, many projects have extended the government’s administrative area, the group’s claimed in their statement. They added that these projects now pose a threat to the residents’ livelihood, as well as to the health of the local land, forests, waters, fisheries and pastures.
Saw Khu, a representative of the KNU’s Myeik-Dawei District who attended the seminar, used the hotly contested Dawei special economic zone as an example to illustrate the free-for-all profiteering that followed the ceasefire. The government billed the project as a way to develop and inject new industry into an economically parched region via building a deep-sea port, a dam and roads. But instead of the promised jobs and commerce, residents found their “land was included in the road construction,” Saw Khu said.
He added that families who fled Myeik and Dawei in the 1990s will struggle to regain their land in the area after the government allotted much of the territory to investors.
Paul Sein Twa, director of the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN), called on the KNU to provide practical assistance. While urging caution on green lighting further development projects, he also said the KNU should institute policies and best practices based on a human rights approach that takes into account the customs, expectations and rights of the local people.
In their joint statement, the Karen organizations from the land seminar also called on the government to recognize and reflect customary land tenure and other practices of the ethnic people in land and land management policies, laws and bylaws.
The land seminar called for the government to abolish the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Land Management Law as it contradicts the KNU’s land policy and customary land management practices.