Archive for October 1st, 2011

October 1, 2011

Burma dam: Why Myitsone plan is being halted?


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By Rachel Harvey BBC South East Asia Correspondent

The dam on the Irrawaddy would have created a reservoir slightly bigger than Singapore

In a rare concession, the Burmese government has suspended a long planned and highly controversial hydroelectric dam project in the face of growing public opposition.

The campaign against the construction of the Myitsone dam brought together conservationists, scholars, and political activists including Aung San Suu Kyi, and had become a serious test for the new civilian-led, military-backed government.

Myitsone was being developed jointly by the state Myanmar Ministry of Electric Power, the privately-owned Asia World Company of Burma and the China Power Investment Corporation.

Scheduled for completion in 2019, the dam would have created a reservoir some 766 sq km (296 square miles) – an area slightly bigger than Singapore. The vast bulk of the electricity generated – some reports say as much as 90% – was destined for export to China.

Myitsone had become something of a cause celebre for those who fear China’s growing influence in Burma. Beijing, exploiting the void created by international sanctions, has moved rapidly to harvest Burma’s rich natural resources.

They are flooding, quite literally, the birthplace of Burma. That’s why so many are opposed.”

Grace Mang International Rivers

“There’s a widespread perception that China has taken advantage of Burma’s situation over these past decades,” according to Thant Myint-U, author of Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia.

“Burma can benefit enormously from Chinese trade and investment, but there is almost bound to be a backlash if Chinese projects are undertaken with zero transparency and little concern for their impact on local communities.”

Myitsone is, or rather was, being built at the head of the Irrawaddy – the confluence of the Mali and N’Mai rivers – in Kachin state. It’s an area of rich biodiversity, less than 100km from a tectonic fault line. Or to put it another way, Myitsone was a huge construction project in an environmentally sensitive, earthquake-prone area where armed ethnic minority Kachin fighters are battling the Burmese army.

The Kachin Independence Organisation saw the dam as a direct threat to its people and their livelihoods. Thousands of local villagers have already been resettled to make way for the dam; thousands more would have been forced to move as the project developed. But there was no public consultation.

Burma’s birthplace

The potential environmental impact is harder to gauge. There is no legal obligation in Burma to conduct any assessment, though the China Power Investment Corporation (CPI) did commission a study by Chinese and Burmese experts. The report has not been made public, but parts have been leaked to activists. It is understood to have recommended two smaller dams be built instead of one, but that advice was ignored.

Burmese living in Malaysia shout slogans during a protest against the Myitsone dam project, near Burmese embassy in Kuala Lumpur on 22 Sept 11

According to Grace Mang, from lobby group International Rivers, the CPI instead said it would study the impact of the dam during its construction. “The whole point of conducting an impact assessment is to prevent or mitigate impacts before they occur,” she said. “If it’s found that the environmental or social impact is unacceptable, then the project shouldn’t be going ahead.”

In the event, it may have been cultural and political calculations that led to the project being suspended. The Myitsone dam resonated well beyond the conservationist or Kachin communities because of its location, at the birthplace of the Irrawaddy.

“The Irrawaddy is the Burmese people’s heritage, lifeline and civilisation,” said Aung Zaw, editor of the Irrawaddy news website. “Everyone feels attached to it. That’s the reason the campaign [against the dam] gained such support.”

Outside Burma, activists from both environmental and human rights groups threw their weight behind the campaign. As Grace Mang put it: “They are flooding, quite literally, the birthplace of Burma. That’s why so many are opposed.”

‘Bold decision’

Despite the fact that the man responsible for the project, Burma’s minister of electric power, Zaw Min, only recently vowed that “we will never back down”, other government figures began to waver. A diplomatic source based in Rangoon told the BBC: “There are signs of increasing unease among some ministers in Nay Pyi Taw. Maybe some political leaders do not want their legacy to be one of irreparable damage to the Irrawaddy.”

This is, after all, a government that has been trying hard to convince a sceptical public at home and abroad that it is different from its military predecessor and serious about reform. Speaking ahead of the announcement that the Myitsone project was to be put on ice, Burmese author Thant Myint-U put forward the view that the dam could be a perfect opportunity for the new administration to prove itself. “Suspending work on the dam would be the best sign so far that the new government is serious about taking popular concerns into account.”

It seems Burmese President Thein Sein agrees. The government will point to this decision as concrete evidence of its willingness to listen and to work in the interests of the people. Its critics will interpret the move as a cynical piece of public relations which can easily be reversed – the Myitsone project has, after all, only been suspended, not cancelled.

Aung Zaw thinks the suspension of the Myitsone project may encourage Burma’s long-suffering activists.

“It is a bold decision to stand up against China but there are several dams [due to] be built along the Irrawaddy,” he said.

“What about other mega-projects with China, including the gas pipeline? I predict there will be more campaigns in the future.”

Burma map
October 1, 2011

Burma: Escaping from Burma but Falling into Slavery


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By JESSE HARDMAN / BANGKOKFriday, Sept. 30, 2011


Migrant workers from Burma work on a fishing boat at the port of Mahachai, near Bangkok September 24, 2011. Soe Zeya Tun / Reuters

Khun Mint spins in circles on his small motorcycle, joyfully kicking up gravel on a rural road just south of Bangkok, Thailand. It’s hard to express the excitement he feels to have two feet squarely on land.

That’s because the 23 year-old Burmese migrant laborer spent the last year working on a Thai fishing boat. It was the worst year of his life he says, one that comes racing back whenever he hears a horn, the sound that rang in his every day at sea. “Whenever I hear a car honk, I feel like I was going back from freedom back to the prison. I started seeing all the bad things, all the fish, all the torture all over again in my mind.”(Read about whether a peaceful rally could signal real reform in Burma.)

Based on Thai government statistics, there are an estimated 2 to 3 million Burmese working in Thailand. Many of the original wave of migrants came during political turmoil in the late 1980s, but the vast majority arrived in the last decade, for economic reasons. Corruption, international sanctions, and government mismanagement have strangled the Burmese economy. Most importantly, to young Burmese like Khun Mint, the country ranks near the bottom 10% in terms of per capita GDP. So people leave, by the thousands, often with the help of what some migrant labor rights advocates worry is a growing human trafficking network.

What most Burmese migrants find in Thailand is not the fortune they imagined. Around half wind up in garment factories near the border, where they work 80 hour weeks, but often make only around $2 a day. Others find slightly higher paying work on farms, and at constructions sites. The best paying but worst-case scenario for Burmese women is prostitution. The equivalent in both respects for the men is commercial fishing boats, where they can make as much as $200 a month, but face brutal work conditions.(Read why being forced into military labor is almost like being sentenced to death in Burma.)

Khun Mint says two years ago he had made up his mind to head to Thailand, but he needed help. When he reached Mayawatti, the Northeastern town that borders Mae Sot, Thailand, he met what many refer to as a “broker” or “recruiter” at a barbershop. The man helped him cross the river into Thailand, for a fee to be paid later, and from there, he eventually was led to a fishing village in the South. After a week spent locked up in a safe house run by a Thai woman, Khun Mint was sold by a trafficker to a ship’s captain, for 22,000 Thai Baht, around $800. That money recuperated the broker’s cost for transporting Khun Mint, and then some.

The young Burmese man essentially worked as slave labor the first six months, paying off his debt. Conditions were horrible, he says, thanks in part to enforcers on the boat, who carried what Khun Mint refers to as the, “stingray.” “When you’re casting the net or pulling it back up, if he see something he doesn’t like, or even randomly, he’ll start whipping you. It’s like that.”

Read about whether Thailand send Burmese refugees back.

Khun Mint says he was forced to work through a bad injury, got little rest, and was even coerced into taking amphetamines, to help him cast nets for longer hours.

So why didn’t he leave?

He claims he had heard rumors that the police would arrest him, steal whatever money or valuables he had, and either sell him back to the ship’s captain, or deport him. Andy Hall, a foreign expert on migrant labor issues at Mahidol University in Bangkok, says such shakedowns are common: “There’s been systematic corruption, discrimination, exploitation, migrants are treated like walking ATMs.”(Read about Burmese refugees finding solace in Thailand.)

Mo Swe, a Burmese political activist now living in Thailand says migrants are willing to put up with a lot, because the reality of being back home sounds even worse. “One reason is there is no employment in Burma. Another problem is different kinds of human rights abuses. Another reason is the lifestyle here. Electricity and water supply for 24 hours. The living standard is high. They can have light, they can watch the TV.”

The plight of Burmese migrants in Thailand is becoming a more mainstream topic these days. In June the Thai government began a registration drive attempting to get as many foreign workers legalized as possible. Hall says getting formalized can make a big difference. “You can avoid a lot of exploitation by the police, you are protected more, you can negotiate with your employer more.” (Read more about Burma’s minorities.)

Around a million Burmese workers turned out for the recently completed government survey. Hall says it’s anybody’s guess how many Burmese workers didn’t register. He says many don’t have a formal employer, are unemployed, or have employers who don’t want to cover their registration fees. He says registrations aside, the main need is for a cultural shift in how migrant laborers are viewed and treated. “So unless we see a real change of attitude by Thai employers, by Thai officials, by the Thai population as a whole, then a lot of these positive developments will not have the impact they should have.”

For his part, Khun Mint says he’s happy to still be in Thailand, but glad his fishing days are in the past. “Working with someone who doesn’t value human life, who don’t treat people well. It’s not worth the dangers.”

See photos of decades of dissent in Burma.

See photos of Burma’s shifting landscape.

October 1, 2011

Burma: Could a Small, Peaceful Protest Signal Real Reform?

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Posted by Tuesday, September 27, 2011 at 10:50 am

Protesters in Burma offer prayers at the Sule Pagoda after they agreed to call off a rally when asked by the authorities to do so, in downtown Rangoon on September 26, 2011. (Photo: AFP / Getty Images)

Four years ago, as columns of burgundy-robed monks marched peacefully through Burma’s commercial capital Rangoon, security forces opened fire, slaughtering at least 31 people, arresting thousands more and extinguishing hopes that the ruling junta was receptive to political reform. On September 26, dozens of Burmese again gathered at a Buddhist pagoda in Rangoon to mark the fourth anniversary of the crushed protest movement. This time, however, the heavy, tropical air did not crackle with gunfire. Mass arrests did not ensue. Although some protesters were stopped from participating in other parts of town, those gathered at the holy Sule pagoda staged a peaceful gathering before security personnel eventually dispersed them. Some demonstrators were wearing bright-yellow T-shirts demanding the release of Burma’s political prisoners. Others sported shirts that opposed the construction of a Chinese-built dam in the country’s northern Kachin state that critics contend will destroy the environment, even as most of the future electricity will be sent to China’s neighboring Yunnan province.

Does this rare rally prove that Burma is actually serious about change? Last year, the country, which is also known as Myanmar, held its first elections in two decades, after ignoring the results of the previous poll that Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi‘s National League for Democracy (NLD) won. The 2010 balloting was marred with irregularities, and the NLD did not take part. Still, Burma’s military regime trumpeted the fact that in March some degree of political authority was handed over to a civilian government led by a retired general, President Thein Sein.

Skeptics—and there are many—contend that nothing has really changed in Burma and there is no glasnost in sight. The so-called civilian government has an awful lot of ex-military members among its ranks, and real power is still reserved for top brass. The political prisoners whose plight was publicized on the protesters’ T-shirts still number around 2,000, and the jails to which they are confined are among the world’s worst. Cronies of the military have snapped up lucrative concessions, while millions live in dire poverty. In the country’s north, fighting has flared between Burmese forces and members of an ethnic militia, the Kachin Independence Army. Recent NGO reports have highlighted continuing oppression of women and children, as well as deplorable behavior by the Burmese military, particularly in ethnic areas. The elected parliament aspires to even rubber-stamp status.

(PHOTOS: The long, hard fight for democracy in Burma)

Nevertheless, there may be cause for small hope—and not just because of the landmark gathering in Rangoon yesterday. Suu Kyi was released from house arrest last year and has given political speeches without incident, even traveling outside Rangoon and meeting with senior government leaders. Her NLD also held a ceremony at its headquarters marking the fourth anniversary of the 2007 protests, which was attended by hundreds of people. Although journalists continue to be jailed, a modicum of censorship has been lifted from the cowed press and they are now allowed to cover some parliamentary sessions, unlike before. Foreign news websites that were once blocked have been accessible of late.

All in all, regular visitors to Burma describe a changed urban atmosphere, a commercial buzz now that more foreign investors have come knocking. Although the West maintains economic sanctions on Burma for its human-rights record, other countries, most notably its Asian neighbors, have poured money in to secure the nation’s rich natural resources. Such resource grabs can easily exacerbate rich-poor tensions in any country. But Burma is at least trying—for the first time, really, since the military grabbed power in 1962—to put together some semblance of financial planning. A respected economist has been brought in to advise the government, which in a previous incarnation was so inept that a former leader decided to denominate the currency by the number nine because it was his favorite digit.

Any change in Burma is, of course, painfully incremental. There have been previous false dawns of reform. But for a nation that regularly places toward the bottom of various country-by-country rankings of democracy, health, education, media and Internet freedoms, any positive sign is encouraging. That’s the best that can be said in Burma.

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