Civil society groups in Asia are calling for a review of donor-funded peace initiatives in Myanmar, expressing concern that their pace is too fast, they pay little heed to the humanitarian cost of economic development, and may do more harm than good.
“Most of the conflict, human rights abuse and environmental destruction [are] directly involved with planned resource extractions in ethnic areas,” said Wong Aung, an adviser for the Shwe Gas Movement, a watchdog NGO based near the Thai-Burmese border in Chiang Mai, which was set up in response to the exploitation of gas deposits off the coast of Arakan State in western Myanmar.
The NGO is part of the Burma Partnership, an alliance of 16 activist and civil society groups throughout Southeast and East Asia that commends the “well-intentioned” peace funds, but fears they can undermine long-term stability in conflict-affected border areas heavily populated by ethnic minorities. “If… environmental concerns or human rights violations are overlooked, the security situation on the ground will never be resolved,” Wong Aung added.
Over the past year, the Peace Donor Support Group - which includes aid agencies from Norway, the European Union, the UK, Australia and the UN, as well as the Norwegian-led Myanmar Peace Support Initiative (MSPI) - has pledged nearly US$30 million to support peace-building in conflict-affected communities. The group, first convened in June 2012, will be funding humanitarian relief, demining, job training and helping schools teach in ethnic minority languages, through government channels.
But these actions largely ignore “the elephant in the room” - the military - and its role in the ongoing conflict, said the Burma Partnership, which is calling for a negotiated political settlement, or a binding peace accord, between the government and all the armed groups.
Although the government has signed preliminary ceasefires with 10 ethnic armies - including the Shan State Army, Karen National Liberation Army and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army - fighting continues in Myanmar’s northern Kachin and Shan states, where a $2.5 billion oil and gas pipeline (the Shwe pipeline leading to China) is set to be completed by 2013, said Wong Aung.
A Ta’ang youth group has linked the pipeline to land confiscations, forced labour and an increased military presence along the pipeline.
The government’s position is the pipeline is needed to supply energy and cash - some $13.8 million annually in right-of-way transit fees from China as well as 100 million cubic metres of gas daily, according to local media - to a country where some 25 percent of the population is connected to the power grid.
Political reforms by the country’s nominally-civilian government elected two years ago have helped to re-engage lapsed donors, loosen trade embargoes and bring world leaders to the former pariah state. Newly re-elected President Barack Obama is expected to become the first US head of state to visit later this month.
But such reforms have yet to trickle down to still-isolated communities, say activists.
“Even though the international community believes that the government has implemented political reforms, it doesn’t mean those reforms have reached ethnic areas, especially not where there is increased militarization along the Shwe pipeline, increased fighting between the Burmese Army and ethnic armed groups and negative consequences for the people living in these areas,” said Mai Amm Ngeal, a member of the Ta’ang youth group.
More than 75,000 people are displaced in Myanmar's northern Kachin State following the June 2011 collapse of a 17-year ceasefire between the government and Kachin Independence Army (KIA), which has been fighting for greater autonomy for decades.
Peace or development first?
Pitted against each other are two visions of peace-building, said Salai Yaw Aung, a central committee member of the Chiang-Mai based All Burma Students’ Democratic Front.
“Some ethnic leaders want to bring peace first followed by development, while others are pushing for development first and peace later,” he said.
This “serious tension” is playing out even within the ethnic groups, said MPSI head Charles Petrie, the former UN resident and humanitarian coordinator who was forced to leave the country in 2007 after issuing a statement critical of the government.
“The Karen people have gone through 63 years of war and they have seen past ceasefires that have failed. You have within the KNU [Karen National Union] different views on how to move forward.” The KNU and other ethnic groups have repeatedly asked for political dialogue as a first step to reaching peace.
Petrie admitted there is an urgent need for trust-building in conflict zones.
“The real concern [of activists and civil society groups] is the fact that the political process hasn't started or has not been developed sufficiently far enough… On the part of government officials, there does seem to be a commitment to dialogue, but I think that some of the groups want a clearer idea of how that is going to proceed,” Petrie told IRIN.
According to Petrie, MPSI’s aim is to provide immediate support for the tentative ceasefires through humanitarian relief as well as building trust between the government and ethnic minority communities through development projects. MPSI is funding projects in Rakhine, Chin, Shan and Mon states.