Development by Decree: The politics of poverty and control in Karen State


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Development by Decree: The politics of poverty and control in Karen State

Published date:
Tuesday, April 24, 2007

In pursuit of domestic submission and international recognition of its legitimacy the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) currently ruling Burma pronounces daily on the manifold military-implemented development programmes initiated across the country which, it argues, are both supported by and beneficial to local communities. Villagers in Karen State, however, consistently reject such claims. Rather, these individuals describe a systematic programme of military expansionism with which the junta aims to establish control over all aspects of civilian life. In the name of development, the regime's agenda in Karen State has involved multifarious infrastructure and regimentation projects that restrict travel and trade and facilitate increased extortion of funds, food, supplies and labour from the civilian population, thereby exacerbating poverty, malnutrition and the overall humanitarian crisis. Given the detrimental consequences of the SPDC's development agenda, villagers in Karen areas have resisted military efforts to control their lives and livelihoods under the rubric of development. In this way these villagers have worked to claim their right to determine for themselves the direction in which they wish their communities to develop. Drawing on over 90 interviews with local villagers in Karen State, SPDC order documents, official SPDC press statements, international media sources, reports by international aid agencies and academic studies this report finds that rather than prosperity, the SPDC's 'development' agenda has instead brought increased military control over civilian lives, undermined villagers' rights and delivered deleterious humanitarian outcomes contradictory to the very rhetoric the junta has used to justify its actions.

Introduction and Executive Summary

"Inasmuch as the national unity is further strengthened, almost all of the areas of the Union have become peaceful and tranquil and they are achieving unprecedented development."

- SPDC press statement (June 2006)[1]


"If we were living as our ancestors according to their traditions, we wouldn't have to worry about our daily survival. However, because the SPDC army came and based itself here and is creating so many problems, the villagers are facing many difficulties."

- Saw T--- (male, 44), K--- village, Toungoo District (2006)


Thus, development programmes that could plausibly prove beneficial in other countries become tools of oppression and generators of poverty when implemented under the SPDC. The expansion of roadways throughout Karen State, for instance, has involved military attacks against civilians in order to forcibly transfer them to relocation sites under military control where they function as an accessible source of exploitable labour for use in, amongst other things, constructing further roads. New road networks in turn allow SPDC forces to encroach further into rural areas of Karen State in pursuit of those civilians attempting to evade military control, and the cycle repeats itself. Agricultural programmes, such as forcing villagers to cultivate dry season paddy crops and castor plants from which they must provide a quota to SPDC forces; confiscating land for military or private business plantations; and forced labour on such plantations, all undermine civilian livelihoods and exacerbate poverty. Construction of hydroelectric dams, involving the mass relocation of the local civilian population without compensation, destruction of villages, large-scale flooding of forests and the devastation of river-based ecosystems, ruin civilian livelihoods and prevent any future return to ancestral lands. 'Model villages' set up by the SPDC allow for the internment of forcibly relocated villagers whom soldiers are then able to draw on as forced labour and sources of exportable funds, food and other supplies. Other 'model villages' built on lands confiscated from villagers serve to house new military bases with residential areas for soldiers and their families. Schools and clinics built using forced labour and money and materials extorted out of villagers are then left empty and without state financial support. To make matters worse, soldiers obstruct civilian access to medicine and medical supplies on the grounds that these could potentially reach armed opposition groups. The forced registration of the entire population living under SPDC control serves as a mechanism to determine quotas for extortion, forced labour and forced participation in parastatal organisations like the Myanmar Maternal and Child Welfare Association (MMCWA) and Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA). Lastly, by utilising the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) as a proxy militia in the implementation of both the SPDC's security and development agendas in some regions, the junta has effectively farmed out the role of repressing the Karen population under the banner of peace and prosperity. Military officers of the SPDC and its allied groups make large sums extorting money, labour and materials out of rural villagers in the name of 'development' projects, then remit their profits to their families who can use the money to start small businesses in the towns and cities – ironically creating the appearance of urban economic growth and 'development'.In the face of domestic and international calls for democracy, human rights and a return to civilian rule, the military regime holding power in Burma has sought to justify its continued control by appealing to the dual needs of security and prosperity. Explicit in its name, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) has presented itself as legitimate on the grounds that it supports development work for the betterment of the wider populace. More precisely, this ostensible legitimacy is based on the dual claims that 1) military-implemented 'development' work improves the lives of the civilian populace and 2) these 'development' programmes are supported by local peoples. Thus, for example, the SPDC asserts that "All over the Union, over 54 million population including 3.5 million [sic] of Kayin [Karen] nationals are residing in harmony and enjoying the socio-economic development brought about by the Government. All the national races are enjoying equal rights."[2] In thousands of interviews with KHRG over the past 15 years, however, villagers in Karen areas of eastern Burma have consistently rejected such claims. In their words, not only do SPDC-implemented development schemes fail to benefit local peoples – functioning as they do on exploitative practices, regime-centred initiatives and neglect of local voices – they moreover involve widespread, frequently violent, abuses against the civilian population. Indeed, such a framework is crucial to the expansion and consolidation of military rule. Even where development initiatives would otherwise be relatively benign, institutional corruption and inept implementation by military officials tend to convert potential benefit into burden.

Despite widespread and systematic abuse perpetrated by the SPDC in the name of development, foreign governments, UN agencies and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have become increasingly eager to engage with the regime in the delivery of funds and services for multifarious aid initiatives. These agencies argue that given the humanitarian crisis existing in Burma it is ethically imperative to provide assistance, whether humanitarian, educational, vocational or infrastructural, irrespective of political concerns. Advocates of this perspective paint Burma's social and economic crisis as a corollary of generic third world poverty, unrelated to the current political context. In this light, poverty and the country's 'underdevelopment' can be ameliorated through the implementation of ostensibly 'apolitical' humanitarian and development aid.

Those who present this argument have often been critical of human rights and democracy activists who demand some measure of conditionality on aid, or who advocate transparency and accountability in its delivery. This, they argue, effectively holds international aid – and thus the population in need – hostage to political change, thereby worsening and prolonging the humanitarian crisis. The right of civilians to humanitarian assistance must trump any political conditions or, indeed, any safeguards requiring transparency or accountability to local people. Underlying this argument is a rigid distinction between the humanitarian and political spheres.

In this way international aid agencies have painted those sceptical of the effectiveness of aid delivered through the SPDC as a selfish 'anti-aid' lobby willing to sacrifice the population of Burma for the sake of political goals narrowly defined as regime change. The International Crisis Group, for example, in a December 2006 review of humanitarian aid to Burma stated that those who were critical of international aid to the country. "considered efforts to help the country's poor futile or even detrimental to the greater objective of regime change."[3] Critical of what they believed to be the 'politicisation' of aid, the authors of the briefing cited the European Commission as stating "The international community needs to be able to continue humanitarian operations without conditions."[4] The argument is seemingly straightforward: aid is either provided unconditionally – something the humanitarian situation in Burma seemingly demands – or held hostage to the ransom of regime change.

Presenting the debate in this black-and-white light evades questions of transparency, accountability or input from local people, and avoids accepting responsibility for the political consequences of aid delivery. Furthermore, identifying the connection between politics and the implementation of development programmes is not to politicise aid, but simply to acknowledge a relationship that undeniably exists. In a highly totalitarian society such as Burma, where the ruling regime pervades all aspects of civilian life, every act is political in so far as it influences and comments on the role of power and authority. For its part, the SPDC has treated all facets of civilian life in terms of black and white, as threats or reinforcements to continued military rule. Any conscious decision must therefore either support, or at least consent to, military control or else dissent and resist such control; neutrality is not possible. Food aid to a relocation site can turn short-term unsustainable internment camps into long-term prisons; roads are not only trade routes but also tools of military control; agricultural programmes help the state to monitor, control and appropriate agricultural production.

The SPDC has been able to utilise large internationally-funded projects to further its political agenda and undermine the rights of villagers in Karen areas. UNICEF, the UN Development Programme (UNDP), UNAIDS, CARE and Médecins du Monde, for example, all provide funding for the Myanmar Maternal and Child Welfare Association, a coercive parastatal agency controlled by the SPDC and implicated in widespread extortion as part of its vigorous recruitment drives, wherein villagers are ordered to provide a quota of 'members' roughly equivalent to one woman per household, and pay money to the organisation for their membership applications. In some areas villagers have been led to believe that access to UNICEF-funded polio inoculation programmes requires that they enlist in the Myanmar Women's Affairs Federation, another coercive parastatal organisation involved in similar coercive recruitment practices and demands for money. The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations has paid the SPDC US$ 14 million to carry out an 'oil crop cultivation programme'; disregarding the manner in which the SPDC implements such agricultural programmes. The nation-wide compulsory castor and jatropha[5] cultivation scheme, for example, for which the SPDC may be diverting the FAO funds has involved widespread forced labour and extortion, and aims to produce biofuel for military use. The United Nations Economic and Social Council for Asia Pacific (UNESCAP) has been supporting the SPDC in the development of the 'Asian Highway' – a transnational network of roads which, in Karen State, has involved land confiscation and the forced labour of local villagers, all without compensation. These are but some of the cases of the abuse perpetrated with the support of international aid agencies in the implementation of the junta's 'development' agenda. There are likely many more such cases, but the lack of transparency with which such agencies operate in Burma obstructs much of the investigation into their involvement with particular SPDC-controlled projects.

Whether initiated by the ruling SPDC or by external agencies, development programmes are inescapably political acts. If they are to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions, UN agencies, foreign governments, and international NGOs must recognise that they operate in a totalitarian environment where all intervention is political. This is not to state that any aid with political implications is automatically negative, but that engaging in aid processes while deliberately blinding oneself to and denying the political implications is almost always a recipe for disaster; for aid 'professionals' to do so goes beyond naïve and borders on criminal negligence.

Nevertheless the dilemma remains. On the one hand, the people of Burma have a right to humanitarian assistance. On the other hand, SPDC-implemented development programmes involve massive human rights abuses which undermine livelihoods, worsen health conditions and obstruct civilian attempts to address their own social and economic needs - effectively ensuring that the results are counterproductive to the very goals the projects allegedly aim to achieve. International assistance to development work inside Burma is surely needed to address the country's deplorable humanitarian situation. However, the ethical argument for providing foreign aid is unsound where such assistance is harmful to the population it aims to benefit and undermines their own efforts to ameliorate their situation. In order to ensure that such assistance is in any way beneficial to local peoples, it must be conditional, but not on regime change.[6]Rather, international development assistance, whether for humanitarian or other programmes, must meet the requirements of transparency and accountability to the civilian population while furthermore ensuring that it does not undermine the rights of local peoples. The attempt by some international agencies to paint human rights organisations as 'anti-aid' may well be motivated primarily by a desire to evade these crucial issues. The manner in which the SPDC implements 'development' programmes makes these conditions difficult to achieve but of utmost importance. If these conditions are not met, however, international aid will fail by its own stated measures of success, in that it will exacerbate and perpetuate poverty and worsen the humanitarian crisis in Burma.

Table of Contents


Introduction and Executive Summary



Notes on the Text



Terms and Abbreviations



Map 1: Karen Districts



Map 2: Burma












Development Projects and Related Abuses









Agricultural schemes



Plantations and agro-business



Model villages









Civilian associations



DKBA development programmes






Legal Framework









[1] “Press Conference: Entire Mon State and most areas of Kayin State are peaceful, tranquil Residential people there are enjoying fruitful results of development endeavours,” June 11th 2006.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Myanmar: New Threats to Humanitarian Aid,” International Crisis Group, December 8th 2006.

[4] Hypocritically, the ICG, the European Commission and the British Government have consistently opposed cross-border humanitarian aid from Thailand to displaced villagers in Karen State or have demanded strong conditionalities on any such aid, essentially arguing that villagers living outside state control should be denied aid on political grounds.  Only very recently has the British government via the Department for International Development (DFID) released a small amount of funds for cross-border assistance in response to prolonged criticism of their traditional policy of refusing such aid.

[5] In media statements referring to this project the SPDC has shifted between the terms ‘castor’, ‘jatropha’ and ‘physic nut’.  Castor and jatropha are technically distinct species, both of which are types of physic nut.

[6] In fact, there are no organisations anywhere to KHRG's knowledge who insist on regime change as a condition for humanitarian aid in Burma, as the ICG's Brussels-based consultants erroneously imagined in their report.