Beautiful Words, Ugly Actions: The Asian Highway in Karen State, Burma
To facilitate economic growth in the border towns of Mae Sot and Myawaddy, as well as the rest of Thailand and Myanmar, a new section of the Asian Highway from Thin Gan Nyi Naung to Kawkareik was completed in August 2015. Another section of the road will soon be developed Between Kawkareik and Eindu, which will shorten travel times even more. The Asian Highway route is located in The middle of the world’s longest-‐running civil war in Southeastern Myanmar’s Karen State, and its construction has involved various human rights violations.
The Asian Development Bank (ADB) and Thailand’s Neighboring Countries Economic Development Cooperation gency NEDA) have been financing highway construction efforts to complete the missing link of both the Asian Highway 1 (AH1) and the East--‐West Economic Corridor (EWEC), a flagship project of the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) program. The first section of the Asian Highway in Karen State from Thin Gan Nyi Naung to Kawkareik was funded by NEDA. The ADB will fund the construction of the second section from Kawkareik to Eindu.
Control of the highway areas. These outbreaks of violence have led to displacement and injuries to people living along the road – some villagers have even been killed in the crossfire. In July 2015, the Myanmar military and its Border Guard Forces sought to take control of the territories along the route that have long been controlled by other Ethnic Armed Organizations. As a result, fighting broke out between the Myanmar military and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), displacing over 1,000 people. As of August 2016, due to safety and security concerns, some have still not been able to return home. The most recent violent incidents took place in January, May and August 2016, and the continued threat of further clashes instills constant fear among villagers in these areas.
The construction of the NEDA segment of the Asian Highway between Thin Gan Nyi Naung and Kawkareik clearly violated the right to Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC) of local communities. The affected villagers were not properly given notice or consulted about the 2 project, only finding out about it once construction began. At least 17 households were forcefully dispossessed of their lands and properties after receiving an order letter missued by the Burma/Myanmar government. Villagers were coerced into accepting unfair compensation for their losses. There was no publicly accessible evidence of either an IEE or an EIA having been conducted for the project.
The ADB and the government’s Ministry of Construction (MoC) appear poised to repeat these mistakes in relation to a planned upgrade of the highway between Kawkareik and Eindu. It remains unclear how many people will lose their land to a recently demarcated road boundary extension for a government Right of Way, which the MoC has excluded from its resettlement plan. Villagers still do not know how they would be compensated, as they have not been provided with clear information. Even with the poor human rights record during the construction of Asian Highway section from Thin Gan Nyi Naung to Kawkareik, the ADB has entrusted the Myanmar Ministry of Construction to responsibly carry out sensitive resettlement and compensation activities without independent oversight.
In regards to both sections of the highway, completed or planned, all affected peoples must be appropriately informed of the project impacts in a manner that is accessible to them. All information relevant to them cannot be withheld from the communities or civil society. They must be given an opportunity to have their concerns heard and addressed in a tangible manner, and should have been involved sooner in the project planning process.
We call on NEDA to commission an independent Environmental and Social Impact Review of the Thin Gan Nyi Naung to Kawkareik section of the Asian Highway. Such a review is necessary in order to assess the damage to livelihoods and environment, to make appropriate reparations to the people who have already been displaced and dispossessed, as well as to effectively remediate the damage to soils, water, and forests.
For the ADB and MoC to avoid committing the same mistakes during the planned upgrade for the Kawkareik to Eindu section of the highway, there are several steps that need to be taken.
First and foremost, land rights along the highway route need to be clarified in a transparent, impartial and inclusive process. If displacement cannot be avoided, the resettlement processes need to adhere to international best practices, and the displaced should be given a choice of adequate resettlement options, which they can agree tom without being threatened or coerced. A credible, accessible, and fair grievance redress mechanism for affected people needs to be established to prevent corporate and state impunity when implementing large--‐scale development projects. These stringent measures must be taken to prevent further violations of Karen and other communities’ human rights.
As the international financier of the Asian Highway section from Kawkareik to Eindu, the ADB has the responsibility to ensure that the Burma/Myanmar government adheres to its safeguard policy regarding displacement and resettlement, and to take the appropriate measures to address failures of its borrowers to meet its procedural standards.
With a full peace agreement still pending, road construction projects will only Continue to fuel tensions between armed groups competing over the control of the highway area. Large--‐scale development projects should not move forward, unless a clear benefit--‐sharing scheme between the central government and the ethnic groups is established through political agreements. Without doing so, the potential for armed conflict to break out will continue to exist, and the economic development intended to improve the lives of the people of Burma/Myanmar will only cause further suffering for the communities living in these areas.