Burma’s ethnic groups reject foreign investment

ABC Radio Australia

Foreign investment has risen dramatically in Burma over the past couple years, much of it from neighbouring countries.

Most of that money is being used to finance large-scale projects in the energy and mining sectors, some in areas contested by Burma’s array of ethnic rebel armies.
For example, the planned construction of hydroelectric dams in Karen State has already sparked fighting in the area – with the effects also being felt across the border in Thailand.

Presenter: Jared Ferrie
Speakers: Naw Wah Gay, resident of Ban Sob Moei village; Paul Sein Twa, coordinator with the Burma Environmental Working Group

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FERRIE: It’s the middle of the rainy season and the Salaween river is a muddy, torrent, carving its way between lush, green mountains. The river is swollen at this time of year, engulfing trees on both sides. The Salaween will shrink with the end of rainy season this year. But residents here worry that a planned hydroelectric dam could raise the water levels permanently.

NAW WAH GAY (through translator): Obviously there will be flooding and the lands will be under the water and then they will have to move to another place. So it is not easy to move to another place and rebuild a life.

FERRIE: Naw Wah Gay lives in Ban Sob Moei village, in a house just about 20 metres from the river bank. She says a delegation from the Thai company building the Hatgyi dam came to speak to the villagers. The company is a state owned enterprise called the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand, or EGAT.

NAW WAH GAY (through translator): EGAT’s representative came here and said, “If the land or belongings are under the water we will pay you everything, as much as you ask.” For example, one coconut tree, how many coconut? They will pay you for it.

FERRIE: Gay says the villagers don’t believe such promises. She points out that they do not own the land they are living on, which makes it easier for them to be displaced. This section of the Salaween River forms the border between Thailand and Burma. At Ban Sob Moei village, it takes a sharp turn west. The dam is actually being built inside Burma by EGAT, in cooperation with a Burmese and a Chinese company. Paul Sein Twa is a coordinator with the Burma Environmental Working Group. He says the dam will displace many villages inside Burma.

PAUL SEIN TWA: The dam will have a direct impact on their livelihoods. Mostly people are practicing agricultural activities. It means they have to abandon their farmlands, their house and come to the border, come into Thailand in refugee camps. Or if people are moving away from the villages and they can become the internally displaced people, and they have to find their own way of survival.

FERRIE: Flooding isn’t the only risk that could drive people from their homes. The project could also lead to fighting increased between the Burmese government and an ethnic rebel group, the Karen National Liberation Army or KNLA.

PAUL SEIN TWA: As we know they still have an active conflict and continue to wage war against the Burmese government and the KNLA still holds some parts of the border areas. And the problem is that this dam is located right in the war area, and of course if the Burmese government sends more troops in the area they will have fighting with the KNLA soldiers there. This will also have impacts on the local villagers there too.

FERRIE: Already, the project has sparked clashes between government forces and the KNLA. Paul says there is a similar pattern unfolding in many of Burma’s ethnic enclaves. He says foreign direct investment hit twenty billion US dollars during the last fiscal year. That’s more than the total foreign investment over the past 20 years.

PAUL SEIN TWA: And if you divide it by sectors you can see that they invest in energy, oil and gas, and mining. That’s showing clearly that these foreign investors are looking into the natural resources in Burma. These natural resources are concentrated in the ethnic areas. So at the end it pushes these ethnic armed groups that will come to the armed solution. If there is no other choice at the end there will have to be armed conflict.

FERRIE: Burma’s government is eager to exploit the country’s natural resources with the help of international companies. But investors could find themselves caught up in ethnic conflicts that have destabilized Burma for the past 60 years. For CA, this is Jared Ferrie in Ban Sob Moei village in Thailand.”

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