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Atrocity before the Deluge

By George McLeod | Bangkok Post. 8 July 2007. www.bangkokpost.com

More than 75,000 Burmese have been displaced for a hydroelectric dam project. Most are from the Karen and Shan ethnic minorities. Their choice is to stay and be killed or enslaved, or flee to Thailand.

In a small rebel camp near the Thai border, Na Wa - not his real name - recalls last December when Burmese troops arrived at his village.

"A scout ran into the village shouting that the army was coming. Everyone started to panic and pack up their belongings - we knew the (Burmese army) would either kill or capture us," he says.

Na Wa and his family had two choices: remain in their village where they would be killed or used as forced labour, or flee across the Thai border.

In what human rights groups are calling Burma's worst military offensive in 10 years, more than 75,000 civilians have been displaced to make way for Southeast Asia's biggest hydroelectric dam projects. Most are from the Karen and Shan ethnic minorities.

"What is happening in Karen and Shan State is one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world, it is tantamount to ethnic cleansing," said Mark Farmaner of the Burma Campaign UK. "The Burmese army is depopulating huge areas of the country. They are torturing, killing and raping on a massive scale."

Na Wa and other able-bodied villagers trekked for four days to avoid the Burmese onslaught, eventually arriving at a rebel camp near the Thai border. Several dozen stayed behind or hid in the forest.

"Some were left because they were sick or old - we have not seen or heard from them since," says Na Wa. He now lives in a small camp controlled by the Karen National Union, a group fighting for an independent Karen State.

The Salween hydroelectric projects include four dams on Burma's Salween River in restive regions populated by ethnic minorities that are fighting for autonomy from the Burmese junta. Human rights groups say that the Burmese army is forcefully evicting local people to make way for construction.

The Karen are one of Burma's largest ethnic minorities. They share a distinct culture and language, and they are Christian, unlike the majority Burmese, who are Buddhist. The Karen National Liberation Army, the military wing of the KNU, has fought for independence since the 1940s. Faced with a larger and better equipped Burmese army, though, KNLA-controlled areas have shrunk to small pockets near the Thai border.

Burma is considered one of the world's worst human rights offenders. The military government prohibits dissent and is widely criticised for its torture and imprisonment of political opponents. It continues to hold opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for her vocal stance against the junta.

For power and profit

For the cash-strapped Burmese government, the Salween dams will generate much-needed foreign currency. The country is debt-ridden and strangled by US sanctions and EU trade restrictions. According to a leaked IMF report, Burma suffers "debt distress", with almost half of all foreign loans owed to Japan. Current debt stands at 1,235% of government revenue and inflation is high. "This is the biggest foreign investment project in the history of the Burmese junta," said Farmaner from the Burma Campaign. "It will earn huge profits for the Burmese government and give them more resources to maintain power. Ultimately, it will come at the expense of the Karen."

The Bangkok-based Salween Watch says the projects are backed by the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand, China's Sinohydro Corporation, and Thailand's MDX Group. They will cost an estimated US $10 billion and produce more than 12,700 kilowatts of electricity.

Although there is near universal condemnation of the dams' human rights implications, some analysts say that the projects could bring much needed electricity to Burma.

David Steinberg, the Director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University, points out that Burma's economy will remain stagnant without energy.

"The supply of electricity to Burma is absolutely vital. Whatever factories are there can only operate four or eight hours per day - it isn't reliable. So why would you invest, even if there weren't sanctions?"

Steinberg also criticised the West's trade sanctions, pointing out that as the economic restrictions have tightened, Asian countries have stepped in to take their place.

"The sanctions aren't working - they weren't going to work from the very beginning," he says. "When you pressure the (Burmese) government in this very public way, the only response that the government will give is to stand up to you."

"So why put them in that position?... The pressure has to be such that there is a graceful way out, so that they can give in to the pressure without looking like they're giving in," says Steinberg, who has met Aung San Suu Kyi on several occasions.

A representative of Thailand's MDX Group, which is financing the project, said he is not aware of refugees fleeing from the site and that his company has been "very careful" to ensure that forced labour is not used. "All of the work is being done to international standards, all of the workers are happy," he said, but did not want his name in print.

But according to New York-based Human Rights Watch, the projects continue to drive Karen into Thailand's refugee camps, which already are swollen with civilians fleeing the Burmese onslaught. The refugee crisis is expected to worsen when tens of thousands of civilians lose their homes as more than 300 square km of land are flooded.

Despite the scale of the alleged atrocities, the international community has done almost nothing and foreign aid groups are forbidden from shipping humanitarian supplies to the Karen without Burma's approval.

When a UN resolution calling for democracy in Burma was tabled in January, Russia and China exercised a joint veto - the first time they have done so since 1972.

The countries say that the resolution lies outside the Security Council's scope, but the Burma Campaign contends their motives were economic. Both countries are important arms suppliers to the SPDC and are seeking interests in Burma's large energy reserves. Burma is also scheduled to join the Asia Energy Security Grid - a major energy arrangement that will link Iran, Russia, China and Burma.

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