Mekong Utility Watch

Destruction and violation: Burma’s border development policies

Watershed
November 1, 1999

The military dictatorship governing Burma is currently using the discourse of development to legitimise its domination of the border areas. Curtis W. Lambrecht examines the regime and its development policies including its destructive effects on the communities it is supposed to be helping.

In 1989, the military dictatorship governing Burma introduced a scheme to develop the border regions of the country and advance the ethnic minority groups residing therein. The government portrays the development programmes implemented under this scheme as a benevolent attempt to develop regions of the country that have lagged behind in communication, education, health, and economic and social affairs. Government publications sold in five star hotels in Rangoon and distributed through its embassies provide comprehensive lists of hospitals, schools and roads that the government has constructed and equipment and tools that it has donated. In a 1994 article entitled “Border Region Development Projects Being Implemented With the Greatest and Noblest Intentions,” a state-controlled newspaper, The New Light of Myanmar, extolled on 14 February 1994:

“Border regions of today are not like before. Education, public health, communications and agriculture have progressed and developed. The city of Yangon has now become more easily accessible to border regions. Post and telegraph services are already functioning. Electric lights have brightened the border regions. National races who had lived in darkness in the past are now enjoying the fruits of progress.”

Naw Htoo K’Paw, a 36 year old Karen woman interviewed in a refugee camp in Thailand, offered a less sanguine view of life in Burma.

“[We’ve been in hiding] since nine months ago, because the Burmese persecuted us until we dared not stay in our village … My husband was shot to death when he went to find rice for us, because we couldn’t farm. We could sow only one basket of paddy. That was not enough for the year [the paddy produced by one basket of seed would feed a family for about one month]. Not only us, many people like us didn’t have enough rice because they couldn’t sow enough paddy. So we had to come here … As for me, my children were too young to work so my friends gave me some of their rice. If they didn’t give me any rice we would have died, because I couldn’t find any food by myself .. We couldn’t stay there anymore. Twenty-two families came [to Thailand], seven families from Yan Aung. It took us about 10 or 12 days. We travelled by night because we were afraid of the Burmese.”

Naw Htoo K’Paw is one of several hundred thousand refugees from the border regions. Unfortunately, her experience is the typical one. Human rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and The Karen Human Rights Group have compiled hundreds of reports that document systematic patterns of human rights violations in the border regions including forced labour, forced relocation, internment in inhumane conditions, torture and summary executions.

This discrepancy highlights the need to think critically about the concept of development and to be aware of the political ends that it is often used to advance. Critics of international development have argued that the rhetoric of development is often used to cloak domination.’ Implicit in the concept of development is a hierarchy in which one set of states is regarded as “developed” and others as 11 undeveloped”. As such, “underdeveloped” implies an inferior status and the need for management by developed states. Thus, development can be used by the “developed” countries to justify the exercise of power over, and legitimise its violent transformation of, the “undeveloped” countries.

The Burmese government employs the discourse of development in a similar manner. By portraying the ethnic minorities as “living in darkness”, for example, the government is attempting to legitimise its dominance over the marginalised groups residing in the periphery of the country by couching its intervention as well-intentioned aid. In so doing, the government may select the aspects of a culture that it wishes to preserve, protect, alter or eliminate, and circumvent the demands of the ethnic minorities. By presenting its political agenda in the border regions as a disinterested effort to realise the goal of development, it can appeal for international assistance and justify the violent consequences of its development policies as the necessary cost of progress.

Historical overview

The Draconian nature of the minority development programmes in Burma reflects three underlying political realities: the State has never exercised control over large parts of its periphery; over a dozen ethnic insurgencies have contested the legitimacy of the State since Burma’s independence, and; the regime that has ruled the country since 1962 is by nature despotic. Burma’s pre-colonial structures of governance never exercised tight administrative or military control over its entire territory. Thus territorial jurisdiction was defined by a variable sphere of influence that waxed and waned according to the power of the centre rather than permanent boundaries. Within this schema, the polity was divided into three administrative divisions: a nuclear zone, a zone of dependent provinces that typically encompassed the agricultural heartland, and a zone of tributaries which encompassed much of the highland border areas of the contemporary state and areas beyond them. While this lowland-based polity often enjoyed nominal control over the highlands, in practice, much of the highland areas remained under the control of local elite who ruled their territory with little interference from the polity. During the time of colonial rule, the British mapped the border areas, and extended roads and administrative offices into these areas bringing them under the control of the central government to a degree that was never before possible. However, the British did not implement these projects to increase the viability of a future independent country. Traditional rulers and chiefs remained in charge of civil, criminal and financial affairs and were misled into believing that Britain would accord them independence separately from the Burmese state. Following Burma’s independence in 1949, regional, religious and cultural differences coupled with ethnic nationalism led to numerous rebellions against the fledgling democratic state. Many of these insurgencies remain active to this day.

In 1962, a military coup ended Burma’s brief experiment with democracy. The junta scrapped the ethnically based federalist structure and explicitly de-linked politics and ethnicity. Maintaining order and centralised control became the preeminent concern. General Ne Win, who ruled increasingly by personal dictate, assumed full executive, and judicial powers. ‘The entire administrative system was restructured to extend military control to the village level. For the first time, a standardised administrative and legal system was introduced. The junta worked to eliminate nearly all sources of independent institutional power. Educational and cultural organisations were placed under its purview, all news periodicals were banned and the government assumed control over all publishers. The government also prohibited opposition parties, and nationalised foreign businesses and investments placing them under the control of military personnel.

In 1988, the military government was nearly toppled in the face of economic crisis and country-wide protests demanding democracy. The army brutally suppressed the demonstrations, and the government desperately sought foreign revenue by granting concessions to exploit natural resources in the border regions. A renewed emphasis was placed on rooting out enemies of the state. Since 1988, Ne Win has gradually receded from politics and Khin Nyunt has emerged as the central political figure in Burma. In 1995, the regime was renamed the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) in a move many outside analysts regarded as further evidence of Khin Nyunt’s efforts to consolidate his power.

The Burmese regime is characterised by four features. Power is highly centralised with few institutional provisions for the involvement of the citizenry in policy-making. As a consequence, the government’s domestic policies are often uninformed by the needs of the populace and unacceptable to them. Lacking legitimacy throughout the country, the principal means by which the regime has maintained its hold on power and implemented its policies has been through violence and repression. The regime’s reliance on force is manifest most clearly in the increased militarisation of the government, and massive military expenditures amounting to as much as 50 per cent of government expenditures. The highly personalised nature of rule under the regime, coupled with the regime leaders’ mistrust of governmental institutions and drive to centralise power have led to the violation of social norms and professional standards and a weakening of governmental bureaucracies, including a deprofessionalisa- tion of the military. As a consequence, government agencies are often unstable, inefficient and corrupt.

Since 1988, the regime’s policy pronouncements claim that it is oriented toward the realisation of “Three Main National Causes: the non-disintegration of the Union, the non- disintegration of National Solidarity, and the Perpetuation of the Sovereignty of the State.” The junta portrays domestic opposition, in any form, as the principal threat to the realisation of these goals. Border development is explicitly subsumed by the Three Main National Causes and, as such, is heavily focused on bolstering the strength of the regime and eliminating opposition.

Development as military strategy

The “Master Plan for the Development of the Border Areas and National Races” sets five goals:
1) To develop the economic and social works and roads and communications of the national races at the border areas, in accordance with [the three main national causes];
2) To cherish and preserve the culture, literature and customs of the national races;
3) To strengthen the amity among the national races;
4) To eradicate totally the cultivation of poppy plants by establishing economic enterprises;
5) To preserve and maintain the security, prevalence of law and order and regional peace and tranquillity of the border areas. (sic)3

While couched in noble language these causes have been and remain a vehicle for oppression. Development in Burma is not, despite the rhetoric that shrouds it, principally a humanitarian endeavour. It is not concerned primarily with empowering the masses and fulfilling their needs as they define them. Nor is it principally about the maximisation of per capita income, literacy or other statistical indicators. Rather, Burmese development, particularly in the border regions, is principally a State-building exercise oriented toward the realisation of three goals: the extension and solidification of the regime’s control over the populace, the extraction of natural resources, and the construction of a national identity through efforts to depolitizise ethnicity.

Infrastructure building is a major facet of Burmese development in the border regions and nationally. According to the regime, spending on the construction and maintenance of roads and bridges comprises 61 per cent of total expenditures for border areas development. The SPDC state that the construction of communications networks and infrastructure is essential to development as isolation has been a major factor contributing to the underdevelopment of these areas. Transportation networks, it is asserted, will allow isolated regions to develop by facilitating border trade thereby creating jobs for both locals and workers from “Myanmar Proper”. This, in turn, will increase the “absorption and spread of cultural, social and economic influence of Myanmar Proper”.4

Isolated peoples often regard the construction of roads and railways with apprehension as they facilitate the increased penetration of the State. Roads enable the army to quickly project force, to monitor the populace, and to maintain military supply lines in the border regions throughout the rainy season. The development of communications infrastructure has been similarly oriented toward locating and monitoring opponents of the regime. Improved communications were a major factor contributing to the military’s victories over ethnic insurgencies. The government has developed the capacity to monitor all domestic long- distance connections and all international connections as well as mobile and SATCOM telephone calls and fax transmissions.

At the same time, the regime has done its utmost to limit the population’s access to such technology given the sophisticated advocacy and monitoring networks that have been established by Burmese dissidents and human rights workers. The Computer Science Development Law, for example, prohibits the importation, possession or utilisation of a computer with a fax modem or Internet connection without the sanction of the Ministry of Communications, Posts and Telegraphs, or setting up a network or link to a network without such sanction. Infractions are punishable for seven to fifteen years. Burma also apparently has the first Internet caf‚ without Internet access.

Community development: Forced relocations and forced labour

One of the principal means by which the regime attempts to attain control over the populace is through massive forced relocation programmes. Often, areas from whence village people were relocated are declared by the army to be free fire zones, that is, areas in which soldiers are authorised to shoot all trespassers. Typically a military commander presents written orders to the village headman indicating that the entire village must evacuate the area. Village people are given about one week’s notice to move and warned that anyone seen in the evacuated areas thereafter will be considered “an enemy”. Villages that fail to comply, and those that have been abandoned, are often looted, burned to the ground or booby trapped. In other cases, villages receive no written notification and are simply attacked.

In Shan state, for example, it is estimated that the army has forcibly relocated more than 1,400 villages in an area of 7,000 square miles. Consequently, more than 300,000 village people were forced to move to strategic relocation sites without governmental assistance. Living conditions in these areas are reportedly crude and unsanitary while food, potable water and medical care are difficult to obtain. Movement outside of relocation areas is often restricted such that it is often difficult or impossible for farmers to tend their crops.

Relocation programmes in other regions in the country are of a similar nature. Saw Htoo Klih, a Karen villager from Ler Htoo Po, recounted a similar campaign in Karen state.

“We all were supposed to move to Meh Way – about 6000 households. They said that they fight the Nga Pway [“Ringworms”, – the pejorative term used to designate the Karen insurgents] but they never succeeded because of us, the villagers. They told us that if we all die, they will only have to fight for a short time. Four households went to Meh Way. I don’t know how they will live, but I think it will be very hard for them, always carrying things. They have to stay close to the soldiers. They’ve made three camps to surround the villagers. They keep the villagers in the middle. They have a Byu Ha [Strategic Command] there.”5

According to Saw Pah Htoo, another Karen refugee from this area, the Bagnios soldiers told local people they had three choices:

“They said to us, ‘people who won’t come to our place must run away. People who don’t want to run away must come to us. People who neither run away nor come with us must die.’ As for us, we didn’t want to go to their place so we ran away and they burned all our houses.’6

Border area development projects are administered by army officers, implemented by soldiers and overseen by the head of the military junta and other top ranking, ethnic Burman military officials whose experience in the border regions is limited to warfare. For the most part, the army is staffed by uneducated soldiers with little formal military training. Many soldiers are under the age of seventeen and many in the army have been forcibly conscripted. The army is notorious for human rights abuses in the border regions, a fact that reflects a culture of bigotry and impunity within the army. Extortion, looting and theft from village people are common income generating practices among the poorly equipped and poorly paid soldiers.

Development projects also impose high financial costs on their supposed beneficiaries. Communities are expected to fund development projects in their vicinity either monetarily or in kind. These obligations are often onerous. Those conscripted for labour are often subject to human rights abuses. Village people often flee from areas where development projects are being conducted because the tax and labour requirements are so burdensome that they cannot survive.

“People’s contributions”, a government euphemism for “services, cash and material” provided by the populace, are a major input in development projects. Until 1996, the State- run newspaper regularly ran articles on infrastructure development projects that included figures on the use of unpaid labour. A survey of these articles by the U.S. Department of Labour in 1998 determined that the aggregate number of unpaid workers reported to have laboured on infrastructure projects between 1988 and 1996 exceeds five million. This figure provides a low estimate of the extent to which the State has relied on unpaid labour since 1988, as figures are not available for all infrastructure projects undertaken in this period and forced labour practices have continued beyond 1996.

The government maintains that these “contributions” have been provided on a purely voluntary basis as part of Buddhist merit making. However, many non-Buddhists have been compelled to provide labour for development projects and Muslims appear to have been targeted in places. Moreover, these assertions are belied by thousands of pages of reports documenting the forced nature of these practices, and hundreds of written orders, issued by Burmese military officials, demanding the provision of labour and goods for such projects upon pain of punishment. Countless testimonials recount that failure to comply with such demands has frequently resulted in verbal and physical abuse including rape, torture, killings and or arrest. Furthermore, workers who fail to meet deadlines or are perceived to be working badly have frequently been subject to “kickings, punchings, beatings with canes, sticks or pieces of bamboo, arrest and detention at a military camps [sic], confinement in stocks, or in some cases severe torture or execution”.

While forced labour is used throughout the country, forced labour practices appear to be more frequent and more abusive in the border areas where the majority of the population is non-Burman. While no national average is available, ethnic minority households have reported that they have been required to provide labour an average of between eight days per month to as often as 20 days per month. Working conditions are often hard, the work day is usually 8 to 12 hours long with a one hour break at mid-day, and in some cases dangerous. Those who become sick generally have to pay a fee or find a replacement; medical care is not provided for workers who become sick or are injured.

While many development projects are presented as community development projects, the only thing that has been community oriented about many development projects is that the entire community has been mobilised to finance and build them. In many cases, the sum effect of development is further impoverishment, with a disproportionate effect on the poor, in particular day labourers and subsistence farmers who are dependent upon their daily labour for survival.

For example, a “community development project” in Kyauk Kyi township in Pegu entailed the construction of a dam that was used by the army to irrigate rice fields it had confiscated from local people and to power a hydroelectric generator that supplied electricity to the tactical command headquarters. This has also been true of Zee Chaung Hydro-Project near Kalay in Sagaing Division. Similarly, while the government had supplied 187 diesel-powered generators to 128 towns and villages, as of August 1997, the power they generate is intended primarily for “street lamps, departmental buildings and religious [i.e., Buddhist] structures”.’ In many areas, village people have noted prices increase as a consequence of military tolls on newly constructed roads. Many roads are also closed to non-mechanised forms of transport thereby excluding a large part of the border populace.

The quality of many development projects is also poor. Frequently roads are very poorly engineered, lack drainage and must be rebuilt the following year after the rainy season. Apparently, this is due to the poor training of officers in the army’s corps of engineers, in part because corruption apparently leads to the use of poor quality materials, and in part because it relies upon labourers, with little or no training, who comply grudgingly.

As a consequence many peasants sell their livestock and even their land in order to survive; 12 million people, or 40 per cent of the population supported chiefly by agriculture, are estimated to be landless.

Resource Extraction

A major facet of Burmese development is the exploitation of natural resources in the ethnic areas and border regions. These regions and the seas adjacent to them, contain many of Burma’s natural resources including deposits of silver, lead, gold, jade, diamonds, granite, marble, nickel, tin and tungsten and commercially valuable wildlife and wildlife products. The border areas also contain the only large expanses of hardwood forests in Southeast Asia that have not been commercially exploited. In addition there are rich petroleum and natural gas reserves in areas offshore the coasts of Rakhine State and Tanintharyi Division, as well as in the Gulf of Martaban.

The State holds legal title over all land, minerals, oil, natural gas deposits, and standing teak and other hardwoods except where it has relinquished it. No provisions whatsoever stipulate that affected communities be involved in decision making about the exploitation or use of resources or that they be provided with any of the material benefits. State economic enterprises (SEES) enjoy monopoly tights over the exploitation and sale of many of these resources including most of the timber, uncut gems, jade, rubber, and pearls. SEEs are typically run by command grade military officers through a centralised command structure in pursuit of centrally determined goals rather than in a decentralised manner which would facilitate profit maximisation. SEEs operate well below capacity and are a drain on the govemment’s budget. SEEs are a source of political patronage and heavy rent-seeking activity facilitated by the use of the official exchange rate for public sector transactions including imports which are then re-sold at black market exchange rate prices.

Since 1988, the regime has also granted foreign companies concessions to exploit many of these resources. In other instances, the State has relinquished rights to natural resources in such a manner that it receives no future income from their exploitation. In remote areas, regional army commanders have rights over mineral resources and typically receive a majority share in joint ventures to exploit them.

While data on the revenue derived from the sale of these resources is incomplete, it is clear that the regime has earned hundreds of millions of dollars from their sale. Logging concessions along the Thai-Burma border, granted to Thai logging companies in 1988, reportedly earned the regime US$112 million per year over a five year period. Fishing concessions granted to Thai fishing companies, the exploitation of minerals, and the exploitation of oil and natural gas in areas adjacent to the border areas are likely to have similarly earned the regime hundreds of millions of dollars.

Another stated goal of the border development policies is to preserve the culture, literature and customs of the national races. However, these efforts are State-directed projects that emphasise the preservation of the aesthetic aspects of the national minorities’ culture, such as their dress and handicrafts. Meanwhile, the government forbids other practices, such as swidden agriculture and the teaching of ethnic languages in elementary and secondary schools, that are central to the lifestyles of the ethnic minorities. The government has rejected outright the possibility of any form of ethnic political autonomy. In so doing, the Burmese dictatorship has failed to address some of the central issues of contention that led ethnic insurgencies to take up arms against the regime.

Conclusion

Although the government states that it is progressing towards democracy, it strongly discourages deliberation and contestation. The militaristic culture that pervades this government adheres to a policy of “community without politics and consensus by command”. One government publication defines national consolidation as: “unanimous integration, without divergence of opinions, of all ethnic nationalities”.’ The main political concession offered to ethnic insurgents who renounce armed struggle is the opportunity to participate in the drafting of a national convention, an event that both the Burmese and international observers regard as a farce.. The junta has effectively prevented delegates from freely debating constitutional issues such as the inclusion of ethnic rights or ethnic political autonomy.

According to the regime, cease-fires brokered with the various insurgencies represent the decision of ethnic leaders to return “to the legal fold after realizing the true goodwill and attitude of the Government”. In fact, these cease-fires signal the defeat of the insurgencies through the persecution of their civilian support base. The cease-fires represent domination rather than consensus achieved through a process of deliberation.

The burden of development has fallen principally on the populace, while the rewards of development have gone principally to the regime and its leaders. In the border regions, these burdens are particularly severe. This is most clearly evident in the massive flight of the populace: since 1988, more than 500,000 ethnic minority refugees have fled Burma into neighbouring countries.

The burdens and human cost of development in Burma are not an inevitable price that must be paid to advance the citizenry of the country. The overwhelming toll of develop- ment in Burma is a consequence of the State’s attempts to realise its development agenda and the manner in which it implements these programmes. Persistent corruption, forced conscription and labour, high taxes and the ruthless suppression of dissent have led many inside and outside of Burma to regard the State as a source of danger and oppression. To control the populace, Burma’s dictatorship frequently violates the human rights of the citizenry, inducing resistance, rebellion and flight which, in turn, lead to increased efforts by the State to impose its control over non-cooperative segments of society. In this way, a cycle of resistance and oppression has evolved. In Burma develop- ment is an oxymoron: the primary means by which the country’s military dictatorship attempts to realise its supposed goal of a developed and peaceful nation is through destruction and violation. he military dictatorship governing Burma is currently using the discourse of development to legitimise its domination of the border areas. Curtis W. Lambrecht examines the regime and its development policies including its destructive effects on the communities it is supposed to be helping.

In 1989, the military dictatorship governing Burma introduced a scheme to develop the border regions of the country and advance the ethnic minority groups residing therein. The government portrays the development programmes implemented under this scheme as a benevolent attempt to develop regions of the country that have lagged behind in communication, education, health, and economic and social affairs. Government publications sold in five star hotels in Rangoon and distributed through its embassies provide comprehensive lists of hospitals, schools and roads that the government has constructed and equipment and tools that it has donated. In a 1994 article entitled “Border Region Development Projects Being Implemented With the Greatest and Noblest Intentions,” a state-controlled newspaper, The New Light of Myanmar, extolled on 14 February 1994:

“Border regions of today are not like before. Education, public health, communications and agriculture have progressed and developed. The city of Yangon has now become more easily accessible to border regions. Post and telegraph services are already functioning. Electric lights have brightened the border regions. National races who had lived in darkness in the past are now enjoying the fruits of progress.”

Naw Htoo K’Paw, a 36 year old Karen woman interviewed in a refugee camp in Thailand, offered a less sanguine view of life in Burma.

“[We’ve been in hiding] since nine months ago, because the Burmese persecuted us until we dared not stay in our village … My husband was shot to death when he went to find rice for us, because we couldn’t farm. We could sow only one basket of paddy. That was not enough for the year [the paddy produced by one basket of seed would feed a family for about one month]. Not only us, many people like us didn’t have enough rice because they couldn’t sow enough paddy. So we had to come here … As for me, my children were too young to work so my friends gave me some of their rice. If they didn’t give me any rice we would have died, because I couldn’t find any food by myself .. We couldn’t stay there anymore. Twenty-two families came [to Thailand], seven families from Yan Aung. It took us about 10 or 12 days. We travelled by night because we were afraid of the Burmese.”

Naw Htoo K’Paw is one of several hundred thousand refugees from the border regions. Unfortunately, her experience is the typical one. Human rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and The Karen Human Rights Group have compiled hundreds of reports that document systematic patterns of human rights violations in the border regions including forced labour, forced relocation, internment in inhumane conditions, torture and summary executions.

This discrepancy highlights the need to think critically about the concept of development and to be aware of the political ends that it is often used to advance. Critics of international development have argued that the rhetoric of development is often used to cloak domination.’ Implicit in the concept of development is a hierarchy in which one set of states is regarded as “developed” and others as 11 undeveloped”. As such, “underdeveloped” implies an inferior status and the need for management by developed states. Thus, development can be used by the “developed” countries to justify the exercise of power over, and legitimise its violent transformation of, the “undeveloped” countries.

The Burmese government employs the discourse of development in a similar manner. By portraying the ethnic minorities as “living in darkness”, for example, the government is attempting to legitimise its dominance over the marginalised groups residing in the periphery of the country by couching its intervention as well-intentioned aid. In so doing, the government may select the aspects of a culture that it wishes to preserve, protect, alter or eliminate, and circumvent the demands of the ethnic minorities. By presenting its political agenda in the border regions as a disinterested effort to realise the goal of development, it can appeal for international assistance and justify the violent consequences of its development policies as the necessary cost of progress.

Historical overview

The Draconian nature of the minority development programmes in Burma reflects three underlying political realities: the State has never exercised control over large parts of its periphery; over a dozen ethnic insurgencies have contested the legitimacy of the State since Burma’s independence, and; the regime that has ruled the country since 1962 is by nature despotic. Burma’s pre-colonial structures of governance never exercised tight administrative or military control over its entire territory. Thus territorial jurisdiction was defined by a variable sphere of influence that waxed and waned according to the power of the centre rather than permanent boundaries. Within this schema, the polity was divided into three administrative divisions: a nuclear zone, a zone of dependent provinces that typically encompassed the agricultural heartland, and a zone of tributaries which encompassed much of the highland border areas of the contemporary state and areas beyond them. While this lowland-based polity often enjoyed nominal control over the highlands, in practice, much of the highland areas remained under the control of local elite who ruled their territory with little interference from the polity. During the time of colonial rule, the British mapped the border areas, and extended roads and administrative offices into these areas bringing them under the control of the central government to a degree that was never before possible. However, the British did not implement these projects to increase the viability of a future independent country. Traditional rulers and chiefs remained in charge of civil, criminal and financial affairs and were misled into believing that Britain would accord them independence separately from the Burmese state. Following Burma’s independence in 1949, regional, religious and cultural differences coupled with ethnic nationalism led to numerous rebellions against the fledgling democratic state. Many of these insurgencies remain active to this day.

In 1962, a military coup ended Burma’s brief experiment with democracy. The junta scrapped the ethnically based federalist structure and explicitly de-linked politics and ethnicity. Maintaining order and centralised control became the preeminent concern. General Ne Win, who ruled increasingly by personal dictate, assumed full executive, and judicial powers. ‘The entire administrative system was restructured to extend military control to the village level. For the first time, a standardised administrative and legal system was introduced. The junta worked to eliminate nearly all sources of independent institutional power. Educational and cultural organisations were placed under its purview, all news periodicals were banned and the government assumed control over all publishers. The government also prohibited opposition parties, and nationalised foreign businesses and investments placing them under the control of military personnel.

In 1988, the military government was nearly toppled in the face of economic crisis and country-wide protests demanding democracy. The army brutally suppressed the demonstrations, and the government desperately sought foreign revenue by granting concessions to exploit natural resources in the border regions. A renewed emphasis was placed on rooting out enemies of the state. Since 1988, Ne Win has gradually receded from politics and Khin Nyunt has emerged as the central political figure in Burma. In 1995, the regime was renamed the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) in a move many outside analysts regarded as further evidence of Khin Nyunt’s efforts to consolidate his power.

The Burmese regime is characterised by four features. Power is highly centralised with few institutional provisions for the involvement of the citizenry in policy-making. As a consequence, the government’s domestic policies are often uninformed by the needs of the populace and unacceptable to them. Lacking legitimacy throughout the country, the principal means by which the regime has maintained its hold on power and implemented its policies has been through violence and repression. The regime’s reliance on force is manifest most clearly in the increased militarisation of the government, and massive military expenditures amounting to as much as 50 per cent of government expenditures. The highly personalised nature of rule under the regime, coupled with the regime leaders’ mistrust of governmental institutions and drive to centralise power have led to the violation of social norms and professional standards and a weakening of governmental bureaucracies, including a deprofessionalisa- tion of the military. As a consequence, government agencies are often unstable, inefficient and corrupt.

Since 1988, the regime’s policy pronouncements claim that it is oriented toward the realisation of “Three Main National Causes: the non-disintegration of the Union, the non- disintegration of National Solidarity, and the Perpetuation of the Sovereignty of the State.” The junta portrays domestic opposition, in any form, as the principal threat to the realisation of these goals. Border development is explicitly subsumed by the Three Main National Causes and, as such, is heavily focused on bolstering the strength of the regime and eliminating opposition.

Development as military strategy

The “Master Plan for the Development of the Border Areas and National Races” sets five goals:
1) To develop the economic and social works and roads and communications of the national races at the border areas, in accordance with [the three main national causes];
2) To cherish and preserve the culture, literature and customs of the national races;
3) To strengthen the amity among the national races;
4) To eradicate totally the cultivation of poppy plants by establishing economic enterprises;
5) To preserve and maintain the security, prevalence of law and order and regional peace and tranquillity of the border areas. (sic)3

While couched in noble language these causes have been and remain a vehicle for oppression. Development in Burma is not, despite the rhetoric that shrouds it, principally a humanitarian endeavour. It is not concerned primarily with empowering the masses and fulfilling their needs as they define them. Nor is it principally about the maximisation of per capita income, literacy or other statistical indicators. Rather, Burmese development, particularly in the border regions, is principally a State-building exercise oriented toward the realisation of three goals: the extension and solidification of the regime’s control over the populace, the extraction of natural resources, and the construction of a national identity through efforts to depolitizise ethnicity.

Infrastructure building is a major facet of Burmese development in the border regions and nationally. According to the regime, spending on the construction and maintenance of roads and bridges comprises 61 per cent of total expenditures for border areas development. The SPDC state that the construction of communications networks and infrastructure is essential to development as isolation has been a major factor contributing to the underdevelopment of these areas. Transportation networks, it is asserted, will allow isolated regions to develop by facilitating border trade thereby creating jobs for both locals and workers from “Myanmar Proper”. This, in turn, will increase the “absorption and spread of cultural, social and economic influence of Myanmar Proper”.4

Isolated peoples often regard the construction of roads and railways with apprehension as they facilitate the increased penetration of the State. Roads enable the army to quickly project force, to monitor the populace, and to maintain military supply lines in the border regions throughout the rainy season. The development of communications infrastructure has been similarly oriented toward locating and monitoring opponents of the regime. Improved communications were a major factor contributing to the military’s victories over ethnic insurgencies. The government has developed the capacity to monitor all domestic long- distance connections and all international connections as well as mobile and SATCOM telephone calls and fax transmissions.

At the same time, the regime has done its utmost to limit the population’s access to such technology given the sophisticated advocacy and monitoring networks that have been established by Burmese dissidents and human rights workers. The Computer Science Development Law, for example, prohibits the importation, possession or utilisation of a computer with a fax modem or Internet connection without the sanction of the Ministry of Communications, Posts and Telegraphs, or setting up a network or link to a network without such sanction. Infractions are punishable for seven to fifteen years. Burma also apparently has the first Internet caf‚ without Internet access.

Community development: Forced relocations and forced labour

One of the principal means by which the regime attempts to attain control over the populace is through massive forced relocation programmes. Often, areas from whence village people were relocated are declared by the army to be free fire zones, that is, areas in which soldiers are authorised to shoot all trespassers. Typically a military commander presents written orders to the village headman indicating that the entire village must evacuate the area. Village people are given about one week’s notice to move and warned that anyone seen in the evacuated areas thereafter will be considered “an enemy”. Villages that fail to comply, and those that have been abandoned, are often looted, burned to the ground or booby trapped. In other cases, villages receive no written notification and are simply attacked.

In Shan state, for example, it is estimated that the army has forcibly relocated more than 1,400 villages in an area of 7,000 square miles. Consequently, more than 300,000 village people were forced to move to strategic relocation sites without governmental assistance. Living conditions in these areas are reportedly crude and unsanitary while food, potable water and medical care are difficult to obtain. Movement outside of relocation areas is often restricted such that it is often difficult or impossible for farmers to tend their crops.

Relocation programmes in other regions in the country are of a similar nature. Saw Htoo Klih, a Karen villager from Ler Htoo Po, recounted a similar campaign in Karen state.

“We all were supposed to move to Meh Way – about 6000 households. They said that they fight the Nga Pway [“Ringworms”, – the pejorative term used to designate the Karen insurgents] but they never succeeded because of us, the villagers. They told us that if we all die, they will only have to fight for a short time. Four households went to Meh Way. I don’t know how they will live, but I think it will be very hard for them, always carrying things. They have to stay close to the soldiers. They’ve made three camps to surround the villagers. They keep the villagers in the middle. They have a Byu Ha [Strategic Command] there.”5

According to Saw Pah Htoo, another Karen refugee from this area, the Bagnios soldiers told local people they had three choices:

“They said to us, ‘people who won’t come to our place must run away. People who don’t want to run away must come to us. People who neither run away nor come with us must die.’ As for us, we didn’t want to go to their place so we ran away and they burned all our houses.’6

Border area development projects are administered by army officers, implemented by soldiers and overseen by the head of the military junta and other top ranking, ethnic Burman military officials whose experience in the border regions is limited to warfare. For the most part, the army is staffed by uneducated soldiers with little formal military training. Many soldiers are under the age of seventeen and many in the army have been forcibly conscripted. The army is notorious for human rights abuses in the border regions, a fact that reflects a culture of bigotry and impunity within the army. Extortion, looting and theft from village people are common income generating practices among the poorly equipped and poorly paid soldiers.

Development projects also impose high financial costs on their supposed beneficiaries. Communities are expected to fund development projects in their vicinity either monetarily or in kind. These obligations are often onerous. Those conscripted for labour are often subject to human rights abuses. Village people often flee from areas where development projects are being conducted because the tax and labour requirements are so burdensome that they cannot survive.

“People’s contributions”, a government euphemism for “services, cash and material” provided by the populace, are a major input in development projects. Until 1996, the State- run newspaper regularly ran articles on infrastructure development projects that included figures on the use of unpaid labour. A survey of these articles by the U.S. Department of Labour in 1998 determined that the aggregate number of unpaid workers reported to have laboured on infrastructure projects between 1988 and 1996 exceeds five million. This figure provides a low estimate of the extent to which the State has relied on unpaid labour since 1988, as figures are not available for all infrastructure projects undertaken in this period and forced labour practices have continued beyond 1996.

The government maintains that these “contributions” have been provided on a purely voluntary basis as part of Buddhist merit making. However, many non-Buddhists have been compelled to provide labour for development projects and Muslims appear to have been targeted in places. Moreover, these assertions are belied by thousands of pages of reports documenting the forced nature of these practices, and hundreds of written orders, issued by Burmese military officials, demanding the provision of labour and goods for such projects upon pain of punishment. Countless testimonials recount that failure to comply with such demands has frequently resulted in verbal and physical abuse including rape, torture, killings and or arrest. Furthermore, workers who fail to meet deadlines or are perceived to be working badly have frequently been subject to “kickings, punchings, beatings with canes, sticks or pieces of bamboo, arrest and detention at a military camps [sic], confinement in stocks, or in some cases severe torture or execution”.

While forced labour is used throughout the country, forced labour practices appear to be more frequent and more abusive in the border areas where the majority of the population is non-Burman. While no national average is available, ethnic minority households have reported that they have been required to provide labour an average of between eight days per month to as often as 20 days per month. Working conditions are often hard, the work day is usually 8 to 12 hours long with a one hour break at mid-day, and in some cases dangerous. Those who become sick generally have to pay a fee or find a replacement; medical care is not provided for workers who become sick or are injured.

While many development projects are presented as community development projects, the only thing that has been community oriented about many development projects is that the entire community has been mobilised to finance and build them. In many cases, the sum effect of development is further impoverishment, with a disproportionate effect on the poor, in particular day labourers and subsistence farmers who are dependent upon their daily labour for survival.

For example, a “community development project” in Kyauk Kyi township in Pegu entailed the construction of a dam that was used by the army to irrigate rice fields it had confiscated from local people and to power a hydroelectric generator that supplied electricity to the tactical command headquarters. This has also been true of Zee Chaung Hydro-Project near Kalay in Sagaing Division. Similarly, while the government had supplied 187 diesel-powered generators to 128 towns and villages, as of August 1997, the power they generate is intended primarily for “street lamps, departmental buildings and religious [i.e., Buddhist] structures”.’ In many areas, village people have noted prices increase as a consequence of military tolls on newly constructed roads. Many roads are also closed to non-mechanised forms of transport thereby excluding a large part of the border populace.

The quality of many development projects is also poor. Frequently roads are very poorly engineered, lack drainage and must be rebuilt the following year after the rainy season. Apparently, this is due to the poor training of officers in the army’s corps of engineers, in part because corruption apparently leads to the use of poor quality materials, and in part because it relies upon labourers, with little or no training, who comply grudgingly.

As a consequence many peasants sell their livestock and even their land in order to survive; 12 million people, or 40 per cent of the population supported chiefly by agriculture, are estimated to be landless.

Resource Extraction

A major facet of Burmese development is the exploitation of natural resources in the ethnic areas and border regions. These regions and the seas adjacent to them, contain many of Burma’s natural resources including deposits of silver, lead, gold, jade, diamonds, granite, marble, nickel, tin and tungsten and commercially valuable wildlife and wildlife products. The border areas also contain the only large expanses of hardwood forests in Southeast Asia that have not been commercially exploited. In addition there are rich petroleum and natural gas reserves in areas offshore the coasts of Rakhine State and Tanintharyi Division, as well as in the Gulf of Martaban.

The State holds legal title over all land, minerals, oil, natural gas deposits, and standing teak and other hardwoods except where it has relinquished it. No provisions whatsoever stipulate that affected communities be involved in decision making about the exploitation or use of resources or that they be provided with any of the material benefits. State economic enterprises (SEES) enjoy monopoly tights over the exploitation and sale of many of these resources including most of the timber, uncut gems, jade, rubber, and pearls. SEEs are typically run by command grade military officers through a centralised command structure in pursuit of centrally determined goals rather than in a decentralised manner which would facilitate profit maximisation. SEEs operate well below capacity and are a drain on the govemment’s budget. SEEs are a source of political patronage and heavy rent-seeking activity facilitated by the use of the official exchange rate for public sector transactions including imports which are then re-sold at black market exchange rate prices.

Since 1988, the regime has also granted foreign companies concessions to exploit many of these resources. In other instances, the State has relinquished rights to natural resources in such a manner that it receives no future income from their exploitation. In remote areas, regional army commanders have rights over mineral resources and typically receive a majority share in joint ventures to exploit them.

While data on the revenue derived from the sale of these resources is incomplete, it is clear that the regime has earned hundreds of millions of dollars from their sale. Logging concessions along the Thai-Burma border, granted to Thai logging companies in 1988, reportedly earned the regime US$112 million per year over a five year period. Fishing concessions granted to Thai fishing companies, the exploitation of minerals, and the exploitation of oil and natural gas in areas adjacent to the border areas are likely to have similarly earned the regime hundreds of millions of dollars.

Another stated goal of the border development policies is to preserve the culture, literature and customs of the national races. However, these efforts are State-directed projects that emphasise the preservation of the aesthetic aspects of the national minorities’ culture, such as their dress and handicrafts. Meanwhile, the government forbids other practices, such as swidden agriculture and the teaching of ethnic languages in elementary and secondary schools, that are central to the lifestyles of the ethnic minorities. The government has rejected outright the possibility of any form of ethnic political autonomy. In so doing, the Burmese dictatorship has failed to address some of the central issues of contention that led ethnic insurgencies to take up arms against the regime.

Conclusion

Although the government states that it is progressing towards democracy, it strongly discourages deliberation and contestation. The militaristic culture that pervades this government adheres to a policy of “community without politics and consensus by command”. One government publication defines national consolidation as: “unanimous integration, without divergence of opinions, of all ethnic nationalities”.’ The main political concession offered to ethnic insurgents who renounce armed struggle is the opportunity to participate in the drafting of a national convention, an event that both the Burmese and international observers regard as a farce.. The junta has effectively prevented delegates from freely debating constitutional issues such as the inclusion of ethnic rights or ethnic political autonomy.

According to the regime, cease-fires brokered with the various insurgencies represent the decision of ethnic leaders to return “to the legal fold after realizing the true goodwill and attitude of the Government”. In fact, these cease-fires signal the defeat of the insurgencies through the persecution of their civilian support base. The cease-fires represent domination rather than consensus achieved through a process of deliberation.

The burden of development has fallen principally on the populace, while the rewards of development have gone principally to the regime and its leaders. In the border regions, these burdens are particularly severe. This is most clearly evident in the massive flight of the populace: since 1988, more than 500,000 ethnic minority refugees have fled Burma into neighbouring countries.

The burdens and human cost of development in Burma are not an inevitable price that must be paid to advance the citizenry of the country. The overwhelming toll of develop- ment in Burma is a consequence of the State’s attempts to realise its development agenda and the manner in which it implements these programmes. Persistent corruption, forced conscription and labour, high taxes and the ruthless suppression of dissent have led many inside and outside of Burma to regard the State as a source of danger and oppression. To control the populace, Burma’s dictatorship frequently violates the human rights of the citizenry, inducing resistance, rebellion and flight which, in turn, lead to increased efforts by the State to impose its control over non-cooperative segments of society. In this way, a cycle of resistance and oppression has evolved. In Burma develop- ment is an oxymoron: the primary means by which the country’s military dictatorship attempts to realise its supposed goal of a developed and peaceful nation is through destruction and violation.

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Categories: Mekong Utility Watch

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