Poverty haunts the people of Myanmar but those who live in remote, landlocked Karenni State are among the poorest of the poor. Karenni, Myanmar’s smallest state, is also the least populated with less than 250,000 inhabitants, many of them landless. Communication is poor and there is little employment. The state has also been a region of violent conflict for decades. During the 1990s, some 20,000 Karenni people fled to refugee camps in neighboring Thailand. The reasons for the strife are many, but history has provided some of the motivation, and Karenni’s exploitable resources has provided much of the wherewithal.
In 1875, an agreement between the rump Burmese monarchy and Britain recognized the Karenni States (there were then four) as independent of the Burmese authority. After World War II, Britain changed tack, and together with the soon-to-be independent Burma decided to incorporate the Karenni into Burma. A subsequent 1947 agreement at Panglong between Burmese and ethnic minority representatives accepted a unified state but allowed for the possibility of a referendum on Karenni (and Shan) secession in 1957. However, this was never really permitted. Since independence, and especially since 1957, guns have substituted for political dialogue.
According to a 2000 report by the Burma Ethnic Research Group titled “Conflict and Displacement in Karenni: The Need for Considered Responses,” the situation today is bad. “There is a myriad of armed State and non-State groups vying for control of populations and territory in Karenni,” the report states. “These include government armed forces, cease-fire groups, splinter groups, opposition groups partially based in Thailand, and smaller militias.”
The largest opposition group is the Karenni National Progressive Party, founded in 1957. Abel Tweed, the movement’s 59-year-old foreign minister, explained in a February 2002 interview what his group wanted. “Originally, we believe we were not part of Burma, so our priority was independence, although we understand Karenni is a small land,” he said. “However, if Burma had a real federal union with equal rights and self-determination for Karenni people, then we would think seriously about joining.”
Wars cost money and the conflict in Karenni has led to what the BERG report has called, “the rapid and predatory depletion of the resource base . . . and [that will] lead to a more intense conflict over what is left.” Those resources include the vast teak forests that were leveled to support all sides and to feed the voracious appetite for wood of neighboring Thailand.
The resources also include two large projects that Tweed hoped the Karenni people would one day control and derive far more benefit from: the southern Mawchi mine, once one of the world’s largest producers of tin and tungsten, and even more important today, the state’s water resources. These have become the focus of international attention and have highlighted Japan’s ambivalent role in bringing change to Myanmar.
Baluchaung Hydropower Station No. 2, which supplies as much as 20 percent of Myanmar’s electricity, is located southeast of Loikaw, the Karenni State’s capital. It was completed in 1960 as Japan’s first war-reparation project. Some repairs, using funds from a 3.53 billion yen loan, were done in 1986.
A few years ago, citing a serious need for more repairs, Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs began pushing for a large grant. Ostensibly, this was in order to lower electricity prices and ameliorate the country’s frequent blackouts. Those plans, once they became public, faced concerted opposition. The prodemocracy movement said that this was sending the wrong signal to the junta. Not only that, the electricity grid itself was being manipulated in a way to benefit military establishments and military-controlled businesses. Mekong Watch, a Japanese NGO monitoring the environmental and social impacts of Japanese Official Development Assistance, noted that there would be higher risks of more forced labor than already existed.
More government soldiers would likely be moved to the area, itself a conflict zone, to protect the installation and the Japanese staff involved in the project. Government forces tend to live off local populations, and have also often ravaged them. There are serious claims that land mines protect the plant, and that more would be laid.
At least twice, Japanese government plans to OK the grant went awry. Initially, this was because of international displeasure at the house arrest of National League of Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from 1990-1995, and then again in 2000. Then, in early 2001, the plan was revived again, and one Japanese lawmaker in particular, Liberal Democratic Party member Kabun Muto, pushed hard behind the scenes for the grant to go through. Yet in December 2001 it was again put on hold, possibly because the Myanmar government was becoming impatient and asked for more, but also because of international criticism. Eighteen American lawmakers, including Senators Jesse Helms and Patrick Leahy, wrote to Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi on December 15, 2001 to express their opposition.
Finally, in April 2002, the Cabinet in Tokyo agreed to extend the grant. This was announced in a May 6 statement and finalized with an “Exchange of Notes” on May 10 so as to appear to coincide with the release of Suu Kyi from house arrest.
Subsequently, in a July 29, 2002 letter to Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi, KNPP Secretary Raymond Htoo voiced concerns about the Baluchaung project saying, “The Japanese Foreign Ministry has requested that the military regime guarantee the security of the power plant during rehabilitation. Any increase in the military presence around the hydropower plant will also lead to an increase in the forced labor and other human rights violations of villagers . . . The ministry officials we met did not seem to have any plan to monitor the project for such violations.”
Since Suu Kyi’s release, Japanese leaders such as Kawaguchi have visited Yangon and suggested further aid was possible, though they also stated there was a need for reform and reconciliation with minority groups. Reform and reconciliation, however, have moved at a snail’s pace, if at all.
The KNPP joined with other minority groups in August 2001 and formed the Ethnic Nationalities Solidarity and Cooperation Committee. That group’s goal is to achieve tripartite talks in Myanmar that will involve a serious deliberation of individual minority concerns. The minorities want an effective and fair federal union and much more control over resources in their areas. Yangon is opposed to this. In early November 2002, the KNPP sent a delegation to Loikaw, to explore whether peace with Myanmar’s government was possible, but those talks have yet to bear any fruit and, despite claims of defections from the KNPP, the group fights on.
Still, the possibility of political dialogue in Myanmar does offer a chance, not only to achieve a more representative government, but for all parties to work together and resolve the possibly even more intractable, ethnic issue. Until now the ethnic issue has followed an old form of realpolitik, described by Thucydides as “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” This is something that must change.