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The Norwegian government is pushing ahead with a multi-million dollar scheme to rehabilitate regions in eastern Burma that for decades have been beset by conflict and upheaval, a project that is likely to gather pace in the wake of a ceasefire deal over the weekend between Naypyidaw and Shan rebels.
A draft document seen by DVB outlines the aims and methodology of the ‘Norwegian Peace Support Initiative’, for which a pilot programme has already begun in an area of northern Karen state. Over the coming months this will be expanded to other areas of eastern Burma where ceasefires have been agreed.
The aim is to transform them into regions safe for habitation and development by preparing the ground for the return of internally displaced persons (IDPs), aiding the opening of liaison offices for ethnic armies, and creating “community development committees”.
While it has been welcomed by many as a sign that Naypyidaw is willing to allow outsiders in to help rebuild the fragile border regions, the proposal has courted controversy, not least because it comes in the wake of Norway’s decision to end cross-border aid. The estimated $66 million earmarked for the project will be channeled through government-approved groups based out of Rangoon, a decision that will test the trust that armed groups have of any body affiliated with Naypyidaw.
Katja Nordgaard, Norway’s ambassador to Burma, told DVB that Oslo was looking for greater transparency in its aid delivery in the wake of governmental reforms, and would be channeling the funds through NGOs and civil society groups that have existed for years. If some of the border aid groups were to set up offices in Rangoon, then they would also be approached.
The initiative would furthermore be “totally based on the [armed groups’] acceptance” of Norway’s proposals, she said, adding that the funds came in the wake of “demand” from the likes of the Karen National Union (KNU).
The team formed to advise and carry through on the initiative has raised some eyebrows. Heading it is Charles Petrie, who served as UN coordinator for Burma until his expulsion in December 2007 following a statement in which he encouraged the then ruling junta to heed the demands of protestors during the September 2007 uprising.
Also included is Ashley South, who in a report last year for the Dutch NGO, Transnational Institute, wrote that the KNU was “in crisis”, having lost territory and lacking a clear political agenda. The KNU’s permission and support are key to the implementation of the project, which will be rolled out across sections of their territory.
Petrie’s notes in the draft report acknowledge South’s potential for controversy, but state that there is a low risk of the baggage that accompanies his presence jeopardising the initiative, “assuming KNU has no problem with Ash role”.
Zipporah Sein, secretary of the KNU, told DVB that the group was fine with the pilot stage, but “we don’t want them to extend it broader at the moment because we have to wait for a political settlement” between the group and the Burmese government. Nordgaard said that Oslo was “waiting for them to say it’s OK”.
The KNU has agreed to a tentative ceasefire with Naypyidaw, although it is wary of pledging to lay down arms too quickly. The Burmese government has pushed for ethnic armies to agree to truces and allow economic development to take place before any sort of political solution to the root causes of the conflicts is made, something that has been met with resistance from the Kachin Independence Army in the north, which continues to fight.
A member of the team working on the Norway initiative said in an email interview that it was “not an alternative to or substitute for a broad political settlement, which will be necessary to achieve real peace in Myanmar [Burma]”. Instead it would “help communities recover from conflict and build momentum for peace on the ground”.
The report also acknowledges the potential the initiative holds to sideline existing small-scale NGOs and civil society groups who have been working in the border regions for years.
“Given that, in many conflict-affected areas, communities and local organisations … are involved in activities to assist vulnerable populations, there is a risk that international interventions in could [sic] marginalise or distort existing local activities.”
There is also the question of whether the current reformist attitude of the government will last, something acknowledged by Petrie who says that while President Thein Sein and his chief peace broker, Aung Min, “are sincere”, this “does not mean they will be around forever, or able to implement their agenda”.
Indeed, as the case of the Kachin conflict shows, the president has struggled to control frontline troops. One element of the Karen ceasefire is the withdrawal of Burmese soldiers from areas close to KNU territory, but according to Zipporah Sein, this is not happening. The consequences of that intransigence will affect conditions for returning IDPs, which is the main element of the Norway initiative for Karen state.
“Areas where IDPs have to move are where the Burmese army camps are located – many outposts have not been removed. We have to wait and discuss this before [agreeing to their return],” she said.
Accusations that the initiative is being used by Naypyidaw as a bargaining chip with which to persuade armed groups to sign ceasefires have also circulated, as has suspicions concerning Norway’s motives. The Norwegian government, long a supporter of Burma’s pro-democracy movement, was the first country to drop independent sanctions on the country last month, and has spoken of its desire to invest in Burma.
Nordgaard said however that there was “absolutely no interest in the border regions” where Burma holds vast natural resource capabilities. “I’m sure there are Norwegian businesses that want to move into Burma, because [Norway] sees investment as means to create jobs and growth, but this has nothing to [do] with [the peace initiative]”, she said, adding that it would “take a long time” before the likes of Karen state are fit for Norwegian investment.
Norway’s deputy foreign minister Torgeir Larsen will visit Burma next week and is likely to travel to Karen state. Nordgaard said he would aim to meet with IDPs and assess the current situation with regards to the initiative.