India lays waste to Burma's untouched rivers

JJ Kim

Nov 10, 2009 (DVB), A new transport system connecting North East India with the sea via western Burma will damage the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians and one of the world's few remaining untouched rivers.

The bleak assessment was today laid down in a report released by the Arakan Rivers Network (ARN). For years India has been trying to find a stronger travel route to Southeast Asia and a way to connect the landlocked area of North East India with the sea and the rest of the country. The Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project, as it has become known, seems to be the solution to both.

A highway will firstly connect Mizoram province in North East India with Kaletwa, in Burma's northwestern Chin state. From there, goods will be taken down the Kaladan River by boat to Arakan state's capital, Sittwe, where they can be taken across the Andaman Sea to Kolkata or elsewhere. The port and sea route are also likely to be used for shipments arriving from the rest of Southeast Asia via Rangoon.

While it will bring vast profits for the Burmese military regime, the project is expected to lead to the rapid depletion of already scarce food supplies, and impose heavy restrictions on local trade.

The report predicts that millions of people could see rapid degradation of their food supplies as the coast near Sittwe and 225 kilometres of the Kaladan River are excessively dredged. The river, lined with the homes of approximately one million people, is for many a key source of water, fish and crabs, and is surrounded by paddy fields. This is of particular concern now due to a regional famine, which has steadily worsened since 2007, and which has caused many to leave their homes.

A need for higher security, which the regime has told the Indian government it will "provide gratis", has already meant mass militarisation in the region. More than 25 new military checkpoints have been deployed along the river in just three years, and merchants travelling along the waterway have complained of extortion from soldiers. This has meant serious restrictions on local business, especially in Paletwa and Kyauk Taw townships in and around the upper part of the river.

According to Lunn Htain, spokesperson for the Democratic Party of Arakan (DPA) and long-time military observer in the region, soldiers at these points "demand money from merchants selling things like dried fish and domestic products. Three years ago they made good profits along this waterway but now this is possible and they have lost a lot."

The regime's "self-reliance policy", which forces all military battalions to support themselves independently, has also led to high rates of extortion. "Most of the soldiers there are staying in the villages, not in their camps," Lunn Htain explained. "Therefore, local villagers must support them with water and chickens. They give six chicken cages per village once a month."

For thousands of years the people of Arakan and Chin state have depended on the river as their main means of travel. Unlike most parts of the world, this has barely changed since the invention of the automobile as very few roads have been built in the area. Today therefore, traders of goods such as rice, fish, meat and firewood still totally rely on their waterways to keep their businesses afloat and thus feed their families.

According to ARN's director, Aung Marm Oo, "Arakanese people rely heavily on rivers for fishing and farming; rivers are crucial arteries for regional trade in fish and agriculture, as well as the transportation of local people, since the state lacks good roads".

"If developments on the Kaladan and Laymro rivers go forward, local businesses will be severely harmed and hundreds of acres of cultivated land along the rivers will have to be abandoned."

Indian company Essar, one of the companies shortlisted for the project, is also drilling for oil in numerous locations along the river. It is likely that much of this oil will be shipped upstream to North East India and via Sittwe to Kolkatta, which could threaten river-based habitats further.

Despite the project's numerous damaging implications, politicians and businessmen in India, the world's second fastest growing economy, see the project in a very different light. For many of them, the $US120 million transport system will open up a vast wealth of business opportunities, allowing companies to trade with Southeast Asia and China much more cheaply and efficiently than ever before. It is also a key step forward for India in a continual struggle for political influence in the region.

In 1992, the Indian government announced its "Look East Policy", aiming to strengthen ties between the country and its eastern counterparts. The policy materialised as a series of political initiatives and trade negotiations. Due to its geographical position, Burma quickly became the centre of many of these negotiations and – despite its horrific human rights record – India began investing heavily.

According to Kim from Shwe Gas Campaign-India, lead author of "Unfair Deal", an in-depth analysis of India and Burma's relationship, "the main reasons for the project are to counter China’s influence in the region, to connect with Southeast Asian nations, and suppress North East insurgency groups which are based in Burma". As well as recently becoming Burma's largest foreign investor, the Chinese government has also built its own seaport off the Arakan coast, in Kyaukphru, just 50 miles from Sittwe.

"India has never have good relations with Pakistan and they are always fighting with Bangladesh. India has bad relations with her neighbours so the government needs to make good relations with Burma," Kim said.

"But their policy on Burma is worrying because it's leading to further human rights abuses. People in India, even in parliament, have no awareness about the situation in Burma. When I tell members of parliament about the human rights abuses caused by Indian companies, they are clueless. Those who know will not raise the issue, especially with people in the northeast."

Lunn Thein also noted that the closer relationship between the countries is likely to cause problems for Arakanese refugees and opposition groups in exile in North East India.

"We are expecting more pressure from the state government because the Burmese authorities will point out that India's enemies are residing in the country. Even though our armed groups are out of India, we have a lot of families there. Some of these refugee families served in the Arakanese revolution and are no longer allowed to live in Burma."

Despite pro-democracy rhetoric and calls for Aung San Suu Kyi's freedom earlier this year, India's government seems to be becoming yet another regional ally of Burma's military regime. Meanwhile, people across Arakan state continue to have no say in decision making processes regarding their homes and see further damage being done to their already strained livelihoods.Regarding this, ARN's message to the Indian government is very clear: "As the largest democratic country in the world, India has a responsibility to defend democratic principles and not support the Burmese military regime." Aung Marm Oo said.

"Therefore, the government must freeze investment in this and all other river development projects in Burma and refrain from further investment until the affected people of Burma can decide on the use of their natural resources through a democratically-elected government without fearing persecution."

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