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June 25, 2009 (DVB), Six villages located near the proposed site of a hydropower plant in Burma's western Arakan state have been displaced by Burmese military, with added concerns that civilians nearby will be forced to help build the plant.
The villages, near to Buthidaung township, are home to the Khami ethnic group, whose numbers are reportedly "very low already", according to the All Arakan Student and Youth Congress (AASYC), who have been monitoring the plant's impact on the local area.
This is one of several times that the project has been attempted at the area close to the Sai Dan waterfall, and given the influx of army troops and construction materials, villagers reportedly are confident that this one will go ahead.
Original plans for the plant date back to 1952, but any initial attempts at construction were thwarted by the murder of a Japanese construction worker by the then ruling U Nu government.
According to JJ Kim, from the AASYC's Anti-River Development Campaign, further forced relocation of Khami away from their land will means that "it is quite likely that a lot of the cultural heritage will be lost".
Concerns about locals being forced to help build the plant stem from the construction last year of the nearby Zee Chaung dam on the Kaladan river, which reportedly involved the use of 150 unpaid labourers per day, including children.
"We strongly expect that to happen with the Sai Dan plant as well," Wistreich said.
Cases of forced labour and other such human rights abuses are commonly documented during construction projects in Burma.
International watchdogs monitoring the development of a gas pipeline to China, which will begin its course in Arakan state, say that intense militarization along the pipeline contribute to cases of forced labour and land confiscation.
"Overall, I think there’s a consistent pattern that local people are not regarded as stakeholders in these projects, they are regarded as obstacles," said Matthew Smith of advocacy group EarthRights International (ERI).
"For other projects, there seems to be a consistent pattern; the military moves in and there is forced labour, forced relocation, land confiscation, no compensation, and local villages lose their land."
It is rumoured that the Burmese military has also banned the use of bamboo in forests surrounding the Sai Dan waterfall which local villagers are dependent on.
"It's particularly dangerous at this time of year because it's the rainy season" said AASYC, relating to the use of bamboo by locals to support their homes during heavy rains.
The military has apparently claimed that the power produced will be used in Arakan state, although there are doubts to whether this is true.
"There are definitely reasons to be concerned, especially when we’re talking about revenues which are generated from the people’s natural resources," said Smith.
Wistreich said it was "quite likely" that the majority of the income will be used for military means.
Reporting by Daniella Nayu