Japan told to gauge human cost of dam

Japan should investigate abuses surrounding the construction of a dam inBurma’s eastern Karenni state before considering whether to resume its financial backing of the project, environmental groups warn.

During a visit to Tokyo in October, Burmese Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin was told by his Japanese counterpart Koichiro Gemba that the resumption in aid to Burma after years of reticence from Tokyo may include rehabilitation support for the ageing 168 MW Lawpita Hydropower Plant No.2.

The Thailand-based Burma Rivers Network says however that the by-products of the dam’s construction, which have dogged the more than 40 other hydropower projects inBurma, must be addressed before Japan signs on the dotted line.

“Over 12,000 people were forced from their homes by the Lawpita project. Thousands of Burma army soldiers came in to secure the project, resulting in abuses against the local population including forced labour, sexual violence, and extrajudicial killings,” said in a statement.

“Water use was prioritized for the power plants, causing water shortages and destructive floods that destroyed crops. Today there are an estimated 18,000 landmines surrounding the power plants and pylons. Despite these costs, still today 80 percent of the local population has no access to electricity, as most is sent to central Burma.”

Tokyo has an historical stake in the project, which began in the 1950s with funding from Japanese reparations after World War Two.

But with the cancellation in September of the China-backed Myitsone dam in northern Burma, anti-dam sentiment among Burmese is growing. Sai Sai, head of the Burma Rivers Network, told DVB that antipathy towards energy projects in Burma is compounded by the requisite militarisation of areas around dam sites.

“Conflict is still ongoing in some areas in the [Lawpita region] and thousands of landmines were laid as security measures. This is a violation of the rights of the local population as these mines restrict them from moving freely and cause difficulties for their livelihood.”

Japan claims its decision to resume Official Development Assistance (ODA) to Burma stems from the new government’s apparently reformist intentions, although protestors in Tokyo picketed the foreign ministry in protest at Wunna Maung Lwin’s visit.

Human Rights Watch also had words for the Japanese government. Its Tokyo director, Kanae Doi, said last month: “Japan should not be seduced into thinking that Burma’s recent announcements and gestures are sufficient when abuses continue in ethnic areas and many hundreds of political prisoners remain behind bars.”

Following a visit to Burma by Vice Foreign Minister Makiko Kikuta in June, Japanese press suggested the resumption of aid would focus on medical assistance in the field of malaria prevention and tuberculosis, agricultural assistance, and the potential training of Burmese in Japan.

Japan is also pushing its relations with Burma in a bid stem China’s growing regional clout, particularly in light of China’s decision to block exports of rare earth metals to Japan, which are vital for its technologies sector. Both Japan and South Korea have bid to explore for rare earths in Burma.

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