Among the tens of thousands to have fled escalating conflict in Burma’s border regions this year were some 50 labourers working for Ital-Thai, the Bangkok-based construction giant behind what is set to become Southeast Asia’s largest industrial complex. The men had been toiling on a highway connecting the Thai town of Kanchanaburi to Tavoy in southern Burma, whose strategically vital location on the western side of the isthmus shared by both countries has set the mouths of Southeast Asian governments watering.
Billions of dollars are being pumped into the venture and 250 square kilometres of land are being transformed into a city of petrochemical and gas separation plants, plastics factories and an enormous deep-sea port. Major road and rail routes will link the port to regional economies hungry for greater trade with Europe and India, particularly China, whose traditional sea passage through the Strait of Malacca and into the South China Sea is increasingly vulnerable to foreign sabotage.
Burma: a goldmine
But like the myriad other infrastructure and energy projects that scar Burma’s rivers and landscapes, huge animosity surrounds the Tavoy port. The workers who fled in late July became the first tangible sign that resistance to the project may well take on a military form, after their construction camp was hit by shelling from the rebel Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), which controls pockets of territory along Burma’s border with Thailand. Although the KNLA claimed the shelling had been intended for a Burmese army column, the head of its political wing, the Karen National Union, was explicit about the antipathy it holds towards foreign business in Burma: shortly after the incident, Zipporah Sein referred to Ital-Thai as a ‘military dictatorship-backed company’ and warned that the KNLA ‘will not take responsibility for [workers’] security.’
The absence of environmental regulations has combined with abundant natural resources to make Burma a goldmine for neighbouring countries
The absence of environmental regulations has combined with abundant natural resources to make Burma a goldmine for neighbouring countries, few of whom have demonstrated a principled response to growing evidence that conflict there is intrinsically tied to its energy capabilities, and their demands for it. Fuelling much of this is China, whose soaring energy demands have seen Burma’s rivers, topographically well-suited to hydropower, carved up by more than 40 dams, nearly all of which are financed by Bejiing. One of these, the Myitsone Dam in Kachin state in the north, will become the world’s 15th largest, flooding an area the size of New York City and displacing 15,000 people. All of the output will go to southern China’s Yunnan province, exacerbating resentment among Burmese, only 20 per cent of whom have regular access to electricity.
Like the Tavoy project, the Myitsone Dam and many others like it have become focal points of the fighting that has raged in Kachin state since June, when Burmese troops attacked the Kachin Independence Army following its refusal to bow to demands to become a government-controlled border force.
China is increasingly exporting its megaprojects abroad, with Burma and its lax environmental laws making it an enticing destination
Burmese President Thein Sein is well aware that, in the face of US and EU sanctions, the future of his administration depends heavily on the economic crutch provided by sales of energy to neighbours – particularly China, but also Thailand and, increasingly, India. All-out offensives underway in the border regions are aimed at clearing them of potential saboteurs, and finally ending historic attempts by ethnic groups for autonomy.
A major byproduct of this has been the creation of hundreds of thousands of refugees, the majority of whom either flee from their homes into the surrounding countryside, or cross the border into China and Thailand. At least half a million internally displaced persons (IDPs) are estimated to be in eastern Burma alone, while nearly 150,000 populate the nine camps across the border in Thailand. China has also seen two major influxes in the past two years resulting directly from government efforts to eliminate rebels in Burma’s north. Studies show a close correlation between energy projects and areas of displacement, such as the Hatgyi Dam in Karen state or Hsipaw in Shan state, through which the trans-Burma oil and gas pipelines will pass en route to China.
A UN report in June found that Burma was the world’s fifth-highest source country for refugees, above Colombia and Sudan, where the ties that bind conflict to natural resources have been more closely analysed. Except for a handful of astute observations, most reporting on the conflict in Burma has not made this link explicit.
Shouldering the burden
The burden that Burma is being forced to shoulder is one that neighbouring countries could help carry but, through civilian resistance, are less inclined to: the Tavoy project, although dwarfing it in size, bears a strong similarity to the Maptaphut industrial complex and deep-sea port in Thailand, which independent experts claim has contributed to its home province’s unhealthy distinction as Thailand’s top cancer zone. Years of public lobbying by residents forced 76 companies to temporarily suspend operations there – two of these, the Thai state-owned PTTE oil company and Siam Cement Group, are now setting up shop in Tavoy, perhaps safe in the knowledge that popular protests there will be snuffed out.
Burmese are now joining the dots between localized human rights abuses along the border and a much larger, modern-day Great Game unfolding in Southeast Asia
Similarly China, which has had to grapple with alarming pollution rates that Beijing has admitted could significantly stunt the country’s development, is increasingly exporting its megaprojects abroad, with Burma and its lax environmental laws making it an enticing destination.
The myriad conflicts over Burma’s natural resources point to its rising status as a prized asset in a region where economic interdependence and connectivity are growing. Caught in a tug of war between China and India, both hungry for its bountiful energy capabilities and position as a geographical gateway to the developing economies lying to its east, Burma may well become something of a 21st century battleground for two of the world’s rising superpowers, both of whom are lumbered with colossal populations whose demands for power increasingly dictate the imperatives of their leaders.
The sentiment expressed by the KNLA’s Zipporah Sein suggests, however, that Burmese are now joining the dots between localized human rights abuses along the border and a much larger, modern-day Great Game unfolding in Southeast Asia; furthermore, that the technicians, surveyors and construction workers that fled July’s fighting are the new face of this quasi neo-imperialist conquest, being run by governments whose need for domestic growth is a more pressing concern than the human cost required to achieve it. Perhaps most ominously, however, the changing dynamics of the region have seen the Burmese army emerge as a de facto proxy tasked with policing the investments of neighbouring countries, whose economies are set to race ahead on the produce from these wars whilst leaving thousands, possibly millions, of Burmese struggling in their wake.