DEVELOPMENT: South-east Asian Highway Hits Roadblock in Burma

  • by Marwaan Macan-Markar (bangkok)
  • Tuesday, August 31, 2010
  • Inter Press Service

The still-to-be-built 40-kilometre stretch to go across the mountain in military-ruled Burma is key to making the Asian Development Bank’s (AsDB) East-West Corridor a reality. It is part of the Manila-based bank’s 1,450-km long highway, billed to facilitate easier transport of goods and services across mainland South-east Asia.

The planned road will link the already completed 18-km road and a 200-km highway on either side of the mountain in that corner of Burma, also known as Myanmar. The AsDB’s blueprint seeks to connect the Burmese port city of Moulmein, on the Andaman Sea, with the Vietnamese city of Da Nang, on the coast of the South China Sea.

But this short distance of asphalt will test the bank’s commitment to keeping environmental and social costs to a minimum in the projects that are part of the economic integration agenda of its Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) Programme.

'The area they have chosen to build the road is a part of the mountain with forests and wildlife,' said Naing Htoo, Burma project coordinator for Earthrights International, a U.S-based green lobby. 'It will result in increasing logging of teak and killing wildlife.'

In addition, the ethnic Karen who live in the area where the road will run through feat that it would make it easier for more Burmese troops to come in to combat the Karen National Union, a rebel force that has been waging a separatist war for six decades.

'The Dawna mountain area has a KNU presence and bringing in Burmese troops will result in more militarisation and abuse,' Naing Htoo told IPS. 'There are already signs of such violations, as land owned by locals close to the road’s route has been confiscated.'

For now, concerns that road construction will also result in rights violations such as forced labour, which the Burmese regime has been accused of, appears unfounded. 'Since February 2007 some 430 (forced labour) complaints have been received from all over the country, however no complaints have been received alleging forced labour in respect to the East-West corridor highway project,' Steve Marshall, head of the International Labour Organisation’s Burma office, told IPS.

The AsDB is taking cover behind its non-involvement in providing direct funds to Burma to sidestep the questions that environmentalists and human rights activists are raising about the road across the Dawana range. The bank has stopped development funding in Burma for the past two decades due to the country’s financial and political troubles.

'ADB has not provided any direct assistance to Myanmar for over 20 years, and ADB has no plans to provide any new direct assistance to Myanmar,' said Pradeep Srivastava, a senior regional cooperation specialist at the bank, in an e- mail interview. 'Since ADB does not operate in Mynamar, questions about the East-West Economic Corridor or other matters within the country can be best answered by officials in Myanmar.'

Likewise, any hint of a policy change by the bank to fund an infrastructure project in Burma would be met by opposition from the United States and the European Union (EU), which enjoy sufficient clout in the AsDB’s operations.

'Infrastructure development in a conflict area like the highway project is certain to be met by strong opposition from the U.S. government and many EU countries,' said Yuki Akimoto, co-director of the Tokyo-based Burma Information Network — Japan, which monitors the work of international financial institutions. 'It may be difficult to abide by the ADB’s own environmental and social safeguard policies.'

'The Burma stretch is key to the realisation of the East- West Economic Corridor,' she said in an interview. 'The ADB has been encouraging other entities to help build that stretch. As such, Thailand has been helping build part of the highway and Japan has been very keen on it, too.'

The bank’s GMS programme began in 1992 to promote economic growth in the six countries that share the Mekong River, South-east Asia’s largest body of water. These are Burma, Cambodia, China, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.

By 2005, over 10 billion U.S. dollars worth of investments had poured in to finance the building of roads, bridges, airports, seaports, power lines and hotels across this sub-region. Loans for the transport sector from the bank and other funders topped that amount, accounting for nearly half, or 4.8 billion U.S. dollars.

But projects such as the transport corridor will have 'costs that go with the project,' said Avilash Roul, executive director of the NGO Forum on the ADB, a Manila- based watchdog of the bank. 'Based on its studies, the ADB admits that the road project will increase the threat of communicable diseases such as HIV/AIDS, avian flu, human and wildlife trafficking, and degradation of environment and natural resources.'

'From the ground, local communities claim that they were not consulted about the project,' he explained in an interview, echoing a complaint that villagers in the Burma stretch of the transport corridor have made to activists.

'Local communities were never consulted when the first phase of the highway in Myamnar was being built and they have not been approached for the phase across the mountain,' said Naing Htoo. 'Workers in rubber plantations and fruit farmers have lost their livelihoods.'

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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