The Myth of Burma’s New Asian Highway

I just read this photo essay that romanticizes the new Asian Highway in Burma’s Karen State. The author talks of taming a treacherous pass, marking the end of an era, and above all the progress represented by shorter travel times, smooth pavement, and tourists pedaling a tandem bicycle. But the relationship between the new highway and renewed armed conflict is dismissed in a quick paragraph. The other side of the story is that investors eager to boost international trade pushed through a mega-project in a conflict zone without proper human rights or environmental safeguards. Highway construction in Karen State has directly fueled armed conflict, human rights violations, and civilian displacement. It has further undermined the already flawed peace process by bolstering central government/military control of a lucrative trade route in a contested area, and villagers are caught in the middle.  Is being afraid to send your kids to school because it was recently hit by artillery fire simply the cost poor farmers must pay for “development”? What good is a shorter travel time to the city if you lose your land without compensation and must always live in fear of running for your life if a new clash breaks out? The narrative promoted here and elsewhere is a common myth, of the primacy of development. That by flattening the mountains and paving the jungle poverty will magically be erased. That by allowing big rigs to ply a route from Kolkata to Bangkok poor villagers along the way will somehow reap trickle-down benefits. That by implementing top-down infrastructure projects, peace will somehow descend upon the world’s longest running civil war.  This myth is failing the villagers of Burma’s borderlands, as large scale projects throughout the country have exacerbated conflict and human rights violations. It is high time to pursue alternative strategies that address the root causes of conflict and poverty rather than imposing an outside of vision of economic growth at all costs. New roads and infrastructure development could do a lot of good in Burma, but political solutions for peace and human rights should come first.


Election Reflection

Skimming the impressive deluge of media coverage of today’s election in Burma, I was struck by one word that kept popping up – historic. Did all the journalists secretly agree in advance on which buzzwords to use? In the month I’ve spent in the country in the lead up to voting day, there has certainly been mounting excitement, a sense of history in the making. Even in remote villages in the Tenasserim hills I noticed campaign signs in front of every other house, trucks jostling along the bumpy dirt road each day, blaring campaign messages over crackly loudspeakers, and clusters of villagers excitingly discussing the candidates whenever they could.

I spent Election Day itself in Bilugyun, a flourishing island the size of Singapore and home to 200,000 Mon people at the mouth of the Salween River near Moulmein. Although my hosts were skeptical as to whether this election would actually improve anything for ethnic peoples who have been marginalized by both the government and opposition, when they returned from casting their votes at a nearby school they easily slipped into an atmosphere of jubilation. Having been denied the right to vote for so long, they enthusiastically took photos of their purple-ink-stained pinkies, and laughed loudly about recent campaign antics as we snacked on papaya, sticky rice, and samosas.

It’s important to celebrate this hopeful milestone, and I share in the joy of so many first-time voters. But I’m also disappointed in the media and international community’s narrow overemphasis on whether or not election day itself can be called “free and fair.” They seem to forget that this moment has been carefully planned by Burma’s military junta for years, and no matter how big of a landslide the NLD wins by, the constitution ensures they can do little to pry control of the government and economy out of the grips of the generals. And by presenting this one day as the ultimate gauge for reform in Burma, we risk losing sight of the bigger picture of violence, repression, and persecution that has plagued the country in the lead up to November 8 and shows no sign of abating afterwards.

Election season in Burma will indeed go down in history, but mostly for the wrong reasons. The last month has seen record numbers of refugees and IDPs fleeing fresh military offensives in Shan State, the systematic disenfranchisement of Rohingya and Muslim candidates and voters, and unfair arrests of activists for harmless Facebook posts. How does this create the conditions for “free and fair” by any means? Are we really meant to believe that simply having enough monitors to watch the polling stations will mean things in Burma are OK? Truly free and fair elections in Burma will of course be a crucial ingredient to achieving democracy somewhere down the road. But in the meantime, perhaps we can harness the world’s increased attention to Burma at this moment to move our collective focus beyond flashy elections headlines, and instead start seriously calling out Burma’s ongoing human rights violations.

Indigenous Resistance in Dawei

IMG_3557This post is in honor of the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, marked today, August 9.

After more than an hour’s bumpy drive in a minivan from Dawei town in Southern Burma, I found myself high in the lush Tanintharyi hills, pleasantly sipping tea with the abbot of Kalone Htar Monastery as we took shelter from the relentless rain. The journey there took us winding along a steep river valley, where I caught fleeting glimpses of frothy rapids down below as our driver skillfully negotiated ruts and puddles on the narrow red-clay track. Originally, the indigenous Tavoyan villagers of previously isolated Kalone Htar welcomed this road when Italian-Thai Development Company (ITD) came to build it in 2011, thinking it was for their benefit. What they didn’t know was that ITD intended to put Kalone Htar, all 180 households, underwater.

In 2008, ITD launched its plans for the Dawei Special Economic Zone (DSEZ), a monstrous project which would include a deep seaport, oil refinery, steel mill, fertilizer and petrochemical plant, pulp and paper processing plant, medium and light industry factories, and electricity generation on the Dawei coast. The project is largely viewed as an attempt by Thailand to export its dirty industries across the border to Burma, where decades of violent conflict, corruption, media censorship, oppression of civil society, and weak environmental governance mean abusive projects can be easily pushed ahead. But the project proponents may have underestimated people power in Dawei.

In September 2014, The Dawei Development Association released Voices from the Ground, which sharply criticizes the project’s preliminary construction, documenting its devastating impacts on indigenous Karen and Tavoyan villagers who have lost their land and livelihoods without their Free, Prior, and Informed Consent, and without receiving proper compensation. Since then, the media can’t seem to make up its mind whether or not full construction of the DSEZ, which has struggled to secure investment, will move ahead with newly promised Japanese backing.

The Kalone Htar villagers must also have posed an unwelcome and unexpected shock to ITD’s dirty moneymaking scheme. ITD’s real intention of building that road was to construct a 100-meter high dam on the Kalone Htar River (also known as Thlaiya River), creating a reservoir to supply water to the DSEZ, and inundating the homes and orchards of 1,000 people in the process. But when ITD slyly approached villagers for their signatures, without providing any information about the project or resettlement process, they simply refused – not once or twice but four times – even when pressured by police and government officials. Led by the village abbot, they have organized protests against forced resettlement, petitioned the government, launched a “No Dam” hot air balloon, and destroyed company propaganda.

For now, their efforts appear to have worked, and plans for the Kalone Htar dam are on hold. Villagers fighting other abusive mega-projects have visited from across Burma to learn how an indigenous community can actually win against these seemingly unstoppable projects. But the abbot says he’s worried that village unity against the dam will be cracked, as ITD attempts to splinter the community, convincing some that the project will bring needed economic development, and resettlement sites will be better than their current situation. We know from experience in Burma and around the world that these promises by project developers to indigenous communities are usually lies, and so the abbot plans to hold strong in his resistance, calling for no dam, and no resettlement. Meanwhile, Kalone Htar villagers are taking charge of their own vision for development, working with local community organizations to bring ecotourism to their beautiful hot springs and waterfalls.

Understanding of indigenous rights is sparse and controversial in Burma, though a recent joint submission to the Universal Periodic Review of the country’s human rights record aims to change that. Indigenous and ethnic communities in Burma and around the world are constantly fighting the same battles, again and again, to preserve their livelihoods and way of life in the face of mega-dams, mining, and other forms of development violence. We would do well to support their calls to intensify defense of their lands, territories, and resources. A good place to start is with the Tavoyan abbot’s simple request: make the cause of preserving the Kalone Htar River as famous as the campaign to save the Irrawaddy.

Everything is Political (in Burma)

In the closing plenary of last weekend’s Burma Studies conference at Chiang Mai University, a panelist explained how the  Asia Foundation strives to produce research that is technical and apolitical – that doesn’t push any sort of normative agenda. On the surface, this seems like a valid goal. Of course research should be independent, grounded in facts, and sound in methodology. But it is impossible for such research to be apolitical, because EVERYTHING is political, especially in Burma. Simply the words researchers use (Burma v. Myanmar; Kayin v. Karen; ethnic rebels v. resistance) indicate the particular politics underlining their work. In a deeply divided country torn apart by military dictatorship, civil war, religious discrimination and destructive development, to be apolitical is to be indifferent. Indeed, apolitical research can be seen as code for research that studies the status quo, identifying non-controversial ways to make small changes within the system rather than radical ways to change the entire system.

Those doing apolitical research are almost certainly doing so in partnership with a wholly illegitimate government, legitimizing its horrendous ongoing military campaigns and repressive political tactics. For decades, ethnic civil society in Burma has been advocating for a political solution towards peace, sustainable resource governance, human rights, and democracy: ethnic self-determination as part of a decentralized federal union. International actors flocking to Burma have a moral responsibility to support this political goal, through their research, funding, and political influence. It would be deplorable to quietly do “apolitical” research while villages in Kachin, Shan, and Karen States burn, and thousands of civilians flee from the Burma government’s acts of terror.

Months earlier, a Karen civil society leader asked a representative of the Asian Development Bank what the ADB would do to support political solutions to ethnic grievances. In response, the ADB rep replied along the lines of: “We are not a political organization, we are a technical, development organization.” This points to a broader problem of the depoliticization of development worldwide, where the fight against poverty has been subverted by corporate interests to, again, promote small changes within the system rather than radical ways to change the entire system. Hence, we see development agencies touting a neoliberal agenda of free trade, liberalized markets, economic growth, couched in the deceptive language of poverty reduction and sustainable development. Meanwhile, initiatives that would actually reduce poverty such as promoting human rights, empowering community-based solutions, and securing access to justice have been coopted. They are used as mere window dressing by the powerful development actors to distract us from the massive profit making happening at the expense of the global poor. In the development world, apolitical is code for a failed neoliberal ideology.

So when the ADB proposes road construction as a technical, non-political poverty reduction measure in conflict-torn Karen State, it erases the entire lived experience of local communities who suffered the political consequences of past road building. Roads have not brought goods and services to the Karen people, but rather access for the abusive Burma military into their area. So roads bring violence, displacement, militarization, forced labor, rape, and rampant resource extraction. More than that, they give the central Burma government political control of ethnic territory, dashing hope for self-determination. So to present road-building in Burma as apolitical is either dishonest or naive. It reveals the ADB’s fundamental misinterpretation of the causes of poverty in Karen State. The Karen people aren’t poor because they don’t have trade or economic growth, they are poor because they have fled ethnic cleansing, lived their lives as refugees and IDPs, and seen their land and resources stolen piece by piece.  Meanwhile, the ADB-backed Asian Highway project has already sparked renewal of conflict in Karen State, undermining fragile peace building efforts and putting the very population they purport to serve in jeopardy.

For both think tanks and development agencies coming to Burma, claiming non-politicalness is really quite the political project. Of course, being overtly political isn’t easy, as you leave your underlying worldview open to critique. Political problems are messy and complicated and hard. But we have an obligation to grapple with them, rather than avoid them under the guise of solving technical problems. After all, nobody is going to find a technical solution to achieve genuine peace in Burma.

Water on my mind

I’m driving down the highway in Chiang Mai on my automatic scooter when BAM water hits my face. At this speed it feels like a vicious rain of sharp pebbles and I struggle to keep my balance for a moment. The next day I exact my revenge, sitting in the bed of a pickup truck sloshing buckets of ice-water on innocent passersby, their shocked squeals filling the air as throngs of drunken locals and tourists revel around the Old City’s moat. This is Songkran, Thailand’s Buddhist New Year. What was once celebrated as a traditional water pouring ceremony to honor one’s elders and wash away one’s misfortunes from the past year has somehow morphed into a terrifically fun, but incredibly dangerous, all-out, water fight.


A creative Songkran setup on the outskirts of Chiang Mai (Jared Naimark)

It’s four years earlier, and I’m partaking in another time-honored tradition celebrating water, leaping half naked into the cool pool of one of the many fountains on Stanford’s pristine campus. It’s hard to resist fountain hopping on a warm sunny day like this one. But now the fountains are dry, as Stanford does its part to conserve now that the California drought has officially become a full-blown crisis and everyone is arguing who to blame – the changing climate, almonds, alfalfa, LA’s apocalyptic suburban and exurban sprawl? All the while Stanford freshmen are suffering a year without their water ceremony.

Dry Riverbed in California, Wikimedia Commons

Dry Riverbed in California (Wikimedia Commons)

There’s also drought in parts of Burma, and I’ve been seeing photos of cracked, parched soil, stranded boats, and long lines of women with collection buckets passed around on social media. Water shortages make survival in Hakha, the capital of Chin State, much more difficult than it already is. And a dry Inle Lake means the country can say goodbye to millions of tourist dollars. Burma is one of the countries most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, predicted to suffer increased frequency and intensity of tropical storms on the one hand, and brutal droughts on the other. Of course, it’s also one of the countries least responsible for carbon emissions from industry and deforestation – though all of that is changing now as the government has granted huge swathes of forest as concessions for palm oil plantations, and is also promoting polluting projects like cement factories and coal-fired power plants.

Meanwhile, the World Bank is busy encouraging Burma to pursue “Sustainable Hydropower,” an idea leveraged by the government to promote unsustainable large dams. Leaving aside all of the other incredibly important reasons why building large dams is an antiquated and destructive idea – it simply doesn’t make sense to build dams in this time of climate change. Reduced water flow as snowpack decreases at the source means that these mega-projects will never deliver on their lofty promises of high electricity generation. They are simply not worth the investment.

Villagers wearing "No Dam" headbands protest against the Salween Dams. (KESAN)

Villagers wearing “No Dam” headbands pray by the river during a  protest against the Salween Dams. (KESAN)

I grew up in a cookie-cutter home in a sprawling suburb in the desert just south of Phoenix, Arizona. My middle school was called Akimel A-al, which we were always told meant “Children of the River,” to which I usually sardonically responded, “What river?” We were in the middle of the desert after all, and all the water I saw was being put to good use filling swimming pools or spraying out of misters to cool patrons outside the local movie theater. I grew up just a few miles from the Gila River Indian Community without learning much about the people who live there, their culture, their history, their struggle – and why their river now runs dry.

It was only years later, when for an anthropology course I researched the Gila River, that I learned about the devastating water grab perpetrated just down the road. In the latter half of the the 19th century white settlers diverted nearly all of the Gila’s waters for their own mining and agricultural uses upstream, leaving the Pima (the name given by the Spanish for the Akimel O’odham people living along the Gila River) irrigation canals dry. This prompted not only massive ecological change, but also rapid devastation of the previously thriving and self-sufficient agricultural economy of the Gila River Pima. Within a matter of a few years, the Pima communities went from being the granary of Arizona to starving, desperate, and poor – leaving their agricultural livelihoods behind and dependent on unhealthy government surplus foods. The theft of their water and subsequent shift away from physically intensive agricultural livelihoods , and away from healthy, traditional foods, has contributed to a massive obesity and Type II diabetes epidemic in the Gila River Indian Community. More than half of adults on the reservation have diabetes, the highest rate of any population in the world.

Some shred of justice was served in 2004, when an historic water settlement granted the Gila River Pima rights to Colorado River water. Instead of being celebrated, this decision was widely criticized in the media, with accusations that the Pima could never make productive use of this much water, erasing their history of past agricultural success. They were called the new “water czars,” ready to make money off the water at the expense of Southwest city-dwellers.

The Coolidge Dam on the Gila River. After their water was stolen, the starving Pima became poster children to promote big federal projects like this one, which in reality did little to improve their situation, but instead contributed to urban development of the Phoenix area.

The Coolidge Dam on the Gila River. After their water was stolen, the starving Pima became poster children to promote big federal projects like this one, which in reality did little to improve their situation.

I’m travelling upstream on the Salween, the longest free-flowing river in Southeast Asia, Karen flag waving in the breeze. A few small fishing boats whiz by looking for their bounty of the day, but they are overshadowed by the larger boats noisily dredging sand from the river’s bottom for use in construction. We stop at a village on the bank, environmentalists from across Burma joining with local villagers to sing the praises of the Salween’s beauty and diverse ecosystem and heritage. In an unexpected performance art piece, a poet from Rangoon writes in chalk on an umbrella, “Dam Makes Damages” and slowly lifts it above is head, blowing and drawing two chords repeatedly on a harmonica, and then dramatically drops the umbrella. We draw an outline of Burma’s borders on the sandy bank of the Salween, each person placing a flower to trace the Salween’s course from Shan State, down through Karenni, Karen, Mon, and out into the Andaman sea.

With five mega-dams planned by the Burmese government with investment from China and Thailand, and dozens more planned upstream in China, millions of indigenous people are at risk of losing the precious water that supports their culture and way of life. In a time when old, destructive dams are being removed in the US, Burma plans to build more – but the plans are riddled with corruption and secrecy. The peoples of the Salween basin have no chance to make their own decisions about how best to manage their river. Instead they are forced to flee at gunpoint, to live as refugees in Thailand and China, so the areas are cleared of resistance for the dam builders.

Salween River Sunset in Hpa-an (Jared Naimark)

Salween River Sunset in Hpa-an (Jared Naimark)

For a resource so crucial to life on Earth, and so celebrated by cultures around the world, we sure do a terrible job of managing our fresh water.

Trying to reflect when #ICantBreathe

Reading how police officers Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo have gotten off scot-free for murdering unarmed black civilians has left me sad and outraged. Being in Thailand, I feel like I’ve been too far removed from events at home to really process them. Little opportunity to discuss, vent, listen, learn, and funnel anger into action. So many people can speak much more powerfully to this issue than I can, but I want to share three things I’ve been thinking about. I hope you’ll respond and let me know what you think.

1) About a month ago I attended a peaceful land rights protest in Chiang Mai to show my support to farmers, many of whom belong to ethnic minority groups, who are facing eviction by oppressive Thai government policies. The military is currently controlling the government of Thailand, and under martial law, public protests are banned. About 100 armed soldiers showed up to stop the protest, and a few activists were briefly detained. But after some tense negotiations, protest leaders agreed to a meeting with government officials who would hear their demands, and to call off the protest march (for now). Though the Thai military showed up to shut down this protest, the response was far less MILITARIZED than the response to peaceful protesters in Ferguson and around the United States. This is not to say that the Thai military has not committed atrocious crimes while suppressing anti-junta protests here, because it has. But it’s utterly unacceptable that local police forces in the US, that have been using tear gas, guns, and armored vehicles to shut down peaceful protests, are more militarized than an actual military.

2) People are racist, and we need to do everything in our power to combat that racism. But we also need to remember that racism is systemic, and is being perpetuated and used as a tool by those in power to keep power. In the United States, look no farther than the (Private) Prison-Industrial Complex. In Burma, look no farther than the anti-Rohingya propaganda spread by the government to foment unrest and thus keep its grip on power, maintaining control over valuable natural resources. Racism and violence all over the world are part of a system that puts profits over people, and as human rights activists, we need to find ways to dismantle that system. A good way to start would be holding police officers accountable for murder.

3) I am incredibly inspired by the hundreds of Stanford students who have taken action in the midst of Thanksgiving break and finals. Seeing this kind of cohesive movement at my university, one with the power to shut down the 101 freeway, has given me energy to fight for justice in my work here. Keep up the good work.

Justice for Michael Brown. Justice for Eric Garner. Black Lives Matter.

Democratizing the Ivory Tower

Photo on display at the Salween Studies conference

Photo on display at the Salween Studies conference

“Academic research is sometimes like extractive industry”

As moderator Jeff Rutherford spoke these words at the recent Salween-Thanlwin-Nu Studies conference at Chiang Mai University, you could sense the cringes hiding behind smiling eyes in the crowded hall. Academic researchers studying the longest free-flowing river in Southeast Asia don’t necessarily like having their work compared to the very industry that threatens the Salween. But the comparison is apt to describe conventional academic research. Anne Campbell writes about what “extractive research” means for development research in Uganda: “many graduate students come to Uganda to learn something and then go home.  The results of their investigations benefit them: measured by finished dissertations, publications, or reports which might translate into promotions at work.  In sum, results that contribute to no Ugandan life directly.” The problem here isn’t that researchers are benefiting, but that they are using local people, extracting local knowledge, claiming it as their own, and not giving credit or giving back in any meaningful way.

The same might be said of academic research on Burma’s Salween basin, if much had been done there. Decades of violent conflict have left the region inaccessible to Ph.D students and their professors, resulting in a dearth of academic extraction. But empty university bookshelves do not mean there is a void of Salween knowledge.  On the contrary, the residents of Burma’s Salween basin understand the river better than any outside academic researcher ever can, because it is their home. 

They have long been producing knowledge about its biodiversity, economic value, agricultural potential, and history. Passed down in oral histories, spiritual traditions, farming and fishing practices – this complex web of traditional ecological knowledge has rarely been made legible to the academy.  The protracted conflict, with its tragic scale of death and displacement, has destroyed much of this local knowledge, but it has also protected it from the extractive researcher’s microscopes, video cameras, and mapping software.

Salween Studies was an inspirational effort to address the problems with extractive research, and open up spaces for local voices. Indeed, Vanessa Lamb set the tone for the conference by explaining that despite their representation as helpless victims in the media and pop culture (Rambo IV), Salween peoples have agency. And throughout the conference academics and civil society representatives stressed the importance of meaningful local engagement in research and decision making. In one panel, Teerapong Pomun spoke openly about the disconnect between academic and local knowledge production, saying “Local people define their ecologies differently than modern environmental scientists.” He proposed promoting grassroots research, done for local communities by local communities, as a solution to amplify those “marginal ecologies” which are too often obscured by academic extraction and interpretation.

Salween Studies even boasted a panel discussion featuring grassroots researchers from the basin. One villager from Burma’s Karen State discussed his findings on fish diversity in the Salween, based on studies conducted in his home village. This data is invaluable for the fight against large dams on the river, but for him the importance of supporting grassroots research lay not only in the data collection, but also in the resulting empowerment. He described, how with increased environmental awareness from his fish research, he also helped to organize villagers in opposition to a proposed cement factory nearby. The networks created by grassroots research lead to action in a way that academic research rarely does – by empowering individuals and communities.

Further to the credit of Salween Studies, the conference hosted at least a dozen people from Salween communities. Passionate young people from Mon, Karen, and Karenni States had a chance to raise youth concerns in a plenary session – notably one of the only times at the conference where issues of conflict, violence, and drug addiction in the Salween basin were a central concern. Throughout the weekend I felt a buzz of excitement about how Salween Studies, by amplifying grassroots voices, was changing the norm for academic study. Making it less extractive, and more participatory.

But still, there were enormous challenges in opening up the space to grassroots voices. The simple logistics of bringing villagers out to Chiang Mai was a major hurdle, and once they got there not everything went smoothly. During coffee breaks, English speaking lawyers and researchers traded business cards (as did I if I’m being honest), while villagers from Burma mostly kept to themselves. Though simultaneous translation was excellent, there were inevitably awkward moments where the translator couldn’t keep up or batteries were dead in a headset. Audience members asked inappropriately technical questions to nervous youth activists on stage, and outsiders dominated a break-out discussion on next steps for grassroots & civil society. In the rush to close up the conference and clean up, I’m not sure anyone thought to ask what the visiting Salween villagers thought of the whole thing.

So – what does this mean for democratizing science and avoiding extractive research? The Salween Studies conference was quite successful in encouraging local participation. But it also seems that the university, as a space, just isn’t designed to engage honestly and equally with local communities. Maybe that’s why, in the closing of the conference, youth activists from the basin opted to present their ‘next steps’ not from the stage, but from the side of the room, “to shift the center of power.”

But how do we maintain that power shift? I’m not totally sure, and I’m grappling with all of this as a recent grad from a university with a literal ivory tower, so I probably don’t have the right to propose solutions.  But I do have a responsibility to listen to the local and marginalized people who do.