On the Thai-Myanmar border – Military control of a road-widening project through ethnic Karen territory in Myanmar’s southeast is in breach of the country’s ceasefire agreement, contributing to renewed fighting and possibly implicating government institutions, Al Jazeera has learned.
The widening of the unpaved road to nearly 10.5 metres from 3.7 metres runs for nearly 40km through territory controlled by the Karen National Union (KNU), one of 10 ethnic armed groups to sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) with the government and military – known as the Tatmadaw – since 2015.
Ethnic Karen groups say that by leading the project, the military has been able to increase troops in KNU territory, move them without securing the KNU’s permission and engage in land grabs.
All of which is prohibited under the terms of the ceasefire.
“That’s why trust-building is ruined,” Saw Tadoh Moo, general secretary of the KNU, said. “With these kinds of activities, how can we trust them?”
The UN Fact Finding Mission on Myanmar has also found human rights violations in relation to infrastructure projects in territories where ethnic minorities have fought for decades for greater autonomy.
In its final report released on Monday, the mission detailed allegations of “firing on and shelling villages, destroying property, injuring civilians and committing violent acts” by the military during road construction in Karen communities.
After decades of civil war, the de-facto head of state Aung San Suu Kyi said in 2016 that Myanmar’s peace process was a top priority for her National League for Democracy (NLD) government. Yet as accusations of ceasefire and rights violations mount, questions have been raised about the NLD administration’s role in the road expansion in Bago Region’s Kyaukkyi Township.
Questions over funding
KNU officials are concerned that funding for the project came from the parliamentary-approved budget for rural development, with implementation delegated to the military.
Bago’s NLD-appointed chief minister Win Thein declined to comment. The region’s environmental minister Saw Nyo Win said that the Kyaukkyi project was not included in road-development-programme lists from the last three fiscal years and suggested that it was actually funded by the military.
The Tatmadaw’s Brigadier-General Zaw Min Tun confirmed military, and government, involvement in the road expansion, but said he did not know who was paying for it.
They told us, 'If you do not allow this road to be built, you will be displaced'.
“The Bago regional government is developing the road for the development of the area,” he said, explaining that the military “knows the place well” and was best positioned to carry out the project. “Since it is for the development of everyone, it shouldn’t be an issue for the peace process,” he added.
Zaw Min Tun confirmed that the Bago chief minister attended a March meeting in Muthe village, outside Kyaukkyi, following protests against the road expansion. Local sources said that Win Thein defended the road as a development project beneficial to the country.
Villagers in the area are not convinced.
“Our message for the chief minister was that we don’t want this road for the army’s activities,” farmer Saw Doh said. “We don’t want the indigenous people to be punished, to have their land destroyed. In my opinion, this road is not being used for development purposes. The Tatmadaw will use it how they want.”
Soon after Win Thein’s visit, officials from the state-level Joint Monitoring Committee, which monitors the peace process and ceasefire also met affected villagers. They urged the local people to support the project.
“They told us, ‘if you do not allow this road to be built, you will be displaced,” Saw Doh said. “The military will force you out. We don’t want you to become displaced people, so please, let them build it.”
The road expansion started after an August 2016 letter, signed by Muthe’s village head and three community representatives, requesting that the military-controlled Ministry of Border Affairs “expand the road for the village’s development”.
A KNU representative in Kyaukkyi said the military had been using the letter to silence opposition to the road, but Al Jazeera has confirmed that at least one of the letter’s signatories did not speak or read Burmese, the language in which the letter was written, raising questions about the legitimacy of the request.
“The KNU did not allow the road construction, but the Tatmadaw continued to do it,” the representative, who preferred to remain anonymous for security reasons, explained.
“The military showed them the letter the villagers had signed and said: ‘Look at this, the villagers need it – that’s why we have to do it.’ But the villagers didn’t understand what was happening.”
Over the next three years, the Tatmadaw brought hundreds of new soldiers to the road site: Field Engineering Battalion 911 to carry out construction, and Light Infantry Battalions 57, 124, 264, among others for security.
If the Tatmadaw doesn't remove their camps, no one will dare to work on their farms
As the road was widened, the construction claimed villagers’ paddy fields. Some 55 people in five villages say they lost land to the road, but were not given any compensation.
Muthe villager Naw Paw Lay saw her two hectares nearly halved, and now her family risks going hungry because they are afraid to plant or tend to their crops as long as the soldiers are there.
“If the Tatmadaw doesn’t remove their camps, no one will dare to work on their farms,” she said.
Fighting ignited in Kyaukkyi this year when the road expansion passed Muthe and continued deeper into KNU territory. In the first half of 2019, locals documented at least 20 clashes between the Tatmadaw and Karen forces. Artillery shells fell on fields and villages, killing livestock and injuring locals.
More than 100 villagers from Paw Kaw Kee, where the road expansion has been suspended for the monsoon, have already been displaced by the fighting, according to the Karen Human Rights Group.
Paw Kaw Kee is located within the area of Khe Der village, the site of a pilot project initiated by the Norway-backed Myanmar Peace Support Initiative (MPSI) in 2012 that was designed to test the military’s commitment to the peace process.
MPSI facilitated a KNU-administered delivery of aid to some 1,500 people who had been living in nearby jungles for more than three decades because of the fighting.
But a former MPSI adviser said the military’s guarantee of peace failed to hold up.
“It was about building trust and confidence, and testing if the Myanmar Army was sincere,” the adviser, who preferred not to reveal his identity, said of the pilot project. “And let’s be frank: no, they were not.”
Saw Doh was among the displaced who returned to the area in 2012.
“If the situation does not get better, we will have to leave our village again,” he said. “Some elderly people say they will not go. They will just ask their children to dig their graves. They don’t want to run anymore.”
Ten years ago, the KNU’s Saw Tadoh Moo said he was warned that the Tatmadaw’s militarisation would continue deeper into areas under ethnic control.
In April last year, Myanmar’s military built a road connecting its bases in KNU territory east of Bago. Fighting forced more than 3,000 villagers from their homes.
Locals believe the Kyaukkyi road will be a further extension to the Tatmadaw’s road network, potentially dispossessing the Karen of their ancestral land and intensifying the conflict.
Against a “backdrop of domestic impunity,” the UN fact-finding mission maintains that justice for victims of military crimes in Myanmar can only come through international accountability.
After pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the peace process, the international community needs to “share responsibility” for the current state of affairs in the country, according to Saw Tadoh Moo.
“[The Tatmadaw] wants to use NCA as a tool to militarise the country and disarm the ethnic armed organisations. That is their definition of peace,” he said.
Cape Diamond contributed to this report.