Hydro-hubris threatens peace efforts on India-Burma borderlands

Following Burma‘s democratic opening, with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) to take seats in parliament, India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is set to visit the country—the first visit by an Indian leader in 25 years. But India and Burma have been quietly cooperating on the Tamanthi and Shwezaye power projects on Burma’s Chindwin River. The projects have been thrown into question following last year’s cancellation of the Myitsone hydro project on Burma’s Irrawaddy River, which was similarly backed by China, and would have mostly supplied electricity to the Chinese grid. The cancellation came after an activist struggle by local tribal peoples that would have been impacted by the project. (Indrus, April 23) The Tamanthi project is emerging as an obstacle to winning peace with the Naga, a people whose homeland is bisected by the India-Burma border, and have for decades waged an insurgency for independence from both countries.

India signed a contract with Burma for construction of the Tamanthi project in 2004, under Delhi’s new “Look East Policy” that emphasizes links with Southeast Asia. Several Naga villages will be destroyed by the floodplain, and the Netherlands-based Naga International Support Center (NISC) protests that the Naga people were never consulted on the project—contravening the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, to which India and Burma are both signatories. (E-Pao, April 27)

The Kuki, a related people also impacted by the Tamanthi project, held a gathering to protest the construction on March 14, International Day of Action for Rivers. Two days later, eight of the organizers were arrested and taken to Homalin township office, where they were interrogated and some were beaten. They were also forced to sign a pledge that they would not take part in any such events in the future, according to Kuki rights activists.

The ceremony on March 14 at Leivomjang village was attended by about 150 people from 30 villages. The dam will flood an area the size of Delhi, displacing over 45,000 people—mostly Kuki and Naga—and blocking water flows to millions downstream. Over 2,400 villagers were forcibly relocated in 2007 from the dam site. “Sending thugs from Naypyidaw to beat up villagers for praying shows that Burma’s government has not changed,” said Nga Ngai of the Kuki Women’s Human Rights Organization (KWHRO). “Violence is still the norm for investment projects in Burma.” (Burma Rivers Network, April 10 via E-Pao)

Naga insurgency divided by border
The Naga national movement has been politically divided by the international border that runs through their territory. In 1980, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSNC) was formed to unite the struggle on either side of the border—India’s Nagaland state and Burma’s Sagaing region. But in 1988, the NSCN split into two fractions; the NSCN-K led by SS Khaplang in Burma, and the NSCN-IM, led by Isak Chisi Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah in India. The NSCN-K was allowed to use Burma as a staging ground for attacks in India, until signing a ceasefire with new Delhi in 2003. The NSCN-IM, operating from India, is demanding a self-governing zone within Burma, to be called Nagalim. Although it did not accept provisions in the 2008 Burmese constitution creating a smaller “Naga Self-Administered Zone,” it has observed a de facto ceasefire for the past two years. The Naga National League for Democracy represents a civil opposition within Burma seeking a peaceful solution. (The Telegraph, Calcutta, April 21; Mizzima, April 19)

When India and Burma began cooperating and agreed to crack down on Naga rebels operating in their respective territories, both factions took up arms against their former patrons—and still more factions emerged. New Delhi this month signed a ceasefire with the Khole-Kitovi faction of the movement, or the NSCN-KK, while Burma signed a ceasefire with its former client the NSCN-K. But efforts by Delhi to win a ceasefire with the NSCN-K have been frustrated, and India protested that it was not consulted in Burma’s deal with the NSCN-K. (PTI, April 27; E-Pao, April 26)

See our last post on regional struggles for control of water.

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