Terror blasts in Burma: tribal peoples push back?

Two small blasts hit Burma’s first city Rangoon April 20, damaging cars in the downtown area but causing no injuries. The blasts, the latest in a spate of similar incidents this year, come three weeks before a referendum on a proposed army-backed constitution—Burma’s first public voting since 1990. The first explosion struck outside a bar a few streets away from Rangoon’s City Hall. Just over an hour later, a second blast went off near a luxury hotel in the city center.

One woman was injured in January in a blast at Rangoon’s railway station, while a woman was killed in a similar bombing at a train station in the country’s remote new capital of Naypyidaw earlier that month. Authorities have blamed the attacks on the Karen National Union rebel group. Burma’s ruling generals say the new constitution will give ethnic groups more autonomy and pave the way for multi-party elections in 2010, but tribal peoples and pro-democracy dissidents say the charter simply entrenches military rule. (AFP, April 20)

Significantly, the new charter would do nothing to slow mega-development projects on the traditional lands of Burma’s indigenous peoples. Some seem to have even been developed with counter-insurgency in mind. Three dams slated to be constructed on the Salween River on the Thai-Burmese border would create an “inland sea” that would cut off the Karen insurgency’s supply route and block refugees from escaping into Thailand, the Karen Human Rights Group protests.

The Karen National Union and its armed force, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), have been waging an insurgency against the Burmese government since 1949 and remain one of the last guerrilla groups that have refused to sign a ceasefire. Years of Burmese military offensives have driven more than 100,000 Karen refugees into Thailand. The Salween hydroelectric projects would effectively cut international aid from Thailand from reaching displaced villagers and the KNLA in Karen State, the rights group said.

“Damming the river would, therefore, block the escape of refugees and cut off supplies of relief aid from Thailand to the internally displaced while simultaneously cutting off from behind the KNLA forces who protect the displaced villagers and facilitate aid delivery,” the Karen Human Rights Group said in a statement last year.

The Salween dam projects are also expected to displace tens of thousands of villagers. Activists and environmentalists have urged the Thai government to review their involvement in the projects until studies are carried out on the social and environmental impacts. The Thai Energy Ministry and Myanmar (Burma) Ministry of Electric Power signed a memorandum of understanding to build the hydroelectric projects in 2005, beginning with the Hutgyi dam. (DPA, April 24, 2007 via Salween Watch, April 20)

China has also pledged funding for the projects on the Salween, the last major river left in Asia which has not been dammed. In addition to planning 13 dams across the Salween (called the Nu river in China) within Chinese territory, Beijing has signed a deal with Burma’s government to assist the Thai-Burmese projects. The headwaters of the Sawleen/Nu are in Chinese-held Tibet. (IPS, May 23, 2007)

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