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Breaking the Silence

Vendors, Burma (

Vendors, Burma (Donna Cymek/Flickr)

Irrigation system: Partly in order to produce the summer crop, the SPDC has during the past decade implemented numerous irrigation systems, involving the building of dams and canals. Local farmers are not consulted on the dam proposals, but their lands are confiscated. Added to losing their lands, they are forced to pay fees for the supplies and provide their own labor to build them. (23)

Land reclamation scheme: In 1998, the government introduced a land reclamation scheme under which "fallow" land was to be farmed by private entrepreneurs of large business firms with the objective of extending cultivation to ensure rice sufficiency for the people. (24) In fact, in the low lands, local communities have lost access to food resources in the wet lands being drained, as these wetlands have been replaced by large, capital-intensive agricultural enterprises. This land reclamation has been economically wasteful and has adversely affected local ecosystems. (25) The practice of land reclamation is also being carried out, unofficially, throughout Burma for the military's bases and income-generation projects.

Under the land reclamation scheme, like other government programmes, people are forcibly moved out of their land, which later is cleared for project cultivation operated by the army, individuals or private companies.

4.Infrastructure Development Policy
Parallel with the state policies mentioned above is the so-called development policy of the state, which was initiated in 1989. (26) The implementation of the policy has been intensified since the mid-1990s after the Ministry of Border and Ethnic Area Development was created. Under this policy, the SPDC has focused on hard infrastructure development to build roads, bridges and dams. Since 1988, the regime has boasted that 170 bridges, including 5 river-crossing bridges, 114 dams, and 3,844 miles of road have been completed. (27)

However, what the regime omits to mention is the lack of consultation with local communities in building this infrastructure; and environmental destruction and human rights abuses such as forced labour, extortion and forced relocation accompanying these projects.

A Shan woman in her late thirties, who has been a migrant worker in Thailand since last year, reveals that in her home village in northern Shan State the building of a dam was a sham (28):

"The army said they would build a dam and canals so that we would be able to grow double crops. It was already ten years ago and the army collected 100,000 Kyat from each household which owned land, and at a rate of 10,000 up depending on the size of the family who owned no land. We were told that the government would fill in any amount needed to complete this project. However, until the day I left, I saw only piles of stones and sands, but no signs of dams nor roads built in our area. We did not get our money back either."

The use of forced labour has been extensively documented on large infrastructure projects in Burma in the 1990s in the cases of the Ye-Tavoy railroad, the Loikaw railroad, and in connection with the Yadana pipeline (ERI/SAIN 1996) in the past decade. Forced labour involving hundreds or thousands of workers has been used at major dam and irrigation projects throughout Burma, including one in Shan State, the Nam Wok (Mong Kwan) dam project near Kengtung, completed in 1994 (ILO 1998: §447 and note).

A woman in her 30s who had to work in the army's development projects describes how her livelihood was destroyed, which has led to poverty.

"For the past over ten years, life has been getting very difficult for us as we have not enough time to work for our own living due to the SPDC ordering us to work on different things. Our means of living used to be farming, fishing and cutting bamboo and selling them. But these are all gone. We are not allowed to make living like that before anymore."

Unfortunately, no statistics are publicly available of the total numbers of people forced to lose their homes and lands as a result of the regime's 114 dam-building projects over the past decade. As one woman of mid 30s affected by the building of a dam reveals, villagers have no recourse to appeal against any dams that are built (29):

"Nga Moe Yake Dam was built in Phaung Gyi [close to Rangoon] from 1992 to 1995. We didn't know what it was built for, nor were we told. We were only ordered to move out of from the area of our villages within one month. Altogether 24 villages in the area were forced to relocate. Villagers had to provide labor for the construction of the dam. One per each household and one village per day. Villagers had to build temporary tents in the forest and could not go back to the relocation site everyday as it is far."

Of serious concern is the current planned project to build a mega-dam on the Salween River near the Tasang crossing between Murng Pan and Murng Ton in southern Shan State. (30) The forced relocation of 300,000 Shan villagers since 1996 in this area is seen as closely linked to plans by the regime to build the dam, and at least 100,000 of these villagers have already fled to Thailand as refugees. Surveying has been carried out by GMS Power Public Co. Ltd. of Thailand. Lahmeyer International (Germany) and Electric Power Development Corporation (Japan) are among the consultants. It is estimated that the dam will cost at least 3 billion USD. There is already forced labour near the planned dam site of Tasang Army battalions forced villagers to work for periods of up to two weeks at Tasang throughout 1998, splitting rocks which were then sold by the army (DoL 2000) (31). If built, this dam will by the largest in Southeast Asia, and will have devastating social and environmental impacts.

Arbitrary taxation / Extortion: Apart from agricultural taxes, further "taxes" are regularly extorted from local communities by the army and district officials for a variety of reasons. For example, money is forcibly collected from people in various forms such as for fees for seasonal festivals, and ceremonies to mark the commemoration of National Days such as the Independence Day, Union Day and Army Day, as well as for "development" projects. The SPDC-controlled media describes such projects as "self-reliance basis" projects. (32)

Such extortion on a regular basis has made life untenable for many of Burma's citizens. A single Shan woman in her late 30s was forced from her home in northern State by high taxation (33):

"Since I have no man in my family, I could not hire people to work for me and sold my house. Another reason for selling my house is if you own a house or farm the tax is much higher than for those who do not own such property. Many people sold their land and homes and left the village. In our village, we used to have 600-800 households, but not any more. Even there is tax called "tea tax" that people have to pay to the army. In fact we grow tea for our family and community consumption -- not for commercial purposes. But because of these high taxes, people don't want to stay in their place any longer and sell everything and move. The hardship has become unbearable for us."

D. Impacts of Poverty and Environmental Degradation on Women
The combination of the policies mentioned in Section C has resulted in poverty and environmental degradation in Burma. While this poverty and environmental destruction have directly affected the majority of people in Burma regardless of their gender, women, because of their social roles and biological nature have been impacted differently. It can be seen that their basic rights to education and health are being increasingly denied, and they are facing gender-based violence.

1. Education
Excessive spending on the military has affected the educational system. There are not enough educational facilities and resources including teachers especially in rural areas. At the same time, as mentioned earlier, people are becoming increasingly impoverished due to the state's agricultural and other development policies. This means that families have had to re-prioritize their ever-depleting resources - there is not enough money to send all kids to school, and less money to send those children to higher levels. According to social gender norms, boys have greater opportunities in the public sphere and girls' roles in the private sphere require no more than elementary reading and writing skills. Therefore, families suffering from poverty are forced to choose which children they can send to school, and those they will withdraw - mostly being girls.

A woman who recently migrated to Thailand describes a girl in her 20s who quit school and came to work in Thailand:

"I once asked a girl the reason she left for Thailand and she answered that she was the eldest one among her brothers and sisters and her family faced economic problems. Her brothers and sisters were students and each has to pay over one thousand Kyat for school fees, and when four of them went to school-- you can imagine that her parents cannot afford such an amount of money at all-- it was the reason why she decided to find a job in Thailand. Most left for Thailand because of their family's economic crisis. Their income could not keep up with consumer prices and so they could not overcome the economic crisis of their family."