Early on a Monday morning, I was driving my motorbike to visit Lung Nge village along the highway in Myanmar. I was driving slowly towards the village because it was pouring rain. I was on my way to visit one of the families who will be affected by the Asian Development Bank (ADB)-funded Asian Highway project. The portion of the highway running between Kawkareit and Eindu in Karen State will be about 70 kilometers and will cross 17 villages and Kyonedoe town. The family I was on my way to meet has a small, family-run store on the corner beside the road that will be affected. They live upstairs, with the shop on the lower level. It’s a good place to have a business in the village because of its location. I interviewed a chubby woman with a kind face named Daw Aye* and she told me about how the developers and government first came to talk to her about the project. I made friends with her very easily. Her husband was sitting in on our conversation as well, although he didn’t speak much.
The developer told Daw Aye that when the highway is constructed, her family would need to be relocated. She told me she has felt worried ever since then and has not been able to sleep well or keep an appetite. She said that she has lived in this place for over 40 years. The land registration department told her that her house is on the public road. She worries that if she has to relocate her business, she will not be as busy as she is now. “If my home has to be relocated I want to live beside the road, the same as I do now. I worry that they will move my home far away from the village and it will not be good for my business. When I think about the highway project, I get really upset for my future life.” I talked with her for about two hours. She was very happy that I listened to her feelings and to her story. I could see in her eyes that she really wanted me to help her. At noon her and her husband invited me to have lunch with their family. The family was very warm and welcomed me back anytime if I wanted more information.
When I talked to the people who will be affected by the highway, they seemed not to know much about the project. The developers came to meet them but the villagers didn’t really know who they were and they were told very little information. The developers organized a consultation in two communities but only to explain what the project is, without clear information about a resettlement plan, replacement land, or the project planning process. According to ADB’s Resettlement and Ethnic Group Development Plan that was released this past June, 114 households will be affected by the Asian Highway project between Eindu and Kawkareit. However in reality, people might not understand how the project will affect them. The developers seem more concerned with finding an easy way to start the project quickly instead of ensuring full access to information and participation to those who are affected.
Two days later, I took my time to visit the village again. This time, I went to meet a farmer. Her name is Daw Then*. She has a big family and they rely on the farm for their income. When I arrived, there was flooding all around the house because of the heavy rain that day. The rain was beating down so hard on the roof that I had to strain my ears to hear her speak. She was cooking at the time. I could smell the traditional Karen curry and fish paste from where I was standing in the kitchen. She asked me to have lunch but I politely declined as I had had lunch on the way. People in the community are very warm and always welcome guests to eat in their homes. It is the culture of Karen communities. Her farm is also located near the road, on the corner, and the highway will be built straight through her farm. When the government came to measure the farmland, they told her that she couldn’t grow rice this year because the road construction would start soon. She told me that this caused her a lot of distress and she asked the village leader for help. “This farm is our life. We depend on it. We use this farm every season and it is very fertile soil. My income relies on it.” Daw Then was told that she would be paid compensation for her land according to current land prices; however she still worries about whether or not it will be enough to find land of the same quality.
Many people in the project area have suffered from land grabbing at the hands of the military government in the past. Their rights were trampled on and they had no recourse for justice. This dark history has caused many villagers to be afraid of the government and to distrust what the government does in their communities. It is the government’s responsibility to ensure that villagers are consulted and informed about a project’s impacts and that villagers’ views and concerns are heard. Otherwise, people will not have trust in the government when development projects come to Karen State.
ADB’s Safeguard Policy says that people have a right to information about a project. This means that the ADB and government have to inform affected people about the project and the process in a way they understand. They have to involve people in the decision-making at all stages of the project so they can contribute to making the decisions that will affect their families and their livelihood. ADB must also follow their involuntary resettlement policy. The policy says that resettlement must be avoided if possible, however if people lose their land and house, the government must provide replacement land and adequate housing for the affected people. Their lives must not be made worse than before because of the project. They also have to make sure that if people have to relocate, they can participate in the decisions about their relocation to new land and housing.
After finishing my interviews, I felt impassioned to stand up for the rights of the affected community. When the women talked to me, I could tell they trusted me and felt fully confident to express their stories. I appreciated that they helped me to better understand their concerns about how the project could affect them. I want to work closely with the local people and other community organizations to monitor the project and ensure that ADB respects their rights throughout the project cycle. I will work with my network to monitor and put pressure on the ADB, the government and other stakeholders to follow the safeguard policies in order to protect the community’s rights.
* The names have been changed.