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In early March, the Burmese Army attacked the Shan State Army-North (SSAN) in northern Shan State.  The fighting has since spread throughout northern Shan State.  Previously, in 2009, the Burmese Army attacked the Kokang ethnic group, also in northern Shan State in an area north of the current fighting, leading to tens of thousands of refugees fleeing into China. The current fighting with SSAN has already lasted for three months and will likely continue for some time, and the Burmese Army attack has helped motivate the SSAN and Shan State Army-South (SSAS) to create a close alliance.

Then last week, in Southern Kachin State, close to the border with northern Shan State, the Burmese Army attacked a Kachin Independence Army (KIA) base in Momauk Township. This fighting will also likely continue and may spread throughout the entire KIA controlled area in Southern Kachin State. Recent reports indicate this fighting may be related to two Chinese dam projects in Kachin State that block Burma’s rivers and provide electricity to industry in Yunnan, China.

When development projects meet ethnic conflict

On December 1, 2009, a formal agreement was signed with China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise stipulating that the Burmese government will guarantee the safety of the Burma-China onshore crude oil pipeline, which will transport oil from Africa and the Middle East through Arakan State in western Burma and northern Shan State to Yunnan Province in China.  Along with a parallel natural gas pipeline also being constructed and operated by CNPC and its subsidiaries, these projects are increasing the economic and political importance of northern Shan State.

Many ethnic armed groups have been active in northern Shan State and southern Kachin State for many years, including KIA, SSAN, and SSAS. Both the KIA and SSAN have ceasefire agreements with the Burmese Army.  However, mounting pressure to transform from ceasefire groups to Border Guard Forces (under control of the Burmese Army), and several conflicts between the Burmese Army and many ethnic armed groups related to natural resource development projects, has led to fighting in many ethnic areas in Burma including northern Shan State (Burma-China onshore crude oil pipeline) and southern Kachin State (Myitsone Dam). In Shan State, control of the illegal drug trade also contributes to the conflict and tensions.

A lesson from history

A similar situation took place in the early 1990s, during the construction of the Yadana natural gas pipeline, which transports natural gas from the Adaman Sea through Burma’s Tenessarim Division to Thailand.  The Burmese Army attacked a Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) base in Tenessarim Division to take complete control of the pipeline corridor.  This offensive to control the pipeline corridor lead to widespread human rights violations committed by the Burmese Army, and caused many people to flee and become refugees in Thailand and others to become Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) hiding in the jungle. Almost 20 years later, the Burmese Army continues to commit human rights abuses in the Yadana pipeline corridor in the name of project security.

Now, as the largest energy project in Burma’s history (the Burma-China pipelines) reaches the construction phase, and as Chinese dam projects move forward in Shan and Kachin State, critical challenges confront the stakeholders involved in these projects. How can local people genuinely participate in the development decisions affecting their communities? And how can project participants ensure that their projects do not contribute to conflict and violence against local communities like has been seen in the past in Burma, with other major energy projects?