From the outside, recent political and economic reforms in Myanmar/Burma seem to be opening up a society that has languished under military rule for half a century, but despite the promises of development and political freedom, the country’s ethnic minorities are still subject to violence, forced labor and the destruction of their environment by government and corporate interests.

The students at the Health and Earth Rights Training Center (HEART) are all members of affected ethnic groups and have experienced these issues first-hand, so last week I took a trip to the Thailand-Burma border to see what they thought about the changes in their homeland. None of them had anything good to say.

“In the past few months the government has been building many roads to remote villages in my area,” said a student from Shan State, who works with an ethnic women’s organization. “However, they use forced labor to build them and the people living along the road don’t have a choice but to work “Sometimes people have to move their entire house or village. They aren’t even very good roads, just dirt and gravel.”

Another student, a former resistance soldier who lost his arm to a land mine, said that opening the country to foreign investment will just bring more suffering to ethnic minorities in Myanmar/Burma. “People are excited about the jobs international investment will bring, but they don’t know what the effects will be. There will be serious environmental, political and social impacts, but all anyone can see now is money.”

A student from Karen State, just across the border, said that the constitution needs to do more for ethnic rights. “There has been political change, but it’s just talking. Nothing has changed in Karen State. The constitution should protect indigenous rights, especially freedom of demonstration.”

Right now HEART’s seventeen dedicated students are learning strategies to combat the exploitation of their homelands, but after the program they all intend to return to their communities and share this knowledge. We hope to support them in the future as they do their part in building a better, freer Myanmar/Burma.