Friday, March 14, 2014

“Amazing Lambi ”

(I just found the following article at the Irrawaddy archive which the first one I wrote in English in 1998. It look like activist tone rather than a journalist)
“Amazing Lambi ”
Guest Colum
By The Irrawaddy AUGUST, 1998 - VOLUME 6 NO.4

Lambi Marine Park and other ecological tourism projects are touted as sound development by the Burmese government. But they are being built on the back of multiple human rights and environmental abuses, writes Win Htein.

The Lambi marine park project was started in May 1997 when the State Law and Order Restoration Council (Slorc) troops began a heavy offensive in the Karen National Union’s Brigade 4 area. The Slorc wanted to take Myint Molatkhat hill for use as a nature reserve. During this offensive, about twenty thousand Karen and Tavoy villagers fled to the Thai border as refugees near where a power station is located for the Yadana gas pipeline project. 

According to Terror in the South, a special report published in November 1997 by the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF), Slorc began a clean-up operation along the coastal region in October 1996 for Lambi and other islands targeted for eco-tourism ventures. During this operation, Slorc killed about 40 people in Lambi, about 80 in Kaw Ye, and about 100 on Zadatgyi Island. 3,000 Salon (sea gypsies) were relocated from Lambi, and another 80 villages were moved from the coast by Brig. Gen. Sit Maung, commander of the newly-established Coastal Region Military Command, using 8 army battalions, navy and aircraft. 

A villager who spent a week as a forced laborer on the island in mid-1997 says that 150 villagers are required to work there for a week at a time, without food or pay. Depending on their size, some 17 villages near Lambi, including East Aungbar, Kyargyi Aw, Mathein, Kantaw, Salon Aw and others are required to supply between 5 and 14 people to the army for “development work.” Those who do not want to be recruited as forced laborers are required to pay fines of up to 20,000 kyat for a week’s work.

Before the 1988 uprising, there were 5 battalions in Tenasserim Division. Ten years later, there are 40 battalions for the security of the most important joint venture projects, including the Yadana gas pipeline (with Total of France), the Yetagun gas project (with Premier Oil of the United Kingdom), the Tavoy deep sea port and land bridge from Kanchanaburi (with Thai companies), the Lambi eco-tourism venture and many other tourist projects. The SPDC has also forced villagers to work on army barracks and compounds.

“They had already built a mini-airport, 5 heli-pads, a big zoo, a wharf and military bases. Now they are building a luxury resort. They want to finish before the rainy season, so they are pushing the laborers to work very hard, about 12 hours every day,” reported one villager.

An officer of the ABSDF’s southern region who has been monitoring this project stated that “last year, there were about 400 people working as forced laborers on Lambi Island, and this year there are nearly 700 workers. About 300 workers were villagers from Bokpyine, another 300 were porters from Kawthong who were arrested on the border when they came back from Thailand as illegal workers, and the last 100 were prison laborers.”

A fisherman from Aung Yadana boat in Ranong, forced to work in Lambi marine national park, recalled, “I was arrested on Snake Island, between Ranong and Kawthong, as an illegal worker in January 1998, when I was sent back from Thailand to Burma....I stayed three days in Kawthong police compound and then they sent me to Lambi Island with about 300 others in fishing boats.”
Once arriving in Lambi, these laborers had to stay in temporary barracks, waking each morning at 5 a.m. to a cup of rice soup for breakfast. By 6 a.m. they were off to work in construction teams, sometimes involved in heavy work, such as  cutting and digging out big trees. At noon they had lunch, but it was never enough. While they were hungry enough to eat three plates each, they were only allowed to eat one.

“The soldiers ordered us to work very hard. They wanted to finish the project before the rainy season. Some people were injured, some got malaria, and others died, so I was very afraid.
I escaped from Lambi Island by bamboo float to the Andaman Sea. Two days later, I came across a fishing boat. They brought me here,” he continued.

U Naung Mel is a 38 year-old fisherman from Sakhathat village of east Mergui in southern Burma. Last year, he worked on a fishing boat in Mahachai, known as “Little Burma,” in the south of Bangkok. Since the 1988 uprising in Burma, many Burmese have come to Thailand for work on fishing boats, at construction sites, in factories, on rubber plantations, and as housekeepers. There were no jobs in their homeland, and they feared being used as porters or forced laborers by the army.

They came to Thailand by crossing the border illegally, giving up to 10,000 baht to Thai police and brokers to travel from the border to Bangkok and other towns in central Thailand. Now, more than a half million Burmese illegal workers live in Thailand. 

However, across the last year, as  the Thai economic slowdown took hold, many Thai workers were dismissed from their work sites. The Thai government decided to send back illegal alien workers to make jobs available for them, warning illegal workers to return to their homes. U Naung Mel was arrested at the Snake Island check point while trying to return to his village.
“Early in the morning on February 1998, nine people were killed and five were arrested when LIB [Light Infantry Battalion] 358 soldiers intercepted a boatload of people trying to flee from the island. On 19 January 1998, six people were also killed. After this, the army ordered boats not to come into this area,” U Naung Mel continued sadly.

The ABSDF report claimed that two western environmental groups gave support for this SPDC project “by technical and financial means.” The report quoted Aung Thin, an SPDC forestry officer, as saying there was “an open channel of communication with the WWF.” The World Wildlife Fund in London and Wildlife Conservation Society in New York have denied any involvement.

The Lambi eco-tourism project has also become involved in the “Amazing Thailand” campaign, suggests an environmentalist from Toward Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliance (TERRA), a Bangkok- based non-profit group. He quoted an article from the Thailand and Indochina Traveler magazine in the October-November 1997 issue of a Bangkok Post publication, which lauded Lambi as “a magical new holiday destination offering wonderful scenery and solitude..... where wild elephants and rhinoceros hide.”

A few weeks ago, Thai and Burmese businessmen met with Brig. Gen. Sit Maung at the headquarters of the Coastal Command in Mergui to discuss tourism transport. An agreement was reached for transport from Ranong to Lambi by luxury boats. Operations are set to begin next month, according to Ranong sources.

The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) has also been criticized by human rights groups for its “human zoo” approach to promoting tour sites featuring Padong hill tribe women, a Burmese minority group, in Chiang Mai in February 1998, as a part of “Amazing Thailand.”

“If they [TAT] want to join with the SPDC’s Lambi eco-tourism project, firstly they should check whether or not there are human rights and environmental abuses going on. If they are careless and hurry to join the venture, they must be prepared to face adverse reactions from human rights and Burmese opposition groups.

Then the ‘Amazing Thailand’ campaign will be as damaged as ‘Visit Myanmar Year,’” says a Burmese environmentalist and  former chairman for Green November 32, a non-profit environmental group along the Thai-Burma border.

The Burmese military seized power from U Nu’s elected government in 1962 and established the Revolutionary Council. In 1974 the Revolutionary Council became the Burmese Socialist Program Party (BSPP), and in September 1988 the Slorc took power. In November 1997, the Slorc changed its name to the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).

“They have changed their name but they have never changed their policy. They killed about 200 people in the 1962 coup and about 3000 people in the 1988 coup. They have never respected human rights, therefore this project cannot be possible because no butcher wants to save life. I don’t think anyone can believe their plans to save wild animals,” he added.

If the SPDC really wants to save wild animals and the environment, they must first show respect for human rights.


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