At long last, the National Geographic has created visual proof of the ties that bind energy projects in Burma to mass displacement of populations: an area of waterways in remote Karen state littered with hydropower projects also happens to be one of the country’s most volatile regions – the blobs in orange signify swathes of now-militarised land that have seen huge migration of ethnic peoples over the past decade and a half, when the Burmese ratcheted up the damming of its rivers.

Elsewhere the country is pockmarked with zones of displacement, concentrated largely along the eastern frontier; over the border in Thailand, the map depicts tiny purple huts representing the refugee camps that house nearly 150,000 victims of these wars, some of which ironically are carried out to secure Thailand’s energy needs. The glaring hypocrisy is that many of the countries who have complained over the years about their role in shouldering Burma’s refugee burden are those whose hunger for her natural resources are fuelling conflict.

Karen villagers leave their homes in Burma. Pic: AP.

If the National Geographic had waited a bit longer, it would’ve had more batches of data to add: Ital-Thai, the company behind the Tavoy deep sea megaproject in Burma’s far south, candidly admitted last month that 10,000 people would be displaced by the huge port and industrial complex (ironically the same company that was forced out of the Map Ta Phut project in Thailand following sustained pressure from locals).

There are also 20,000-plus people who have fled their homes since fighting began on 9 June in Kachin state, much of which has centred around major dam projects. Although they’re not explicitly acknowledged on the map, the National Geographic has depicted the aggressive damming of rivers in that region, and the 15,000 people expected to be displaced by flooding from the massive, and hugely controversial, Myitsone Dam (while millions more the length of Burma will be impacted by fluctuations in the Irrawaddy river’s water levels and the dam’s sizeable effects on biodiversity).

There was also the fighting in March around Hsipaw in Shan state, one of the final stops before the Shwe oil and gas pipelines enter China. Two months later, trucks laden with pipeline parts were seen leaving the Chinese border town of Jaegao, en route to Hsipaw.

The idea that valuable areas that encroach on territory controlled by armed opposition groups (or indeed resistant civilian populations) need to be “cleared” of obstacles is a hallmark of government policy the world over, but for the ease of critics, little subtlety surrounds such campaigns in Burma: as I blogged earlier, the fighting in Kachin state erupted shortly after Burmese officials held talks with Chinese counterparts. Few details of those discussions have been released, but China is behind the majority of hydropower projects in northern Burma and has regularly told Naypyidaw to keep the border region “stable” (an ambiguous word when uttered by Chinese officials).

Many of the highly lucrative jade mines in Kachin state had once been controlled by the warring Kachin Independence Army (KIA), which as part of a ceasefire deal with the Burmese regime 17 years ago passed over “ownership”. Now the tussle over Kachin state’s natural resources is back on, with the KIA having fought costly recent battles with the Burmese army close to the dam sites of Shweli and Taping.

A UN report last month labelled Burma the world’s fifth-highest source country for refugees, above that of both war-torn Sudan and Colombia where battles for resource control have also eaten away at populations there. That report however didn’t mention the fuel for war in Burma that is provided by competition for energy, and equally importantly that Western countries are also key contributors (don’t forget that companies from the US, France and the UK are deeply implicated in this), so hats off to the National Geographic.

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