Working in conflict-affected areas – the Myanmar experience

Working in conflict-affected areas – the Myanmar experience

The combined ADB-Myanmar Ministry of Construction team poses for a group photo.

By Elaine Thomas

ADB is committed to finance the last stretch of a regional transport corridor that includes a road passing through Myanmar’s restive Kayin State. It would have been easier for ADB to simply avoid a conflict-affected area, but we did not shy away from the challenge.

A few weeks ago, staff from ADB’s Resident Mission in Myanmar went into the field to share information with communities and key stakeholders about the East-West Economic Corridor project, a road improvement project the Ministry of Construction is planning to implement with ADB financing in 2016.   This stretch of highway is the final link in a transport corridor that will connect Da Nang, on the Vietnamese coast, to Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city. But what is not so simple about the project is the political situation in the last area through which the road passes, between the towns of Eindu and Kawkareik in Myanmar’s restive Kayin State. The Kayin people, like many other ethnic minority groups in Myanmar, have been fighting for decades to obtain more political autonomy from the central government. Ongoing peace talks are interrupted by occasional outbreaks of violence, the most recent of which occurred just this month.

It would have been easier for ADB to simply avoid a conflict-affected area. However, we did not shy away from financing a project in a challenging operating environment. Instead, our team planned more carefully and paid more attention to the factors that are linked to success in such conditions. During the planning phase, ADB invested greatly in consulting with the project’s stakeholders, and ensuring that the right information gets to the right people. The mission met with the government in Yangon and then again upon arrival in Kayin. ADB was not quite sure what to expect, as this is the Ministry of Construction’s first project that has to comply with ADB safeguards on resettlement and environmental protection. After a 7-hour drive to Hpa’ An, the state chief minister welcomed us, and pointed out how the road will improve connectivity not just for the Kayin people, but for all Asia.

The next morning, we began our community outreach efforts in Lun Nya village. Despite the time and venue of our first meeting was changed at the last minute, nearly 100 people showed up, and when the chief minister opened the floor for questions, they were encouraged to ask whatever they wanted, and so so in the local language if they felt more comfortable. Most questions focused on general issues such as how many lanes the road would have or if any monasteries would be displaced, until a representative from a local civil society organization (CSO) stood up and confronted the government officials, asking them if they would confiscate their land once the project was finished and ADB left. Under the former military regime that held power until 2010, no one would have dared ask such a question to government officials, so I was nervous waiting for his reply. But the official just said: We don’t do projects the way we did in the past; now we will implement our projects in line with the ADB policies. After that first meeting, we took part in three more consultations, and heard from other outspoken people with real concerns about how the new road would affect them. What continued to impress me, though, was the openness with which the ministry officials took questions and answered them. Following a question about the payments to residents whose livelihoods would be disrupted, one official reminded them that the money for the resettlement was not coming from the ADB, but rather from taxes collected from the Myanmar people.

The evening after the first day of consultations, we invited the CSO representatives to join us for dinner to discuss areas of expertise of local organizations, and gauge their interest in collaboration. CSOs in Kayin State has extensive experience in service delivery, and could perhaps assist in providing livelihood training to the farmers who stand to lose their land and would like to learn another profession, and help us design a grievance redress mechanism for the roads project.

On the government side, officials reminded participants that consultation is a process, not an event. They told the local residents that they would be back regularly throughout the project’s implementation phase, and would be meeting community members to share information and listen to any concerns. We are also learning along the way. For instance, we found out that diagrams help answer many concerns about the different parts of the road were many fewer, so from now bringing illustrations to consultations will be standard practice. We also learned how far Myanmar has come in recent years. Even though government officials are not experienced in community consultation, information sharing and setting up grievance redress mechanisms, being willing to try and listen is a tremendous step forward.   As one consultation ended, a farmer said that some of the construction materials could fall into his field, destroying his crop. A ministry official replied that the contractors will have very specific rules to follow to prevent that from happening, and this will be monitored by a supervision team. But, should any accident occur, the official reiterated, we want you to report it to us. The farmer, amazed, sat down quietly with a smile across his face.