— Burma activists say international funds established to encourage peace in ethnic rebel areas risk undermining the process. Critics say the Norway and World Bank-led "peace funds" are prioritizing development instead of lasting political solutions. Norway's ambassador refutes that notion and says their whole point is a lasting peace.
The aid plans were launched earlier this year by Norway, the World Bank, European Union, United Kingdom, United Nations and Australia.
Burma's reform-minded President Thein Sein, who since taking office signed ceasefires with most ethnic rebel groups, supports the mechanisms.
But Burma rights groups complain they are not inclusive enough and focus too much on government development plans before a firm peace is established.
Khin Ohmar, with Burma Partnership
, spoke at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand. She says development should not be a substitute for political settlement.
"The government has clearly prioritized economic development over achieving a sustainable peace through the political dialogue. And, what we're seeing now also is that there is lack of involvement of women and civil society in the process so far," she said.
The World Bank
says its Community Driven Development Program
is giving $85 million in grants for schools, roads, water and other projects to be decided by locals.
Hundreds of millions more are expected to become available once Burma settles past debts with the bank.
The Norway-founded Peace Donor Support Group
, formed in June at the request of President Thein Sein, pledged an initial $30 million for conflict-affected areas.
The primary focus is on development aid including short-term relief, de-mining, poverty alleviation and education.
But, after consultation with rights groups and rebel groups, other projects being developed focus on implementing ceasefire agreements such as funding liaison offices and monitoring.
Speaking to VOA by phone during a trip this week to Burma, Katja Nordgaard, Norway's ambassador to Burma, Cambodia and Thailand, said the goal of the peace funds is to encourage political dialogue.
"Everything we're doing is trying to ensure a lasting peace," said the ambassador. "So, I mean, we're doing this in close consultation with the armed groups, with the government trying to build trust, trying to build contacts, establishing space for normal aid intervention to come in. All of these things are going to be crucial for a lasting peace."
But rights groups say the peace funds fail to address some fundamental causes of conflict, such as resources.
Fighting continues between the Burmese army and Kachin rebels since breaking out last year near China-backed hydropower and oil-pipeline projects.
The exile Kachin News Group
reports fighting has intensified since August near Hpakant, where the world's best quality jadeite is mined.
Although the reports cannot be independently verified, it is clear that much of the fighting in Kachin is about who controls the resources.
"Natural resources is a major cause of conflict in the area, where you can see big projects are and you can see militarization issues and human right abuses," explained Paul Sein Twa, with the Karen Environmental Social Action Network
. "And, this I think, during the peace-building time, especially in the initial phase right now that's then the issues have to be addressed. And, issues related to benefit sharing, ownership issues or political decision over the management of these resources. So, if we cannot address this from the beginning, I think it also can lead to a more conflict."
Norway's Ambassador Nordgaard says, although control of resources is not addressed through the peace funds, it will have to be addressed through the political dialogue.
And, although acknowledging the peace process is fragile, she rejects criticism the funding is coming too soon. "No, just the opposite I would say. It's really important to support the ceasefires as they are and to encourage," said Nordgaard.
Norway's Myanmar Peace Support Initiative
has provided a coordination and facilitation role between the ceasefire groups, authorities and locals since January.