Dam projects could force out Karenni

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Bangkok Post 9 March 2006

By PIYAPORN WONGRUANG

Egat to meet Burma about likely impact

The scene of a Karen woman giving birth on a forest floor one dark night is one of several that brought viewers close to tears as they viewed a documentary film on recent relocations of ethnic Karenni and Karen people in Burma. The documentary was screened last week at a seminar on dam projects on the Salween river that flows through Burma and runs along part of the Thai-Burmese border in Chiang Rai province. The seminar was organised by major organisations and certain Senate panels.

The documentary was intended to inform people outside Burma about the plight of minority groups in Burma. Their conditions are expected to get worse once the construction of hydropower dams on the Salween river, as agreed recently by the Thai and Burmese governments, is completed, said Moo Moo, a Karenni girl who represents the Karenni Development Research Group, a non-governmental organisation campaigning for sustainable development.

Ms Moo Moo called on the Thai government to reconsider its support for the projects.

The Thai and Burmese governments in May 2005 signed a memorandum of understanding to develop the projects. Seven months later, the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (Egat) signed an agreement with Burmas Hydroelectric Power Department to kick off the first dam project of Hutgyi with an estimated capacity of up to 1,000 megawatts.

Five dam sites were plotted by means of satellite surveys – two on a stretch of the Salween along the Thai-Burmese border and the other three in Burmese areas occupied by minority groups.

Egat cited Thailands need to build up a reserve in order to meet an increasing demand for electricity.

However, Ms Moo Moo said she feared the dams, including the Weigyi dam to be built on Karen and Karenni land, would hurt the two minority groups.

When the Burmese government launched its project to build Lawpita, a hydropower dam, in a Karenni-occupied area, troops were sent in to move local people out by force, said Ms Moo Moo.

There was also a marked increase in sexual violence and forced labour as a result, she said.

She claimed the Salween dam projects would affect at least 30,000 Karenni people and a small Yintalai tribe with a population of about 1,000.

A young Tai man who calls himself Sai Sai said Tai people in Shan state, where the largest dam – Ta Sang – is to be built, have similar concerns.

He claimed many people who refused to flee fighting in the state were forced by Burmese troops to guard roads which are frequently attacked by anti-government forces.

Once the dam construction begins, government troops are likely to force local people to guard dam property, he said.

Pianporn Deetes, of the Southeast Asia Rivers Network which campaigns for sustainable development of river basins in the region, said increasing government troop movements had taken place in the areas that appear to coincide with dam construction activities.

By moving local people out, she said, the project developers could claim construction of the dams was not going to affect anybody – since there was no one living in those areas.

Mae Hong Son mayor Suthep Nuchsuang accused Egat of failing to properly inform the public about the dam projects.

He doubted Egat had ever taken into account the possible impact of a transboundary migration of minority groups from Burma.

Tens of thousands of such migrants have already arrived in Mae Hong Son, he said.

Thailand should also take the issue of morality into account. Tai people in Shan state will be severely affected if the dams are built, because they live on the plains, which are prone to flooding, he said.

An Egat official testifying before the Senate natural resources security sub-committee said Egat would meet its Burmese counterpart next month to discuss the likely impact on ethnic minorities.

Vasant Panich, a human rights commissioner, said the National Human Rights Commission would look into the matter although he was still uncertain whether the commission was empowered to examine issues involving projects in another country but jointly developed by a Thai entity.

Human rights are borderless. If we successfully do this, we may set a new standard for such transboundary projects where treatment of human rights is concerned, he said.