Sold down the river: tribe’s home to be a valley of the dammed

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The Times (UK) 22 March 2006

From  Richard Lloyd Parry in Weigyi on the Thai-Burma border

Hydroelectric dams on the Salween River will destroy the local way of life and flood the area with militia

EVEN in the dry season, and even in this time of war and uncertainty, the Salween River is a majestic waterway.

It runs 1,900 miles (3,060 kilometres) from the high Tibetan mountains to the Gulf of Martaban, and along its great length there are few places more remarkable than Weigyi, on the border of Burma and Thailand.

Here the god of the Salween shows himself in the form of a notorious whirlpool that churns the waters and can even drag a boat under. Locals leave offerings of rice, flowers and bananas to appease the deity and to thank him for the prosperity he brings.

But now ominous signs have appeared, signs that promise disaster for the people of the Salween and their god.

They come in the form of yellow marks painted on the rocky banks and a concrete plaque laid by Thai engineers. If their plans go ahead Weigyi will be transformed from a jungle shrine into a massive hydroelectric dam.

The rocky cliffs will be replaced by concrete walls and throbbing turbines. The jungle will be penetrated by rumbling roads and high security fences.

Five dams are jointly planned by the Thai and Burmese Governments; far upstream China proposes building 13 more. If only a few go ahead, the Salween, the longest undammed river left in south-east Asia, will be chained.

Conscious of the potential for bad publicity, the Thai and Burmese Governments have kept secret their precise plans for dam building. But The Times has obtained a copy of the memorandum of agreement signed between them last December.

It reveals that the first dam to be built will be at Hatgyi, south of Weigyi. This is an area firmly under Burmese control and 30 miles inside its territory. The guerrillas of the Karen National Union and independent observers will find it very difficult to observe its effect on local people. Construction is due to begin late next year.

“As long as I have lived here my family has been totally dependent on the Salween for our livelihood,” says Htoo Lwee, a member of the Karen ethnic group that lives in the village of Hoekey, a few miles below the proposed dam site at Weigyi. “The river gives us a living from fishing and from boating. It is our life and our mother. If the dam is constructed we will not be able to live.”

The Salween is home to 70 species of fish including catfish, eel, featherback and carp who thrive in its surging rapids and deep pools. The dam would create a still-water lake to which they are ill-adapted.

The dam’s opponents calculate that the reservoir will be 640 sq km — the size of Singapore.

It will destroy rice paddies, vegetable fields, 26 villages and two entire towns. Temples and palaces will be submerged; 22,000 people will lose their homes and 8,000 more will lose their livelihoods.

It will destroy forever the towns of Pasaung and Bawlake, the historical capital of the Karenni people, and the site of royal palaces and Buddhist temples and stupas (holy sites). The traditional homelands of one entire tribe, the dwindling Yintalai, who number just 1,000, will disappear.

The river’s backed-up waters will flood rice fields and the garden plots of beans, tobacco, and chilli with which families support themselves during the dry season. It will block what locals refer to as the “Salween highway”, and the trading boats which carry rattan, honey and buffalo from the Karen and Karenni territories across the river to Thailand.

Still worse, in the eyes of many of the locals, the dam project will draw into the area the notorious armed forces of the Burmese junta, which have been enslaving, raping and killing the local tribespeople for decades.

“These dams will not only spell the gradual genocide of indigenous peoples, but will also inflict a death sentence on endangered animal plant and plant species,” says Pascal Khoo Thwe, author of the acclaimed memoir of his Burmese childhood From the Land of Green Ghosts.

“There is no better way to destroy a country than by the combined power of guns and bulldozers. Show me a cup of dam water and I will tell you stories of human misery, and cries of dying animals and plants.”

This is one of the most isolated and chaotic corners of Asia, a place of guerrillas and refugees, where no government holds sway. The tribespeople of eastern Burma, particularly the Karen and the Karenni, have always resisted government by the rulers in Burmese capital, Rangoon, whether they be British imperialists or their successors, the generals of the military junta called the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).

Karen armed groups have fought a scrappy war against the Burmese since independence 48 years ago but have recently found themselves driven into an ever-narrower strip along the Thai border to where tens of thousands have fled the fighting. It is in one of these pockets, a sanctuary from the depredations of the SPDC, that the Weigyi dam will be built.

When an earlier dam was built on the Balu Chaung River in the 1960s, 24 Burmese battalions moved into the area. Human rights groups have gathered numerous accounts of the rapes, forced labour and arbitrary killings and arrests that were inflicted upon the local Karenni population.

Among the biggest victims were members of the Padaung tribe, famous for the “long neck” women who stretch their necks with brass rings.

Numerous local people were killed or injured by landmines scattered as a security measure in the fields around the dams.

But despite the energy generated by the hydroelectric plant, villages lying literally underneath the power lines received no electricity.

“Instead of getting benefits from the dam, we will have only curses,” says Seem Wen, a local village head and a major in the Karen National Liberation Army. “Human rights abuses, forced labour, killings. There will be many more refugees. If the dam is built, we will definitely show a military response.”

But it is not only the Burmese junta, one of the world’s most cruel and obdurate regimes, that will benefit from the dam. The 5,000 megawatts of electricity generated will be channelled into the growing and energy-hungry towns of neighbouring Thailand.

It is this that gives the anti-dam campaigners some hope. For, while the SPDC cheerfully flouts human rights with little apparent concern for the opinion of the outside world, Thailand is a lively democracy. “The SPDC does whatever it likes,” says Nay Thablay, of the organisation, Karen Rivers Watch.

“But in Thailand are many people who sympathise with us and we must motivate them to put pressure on their own Government.”

The anti-dam campaigners are mobilising what few resources they have. A group of young people have formed a pop group, Salween Angels, and recorded songs protesting against the dam’s construction.

Activists are sailing down the river, warning local communities and organising demonstrations. “Even if we cannot stop this,” says Htoo Lwee, “we have to try for the sake of our river.”

But they are a few thousand stateless, almost voiceless, people against two powerful governments, and they are realistic about their chances of success. If the dam at Weigyi is stopped, it will be a triumph of local determination. If not, then the rest of the world may hardly notice that the turbulent, vigorous god of the Salween has been reduced to a placid pond.


  • The Balu Chaung dam in the 1960s led to Burmese army atrocities against the Padaung tribe, below
  • The Three Gorges dam in China will displace at least 1.1 million people. As well as destroying much of the habitat of the endangered Chinese river dolphin and the Siberian crane, the reservoir will cover more than 1,000 important archaeological sites
  • The Itaipu dam on the Paraná River between Brazil· and Paraguay displaced 40,000 people, including the Ava-Guarani Indian tribe. 700 sq km of forest was affected
  • Egypt’s Aswan dam forced 90,000 people· to relocate. Its reservoir, Lake Nasser, covers 5,000 sq km. The Ancient Egyptian temple of Abu Simbel had to be moved to higher ground
  • Sardar· Sarovar dam in western India is the largest of 3,000 planned dams on Narmada river in Gujarat. Government estimates suggest that 41,000 families will be displaced if it is built. Amid protests, construction of the dam was halted in 1995 and it is incomplete