Myanmar dam displaces thousands

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AlertNet 12 May 2006

Big infrastructure projects like dams push about 10 million people a year out of their homes, according to the World Bank, and alarm bells have been ringing about a huge new project on Myanmars border with Thailand.

At the end of last year, Myanmars military junta signed a deal with the Thai government to build several dams on the Salween river in Shan and Karen states.

Reports say 22,000 people are likely to lose their homes when a reservoir the size of Singapore is created, submerging historical cities and destroying livelihoods. This massive hydropower project aims to export electricity to Thailand and other Asian countries.

Although work has hardly begun, news is already filtering through that local people are being displaced. In late March, the Shan Herald news agency reported that more than 500 Karen villagers - a minority ethnic group who already have more than their fair share of hardship and refugees -- had fled to the border after being forced by the military to build a road for one of the dam projects. Unable to cross into Thailand, they were forced to hide in the jungle. There are reports that the military junta has stationed hundreds of soldiers around the dam site.

The news agency says nearly 1,000 villagers have fled since the beginning of this year, displaced by the planned dam projects as well as moves to shift the countrys administrative capital from Yangon to Pyinmana, about 320 kilometres (200 miles) further north.

In Britains Times newspaper, Richard Lloyd Parry reports on growing opposition, with local people arguing that the hydropower project will destroy their way of life.

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

As the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) points out in its report, The State of the Worlds Refugees 2006, those that bear the brunt of development-induced displacement -- as the fancy term for it goes -- are often the poorest people and the most marginalised ethnic groups. Major international loans for infrastructure projects are meant to have conditions attached to ensure adequate compensation and resettlement provisions for those affected. But as UNHCR points out, these are hard to enforce.

Unlike refugees, the millions displaced by development do not have an adequate protection regime. They often face permanent poverty and end up socially and politically marginalised, says the refugee agency.

According to the Times, a group of local young people has formed a pop group called Salween Angels and recorded songs protesting against the dams construction. Theyre unlikely to be in the generals top ten, but will be hoping to find receptive ears elsewhere.