Myanmar minorities fear being dammed and damned

Key Issues: 

Reuters 18 June 2006

By Ed Cropley
 

This is the first in a series of features to move in coming days about ambitious, and at times controversial, dam projects in Asia designed to alleviate acute water shortages and cut energy bills.


THE SALWEEN RIVER, Myanmar/Thai border, June 18 (Reuters) – From the ice fields of the Himalayas to the azure waters of the Andaman Sea, the Salween flows undisturbed through some of the most outwardly tranquil territory on earth.

But the 1,750 mile-long (2,800 km) river, southeast Asias longest undammed waterway, is fast becoming a front line in one of the worlds longest-running conflicts – the war between Myanmars military junta and the regions ethnic Karen people.

The predominantly Christian Karen, who have been fighting for independence for more than 50 years, believe plans by Yangons State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), as the junta is officially known, to dam the Salween are designed to destroy their jungle homeland and culture.

The Karen and environmentalists also accuse Thailand, whose state power producer EGAT has signed a deal with Yangon to build the dams, of turning a blind eye to the plight of the Karen in a quest for cheap hydro-electricity.

The dams are one of the weapons the SPDC is using to clear us out, said Nay Tha Blay, 33, of Karen Rivers Watch, a pressure group operating out of a bamboo hut in a secret valley in rebel-held territory near the Salween.

If soldiers burn the village, the flowers can still blossom in the forest. If the village is flooded, the flowers will have nowhere to grow, he said, quoting a popular Karen folk song.

On both the Myanmar and Thai sides of the river, dozens of villages are home to men, women and children forced out of the eastern Karen State by SPDC raids.

At one makeshift refugee camp, new arrivals told Reuters of neighbours murdered and communities burnt to the ground. Some used the word myo dong. In Karen, it means genocide.

Sandwiched between the SPDC troops and Thailand – which already has 120,000 long-term Myanmar refugees and is loathe to take more – they see the Salween as a final hiding place. If the waters rise, they have nowhere to go.

We will have to abandon our homes, our land, our lives, everything, said Sein Win, a 56-year-old captain in the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), one of the many ethnic militias in eastern Myanmar opposed to Yangon. If they build the dams, the KNLA will have to fight, he told Reuters.

VEIL OF SECRECY

As with most things involving Myanmar, one of the worlds most secretive regimes, information is scarce and villagers have been told nothing by governments on either side of the river.

However, Nay Tha Blay, who has to use British colonial-era maps from 1927 to sketch out potential flood areas, says survey teams have been spotted up and down the river.

EGAT engineers began a feasibility study on a proposed 1,000 MW dam at Hutgyi, 30 miles (50 km) inside Myanmar, but the utility refuses to discuss details, citing a confidentiality clause in its deal with Yangon.

The study was suspended at Myanmars request last month after an engineer was killed in a landmine blast at the site, where Karen rights groups say ethnic minority people are victims of forced labour at the hands of the Burman-dominated SPDC – an allegation EGAT denies.

If we want them to work, we hire them. They are not forced to work for us, said Nipon Pienpucta, head of EGATs hydropower engineering division.

Upstream of Hutgyi is the site of the planned Upper Salween dam – 168 metres (550 ft) high, according to green groups who fear it will form a lake stretching 380 km (235 miles) through valleys controlled largely by rebel Karen, Karenni and Shan militias. Chinas Three Gorges dam is 185 metres high.

During the dry season, as the river subsides 10 metres (33 ft) or more, concrete EGAT markers are visible on rocks and a road has been cut through the forest on the Thai side to within a few hundred metres of the dam site.

HUMAN COST

Nipon denied any work was under way, but said the proposed 4-5,000 MW dam could be even higher than many already fear.

The upper one will be very high, if built, he told Reuters. His only apparent concern was that the reservoir could affect the Pai river, a Salween tributary that flows out of northwest  Thailand more than 240 km (150 miles) upstream.

He refused to discuss any potential impact on rivers or communities inside Myanmar, or compensation for displaced people.

We will study the impact, he said. If it is going to Pai, it will cause a lot of trouble. OK, we can move people, but its going to be difficult.

Myanmars government did not respond to requests for comment.

According to the confidential agreement between EGAT and Myanmar obtained by Reuters, Thailand will receive a certain percentage of free power for building Hutgyi, the first of the planned hydropower projects.

However, environmentalists and rights workers worry the company is blithely ignoring the human cost of the dams, in particular to the Karen, who number about 7 million, or just over 10 percent of Myanmars population.

Thai Senator Tuenjai Deetes, who has been pushing EGAT to come clean on its plans, fears they could create another 100,000 Myanmar refugees in northern Thailand.

Their main idea is to make electricity for the lowest cost, and dams outside Thailand are the cheapest investment, Tuenjai said. EGAT has never been interested in human rights, especially those of our ethnic friends in Burma.