Dams on Salween Threaten Indigenous Groups

Key Issues: 

IPS 28 February 2007

By Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Feb 28 – Being a village headman means little if you live in a community nestling in the hills close to Thailand's northern border with Burma. More so, if officials have plans to use your village for a large ‘development' project.

That is the lesson Nu Chamnayakiriprai continues to learn as he ponders the future of his family and of over 50 others who live in the Me Koh village, in the Mae Hong Son province. The questions that the 49-year-old seeks answers to include where his community will be forced to relocate and what economic prospects await them.

On Wednesday, during a visit to Bangkok, Nu confessed that these troubling questions have been with him for four years, when he had learnt, indirectly, that his village and the surrounding areas would go under water soon after one of a series of dams is built on the Salween river, which flows through Burma.

‘'We still do not know where we will be moved. The officials who came to survey our village and the nearby area did not ask for our views or discuss the plans,'' says Nu, whose village has thrived on an economy of rice and vegetable farming for nearly 100 years. ‘'That is why we are against the dams being built on the Salween.''

The predicament faced by the villagers of Me Koh is one shared by other communities, too, both on the Thai side and the Burmese side of the international border. Activists estimate that over 80,000 people will be forced out of their homes due to large tracts of land expected to go under water.

Many of those likely to be affected live close to Burma's eastern border, which is home to ethnic communities such as the Karen, Shan and Karenni. Even the international border is destined for change, since a part of the Salween serves as a geographic divide between the two countries.

The cloak of secrecy that has been thrown over the construction plans -- which involve state-owned power entities in Burma, China and Thailand -- was brought to light Wednesday by local environmentalists and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). ‘'The entire decision-making process for the planning and implementation of the Salween hydropower development projects has been shrouded in secrecy,'' a coalition of NGOs stated in a letter of protest that was handed to Thailand's minister of energy.

‘'There has been a total absence of public participation among the dam-affected communities in Burma (and) the over fifty Karen-Thai villages living along the Salween river in Thailand's Mae Hong Son province,'' the letter adds. ‘'The following laws and regulations are currently being violated in the planning process for the Salween dams: complete disclosure of project information to the public; a hearing to receive input from affected people; and the official public hearing of the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment report.''

The petition submitted to officials in Bangkok was part of a global campaign held Wednesday to oppose the five dams being built on the Salween. Activists in cities as far afield as Tokyo, WashingtonDC, Sydney, New Delhi, Berlin and Paris held protests outside Thai embassies and consulates to highlight the human and environmental cost of the planned dams.

The 2,800 km Salween is the longest untouched body of water flowing through South-east Asia. This free-flowing river starts in the mountains of Tibet, courses through China's southern Yunnan province, enters Burma, touches the Thai-Burma border, and then flows out into the Andaman Sea.

The reservoirs to be created with the hydropower projects are expected to engulf up to 2,000 sq km of land rich in biodiversity, including rare and endangered plants and animals. Also threatened with extinction are the indigenous cultures in the area, some of which belong to small tribes, such as the Yintalai, who have ‘'approximately 1,000 people remaining in the world,'' states a background note produced by activists.

The Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT), the state-run power utility, is taking a lead role in driving the plans to build the five dams, such as the Hat Gyi dam in Burma's KarenState, and the Tasang dam in Burma's ShanState. Construction of the Hat Gyi is to commence later this year.

EGAT is also under fire for ignoring the fact of Burma being run by an oppressive military dictatorship. After all, the areas selected for the dams along the Salween lie in the heart of a region that has been torn apart by years of conflict.

Burmese troops have been accused of committing a spate of human rights violations as they try to wrest control of territory from ethnic rebel groups, like the Karen and Shan. Abuses reported have ranged from burning and looting, forced relocation, extrajudicial killings, and rape. Both sides of the conflict have been accused of excessive use of landmines in the Salween river basin.

NGOs are equally troubled that the Burmese military will benefit from money pouring in at a time when the South-east Asian nation is under international sanctions led by the U.S. government. The investment for the Hat Gyi dam alone is estimated to be one billion U.S. dollars.

‘'Thailand's image will be tainted if these dams are built, because of the major role played by EGAT,'' Sai Sai, coordinator of Salween Watch, an NGO based in the northern Thai city of Chang Mai, told IPS. ‘'Thai investment is damaging the environment, forcing villagers out of their homes and making the Burmese military government richer.''