The dams of despair

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Bangkok Post 15 April 2007

By PIYAPORN WONGRUANG

Burmese villagers slowly realise Salween project will swallow their land

As the Thai and Burmese governments look forward to tapping into the benefits of the Salween dam project, ethnic minority villagers like Jom Mi Too see it as his doom. The 38-year-old farmer once lived in a remote village deep inside Burma, eking out a living on his family‘s small plot. His life was never easy after the Burmese military moved their base a half-day walk from his village.

They often came to the village, destroying houses and farms, and sometimes torturing villagers.

Fearing for their lives, Jom Mi Too and his family would flee into the jungle with other villagers. Then his wife became seriously ill over a month ago and died.

He and his sons then decided to leave the village. For 30 days, they crept along routes controlled by the military and through deep jungles. They survived on only five cans of rice.

Eventually, they reached a new camp, which has not been named, opposite Mae Hong Son‘s Mae Sariang district.

‘‘I wish we could go back home and live there again, but we now have this camp as our new home. Better or worse, I have no place to go,”said Jom Mi Too, a boney, dark man in a shabby black T-shirt and shorts. His family now must share a space with others in a thatch- roofed bamboo hut.

He has no more tears left, but his face looks tired and distraught when he learns of plans to obstruct the Salween River and flood his home.

He is not the only Burmese whose thoughts have been overwhelmed by rumours that dams will be built and their land will be lost to the water.

The rumour has long cast a cloud across the valleys of the upper Salween River, causing anguish to thousands of people who have never been officially informed about the project.

Their plight has now become a question of human rights.

The Salween dam projects materialised in 2003 when the Thai and Burmese governments agreed to study hydropower development on the river. Two years later, they had a memorandum of understanding to study five dam projects – Tasang, Hutgyi, Weigyi, the Lower Salween and Tenasserim.

Thailand authorities said the country needed more electricity for future economic growth – and the dams could provide at least 15,000 megawatts.

Nu Chamnankiriprai, the Karen head of Mae Kon village near the camp, said his villagers first heard of possible dam projects about 20 years ago from Karen National Union (KNU) officials in Burma.

But the issue disappeared for a long time before emerging again during the term of the deposed Thaksin government four years ago.

He said some surveyors travelled up and down the river measuring the water levels and painting rocks.

‘‘They later told me that they were going to build the Salween Dam,” said Mr Nu, who has been chief for almost 20 years.

He said the Salween River is home to many people who use it to earn a living and they should be told if their livelihoods will be affected.

The situation is worse for minority groups in Burma who cannot voice concerns to Thai officials or demonstrate their opposition at home, he said.

A senior KNU officer taking care of the camp said the lives of Burmese are already hard. They are caught in the middle of fighting between the Burmese military and minority groups, including the KNU.

More and more minorities are moving closer to the border because of military incursions, he said. At the camp, the number of refugees has surged from about 800 people when it was established late last year to nearly 3,000 today.

If dams are built, he said, the refugees can go nowhere but to the mountains, where it is hard to live.

‘‘The [Burmese] military doesn‘t have to use force to kill them. There is no need to kill them because these people will be automatically suppressed by the dams,‘‘ said the officer, whose camp is sandwiched between the Weigyi and Lower Salween projects.

Thailand has no mechanisms in place to deal with cross-border human rights issues, particularly those resulting from state development projects, according to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC).

Vasant Panich, an NHRC commissioner, said the minority people in Burma should be protected from any negative consequences of the dam projects.

The NHRC is planning to examine the issue and hopefully will come up with recommendations, he said.

Pianporn Deetes, of the Southeast Asia Rivers Network, an organisation campaigning for sustainable river basin development in Southeast Asia, said damming the Salween River is unjustified on the issue of human rights alone, since it challenges sound development fundamentals.

She said it is time for Thailand to come up with laws to regulate its overseas development, particularly by the government, to safeguard human rights.

Energy Minister Piyasvasti Amranand refused to discuss the matter, saying that for at least 10 years there will be no hydropower projects on the Salween River and Thailand would rather focus on cooperation with Laos.

‘‘They are still in the study process,‘‘ he said.

Under the thatched roof of his newly built bamboo hut, Jom Mi Too seizes a bamboo pole to lean back on.

‘‘I can‘t figure out why people would obstruct the big river. If that really happens, where should we go?‘‘ he asked.