by Michelle Chen
To the Karen people living along the Salween River in eastern Burma, this saying is ages old. But today the warning that dams and floods will make Mother homeless seems more relevant than ever before.
"Rich men dam the water
Flooding the hill rice field, causing problems for Mother
Rich men dam the river
Flooding the roof and making Mother homeless"
For thousands of years, the Salween has flowed freely through China, Burma and Thailand, nourishing lush ecosystems and indigenous communities throughout its 2,800-kilometer course. But the military junta, which has ruled Burma since it seized power in August of 1988, has caught up to the possibilities of international “development” by deciding to harness the latent energy of the Salween. The dictatorship known as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) is now driving four massive multibillion-dollar dam projects that would exploit the river for the first time with the intent of producing hydroelectric power. Human-rights groups say that the multiple emerging Salween dam projects will ignite the latest spark in the Burmese people’s long-smoldering struggle against this government.
Bloody protests in Yangon brought international attention and outrage to Burma a few weeks ago, but the Salween is a more isolated casualty of authoritarian rule. Activists say the plight of groups like the Karen, who make up some 7 percent of the population, is every bit as intense a tragedy as the recent crackdown on the protesting monks. In pursuit of yet more profit for a few, the civil wars that have inflamed the homelands of Burma’s ethnic peoples for generations are now being stirred to a boiling point by multinational corporations.
Resource exploitation and human-rights violations have a historical precedent in Burma, and activists foresee more abuses under the pretext of “securing” the region for dam development.
In a 2004 interview with the activist coalition Karen Rivers Watch (KRW), a local villager predicted the military would use dam construction as a license for further oppression: “[If the project proceeds], there is so much we will face. There will be twice as many [State Peace and Development Council] troops in this area. Where can we flee? How will we survive? Where can we go?”
Global forces are financing both the various hydropower projects planned for the Salween and the junta’s continuing rule. According to an analysis by the Thailand-based environmental coalition Salween Watch, promises of capital have flooded in from foreign investors in recent years. With an estimated cost of at least $20 billion, the dams could easily amount to Burma’s largest-ever foreign investment.
Thailand is securing its position on the Salween project and firmly aligning itself with the junta through the development firm MDX and the state-led Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT). Burma has also engaged major Chinese enterprises, like the ironically named Farsighted Investment Group, an international player in the hydropower and thermal energy sectors.Thailand and China are among Burma’s most loyal trading partners, especially in energy-related projects, and thus help shield the junta from continuing international pressure to cease its brutal practices. Now, the push for dam power has planted the country’s Thai and Chinese neighbors in the midst of a civil war.
Human-rights and environmental advocates are focused on four dam sites: Hat Gyi, nestled in the Kahilu Wildlife Sanctuary; Wei Gyi and Dagwin, hugging the Thailand-Burma border; and Tasang, slated to be Southeast Asia’s tallest dam at over 200 meters. The dams would slice through the territories of the Karen, Shan and Karenni ethnic minorities - all bastions of resistance to the junta, which has been engulfed in conflict from its beginning.
While the recent images of monks and peaceful protestors being bloodied, arrested, detained or killed and the earlier pro-democracy protests of 1988 have both become internationally recognized symbols of the unrest in Burma’s capital, research from the human-rights community shows that many of the most egregious abuses have raged almost continually in outlying areas like the Salween region. Since the break from colonial rule after World War II, ethnic groups have fought for political autonomy and cultural rights, while the government has tried to eliminate rebel forces through military offensives and the destruction of villages and habitats.
Today, war-ridden, porous border areas are Burma’s interface with both multinational industries and the global black market, entwined in the drug trade as well as transborder ventures like the dams. River communities have become battlegrounds for clashes between the government and various ethnic groups.
Rooted in forest and mountain terrains, many of the minority communities affected carry on the fishing and agricultural traditions that have survived the domination of the ethnic Burman majority, which makes up around 70 percent of the population, estimated at roughly 50 million.
The volatility of the Salween project was exposed in September, just as the widely publicized pro-democracy demonstrations were building in the capital and elsewhere: a grenade explosion at the Hat Gyi site killed a member of an EGAT technical assessment team. According to press reports, EGAT suspended its operations, and the Burmese government immediately accused the resistance group Karen National Union - long a major target of military violence - of orchestrating the attack.
To activists opposing Thailand’s investment in Burma, the incident simply proves that opposing the junta or its goals has dangerous consequences. Even so, critics point out that there are not just threats to Thai workers; there has also been consistent brutality against local peoples, which EGAT’s investment is intensifying.The stories that have trickled out of isolated villages near the dam sites expose how infrastructure “development” may escalate into a human-rights crisis.
“If they give orders to go somewhere, we must go at once. If we do not go, they torture us,” said a 37 year-old Karen man from the Bu Tho township, just across the Salween from Thailand, in an interview with the Karen Human Rights Group. For over a decade, the organization has documented military attacks, forced labor, and displacement throughout the region.
In Papun District, near Wei Gyi and Dagwin, hydropower development evolved into an ongoing military bombardment of Karen villages. KRW reports that since the early 1990s, in the process of fighting indigenous resistance forces, the junta has driven more than 50,000 villagers from their homes, halving the previous population.
The numbers are even more staggering in the territory of the Shan people, who make up about 9 percent of Burma’s population. The human-rights group Sapawa estimates that since feasibility studies on the Tasang site began in 1996, over 300,000 people have been displaced.
Human-rights monitors estimate that as of October 2006, at least half a million have become “internally displaced people” the largest part of that figure refers to the approximately 300,000 people who are currently in temporary settlements in cease-fire zones administered by ethnic nationalities; about 109,000 have been forcibly moved to government-run relocation villages or camps; and roughly 99,000 civilians are officially considered "in hiding" in the jungle, forests and fields in Eastern Burma, many of whom have chosen this refuge as a form of defiance of the junta's authority. The figure of 500,000 does not include still other thousands of refugees who have fled across the borders, many to Thailand.
Refugees report systematic abuses in areas under military control, including detention, torture, and rape. Conscription of villagers to serve as slave labor for troops is another commonly cited tactic.
“Kyaw Po,” a 45 year-old man from the Dweh Loh township in Papun, recalled his work regimen in a 2000 interview with field investigators: “They force us to go and cut the scrub along the road and then build a fence of bamboo and install it along the main road. … Only the men were going, but sometimes they were not enough, so the women had to go too. … We have to go because we are afraid of them. They have weapons. We have to go, whether we are free to go or not.”
Environmentalists say the social upheaval as a result of the proposed dams is inherent in the ecological damage that will follow. Anticipated impacts include vast flooding, chemical changes in water and soil, waste dumping, and massive depletion of fish and wildlife populations.The Salween dams may well facilitate yet another planned project which has serious environmental ramifications: the Thai government plans to benefit from a system of reservoirs that would divert about 2.2 billion cubic meters of water annually for its industrial and public consumption. The environmental loss could cripple indigenous food systems. Advocacy groups warn that as dam projects obliterate farms and fishing waters, inhabitants will become permanent refugees.
The Weigyi dam, according to the Karenni Development Research Council’s estimates, would displace more than 30,000 people through flooding and related impacts. The ancestral lands of the Yintailai people, with a population of 1,000, would be completely submerged. And the Mon Youth Organization, representing the Mon people who constitute about 2 percent of the population, projects that the dams would “alter the lives of over half a million people” who fish and farm downstream.
Pianporn Deetes, with the Thai environmental group Southeast Asia Rivers Network, points out that Thailand will have to absorb a major refugee exodus from the dam areas. In their rosy profit projections, she said, “the dam promoters did not include the human cost of this electricity.”
Though the junta has been remarkable for the savage degree of its aggression, the Salween projects are not unusual in scale or political ambition. Other colossal dam projects, like China’s Three Gorges Dam and various proposed dams on Southeast Asia’s Mekong River, demonstrate similar agendas: business profits, government power and national prestige. Large dams have disrupted countless communities worldwide, displacing an estimated 40 to 80 million people, according to the World Commission on Dams, an international body.“What we’re seeing in Burma is unfortunately quite common, although the Burmese government is particularly brutal,” said Aviva Imhof, campaigns director with the environmental group International Rivers Network. “Large dams and other large infrastructure projects are frequently coupled with repression of ethnic minority groups. They're the ones that bear brunt of this sort of ‘development.’”
International standards for dam planning, set by the World Commission on Dams, call for informed consent from affected indigenous peoples. But rights groups say the Salween dams are designed specifically to disenfranchise adjacent communities.
Zetty Brake, with the Thailand-based organization Burma Issues, said Karen villagers “are often unaware of the situation until an offensive is underway, orders for relocation are posted, or cross-border humanitarian workers inform them.”
“It is clear that the regime has no intention of consulting and heeding the voices of the local population,” said KRW organizer Paw Wah. “Under the convenient guise of ‘development,’ the regime is proceeding with its brutal policies against the Karen people.”
At the Tasang site, MDX has reportedly conducted its own brand of public relations in local communities in an effort to garner local approval. One villager from nearby Mong Ton told investigators with Sapawa, “MDX is trying to make us believe that building Tasang dam will improve our lives so that we will support the dam. … They told us that the dam will bring lots of visitors and tourists who will come with money to spend in our town. But they never told us about any negative effects.”
If the junta is aiming to keep locals in the dark, the sense of disempowerment is still deepening for many. “[T]he ones who decide on this project are all governments, on the Burmese and on the Thai side,” said Plot Swar, a village schoolmaster near the Wei Gyi site in a 2004 KRW interview. “We ourselves are too small, and it is impossible for us to prevent this.”
Development by dictatorship
Though the Salween projects are unprecedented in scale, Burma has endured a legacy of resource exploitation – logging, mining and gas extraction – always tied both to military brutality and foreign capital.
Beginning in the late 1980s, the construction of the Yadana natural-gas pipeline in Karen territory, funded by the US-based oil company Unocal, coincided with a well-documented campaign of killings and forced labor. Though victims brought an international lawsuit that ended in a landmark settlement, Chevron, which took over Unocal’s operations, continues to tap Burma’s gas reserves.
According to the human-rights advocacy group EarthRights International, Chinese, South Korean and Indian companies have also recently brokered deals for gas development in Burma. Bucking widespread criticism from rights activists, investor countries have claimed that trade with Burma will gradually foster democratic transition.
The Salween dams reflect a global shift in energy policy, as countries look to hydroelectricity as an alternative to fossil fuels. Thailand and China have announced long-term plans to invest heavily in hydropower, to foster supposedly more-sustainable energy production.
Burma’s state press reported last year on government plans to “make hydropower the country’s sole source of electricity by 2030,” with dams capable of generating thousands of megawatts primarily for export.Activists in the United States and Thailand argue that by outsourcing energy production to an undemocratic regime, countries that ostensibly have higher environmental and human-rights standards are simply underwriting oppression abroad.
“If Thailand is going to invest more in Burma,” said Deetes, “they will support the junta to hold their power longer, and they'll only delay change in Burma.”
Shifting the tide
Human-rights organizations want Thai officials to withdraw investment from Burma and develop energy policies that address concerns of civil-society groups. As an alternative to large dams, they promote renewable sources like wind and solar power.
International scrutiny is focusing more on Burma, but grassroots activists say the movement to protect the Salween will emerge from the ground up.
Brake of Burma Issues said restoring the rights of indigenous communities may inherently bring environmental balance to lands wrecked by civil strife.
Ethnic peoples “have developed a deep knowledge of the environment” in their agricultural and fishing practices, she said. “Despite the poverty that most ethnic people live in, there has been no great attempt to exploit the vast natural resources in the area for quick monetary profit. The traditional management of environment is sustainable.”
Wah of KRW said that fundamentally the resistance to the Salween dams, like other struggles against the junta, centers on self-determination. “The Karen people believe that we have to build destiny on our own,” she said. “No one will struggle for us.”
Visit the Salween Watch website and sign their petition to encourage the Thai prime minister to withdraw from all planned hydropower projects along the Salween.
About the Author Michelle Chen works and plays in New York City. Formerly on staff at the independent, now-defunct, news publication, The NewStandard, her other recent occupations include living in Shanghai as a Fulbright research fellow, freelance writing and dish-washing. Her work has also appeared in Extra!, Legal Affairs, City Limits and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain.