CHIANG MAI, Thailand — Ongoing fighting in southeastern Burma between the government and Karen rebels is linked to a planned hydropower dam nearby on the Salween River, according to an environmental watchdog.
Salween Watch, a Karen organization monitoring developments on the river, released a statement on Monday saying that the recent escalation of clashes between the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA) and the government was linked to plans by the latter to “wipe out” DKBA troops near the site of the planned Hat Gyi dam.
As fighting continued over the weekend in Karen State’s Myawaddy and Hlaingbwe townships, four civilians were killed and several others injured when an artillery shell hit the road that links the town of Myawaddy and Kawkareik village.
Paul Sein Twa, a spokesman for Salween Watch, told The Irrawaddy that the planned hydropower project was behind the violence.
“They [the Burma Army] need to push the DKBA troops out of the areas near the dam site in order to start the [construction] work. They also need to clear KNLA [Karen National Liberation Army] Brigade 5. They need to build roads [to carry construction materials] and stations for security,” he said.
“They can only start the project when they complete these requirements. So, we understand that the dam project is behind the incidents.”
Paul Sein Twa added that other development projects such as the Asia Highway—a super highway that will link Thailand’s Mae Sot with Burma’s commercial capital Rangoon—as well as special economic zones in Myawaddy and Hpa-an, the Karen State capital, are also helping to fuel the recent hostilities.
“In the bigger picture, there are business interests and development plans behind the conflicts,” Paul Sein Twa said.
Clashes between the government and the DKBA began late last month in Myawaddy and Kyaikmayaw Township in Mon State. The conflict has since spread to Karen State’s Hlaingbwe Township, where the Hat Gyi hydropower dam is to be built.
The area is controlled by a mix of ethnic Karen armed groups such as the DKBA and KNLA, as well as the Burmese government army and its militias, known as Border Guard Forces.
Companies including Thailand’s Electricity Generation Authority of Thailand (EGAT) have deals to help with the construction of the dam, which will produce up to 1,300 megawatts of electricity, much of it going to Thailand.
The US$2.6 billion project is being planned by China’s Sinohydro Corporation and EGAT, which signed a deal for the project with Burma’s Ministry of Electric Power in 2006.
The Thai and Burmese governments have been trying to build the dam since then, but construction has not yet begun amid opposition from Karen armed groups such as the KNLA and the DKBA. Opponents of the dam fear the project is a recipe for human rights abuses and negative environmental impacts.
Citing sources from the DKBA and the KNLA’s political wing, the Karen National Union (KNU), Salween Watch said the Burma Army had sent nine truckloads of troops to the area since Oct. 8.
“We were told that the Burma Army has been sending more troops to the site of the dam by both trucks and boats. They fired artillery to where the DKBA was stationed to clear out the area,” said Paul Sein Twa.
The DKBA and government troops reportedly fired on each other’s bases on Friday and Saturday, forcing more than 200 villagers in nearby Mae Tha Waw village, Karen State, to flee into Thailand. The Thai military later pushed the displaced villagers back into Burma.
The Hat Gyi dam is one of five hydropower projects proposed on the Salween River, which passes through Burma’s conflict-riven Karen, Karenni and Shan states.
Dam projects on the Salween are opposed by many local communities, which are urging that the projects only be reconsidered when there is genuine peace in Burma, according to the Salween Watch statement.
Paul Sein Twa said Burma’s ethnic conflict would continue to have transnational repercussions.
“The escalation of conflict and militarization is not only a domestic problem. … As conflicts have broken out, refugees have fled across the border. There is no safety for civilians. I even worry that the conflict will be expanded and affect the current peace process,” he said.
“Salween Watch condemns this recent escalation of conflict by the Burma Army, which is further evidence that building dams in war zones only exacerbates conflict and militarization,” read the group’s statement. “Especially during this time of nationwide ceasefire negotiations in Burma, we demand that the Burmese government immediately ends this military offensive and pulls back its troops from the area.”