CHIANG MAI, Thailand — On May 22, representatives of the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT), accompanied by a team of researchers and students from Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, traveled to the remote northern Thai village of Ban Mae Sam Leap in Mae Hong Son Province to meet with local residents and discuss plans to build a dam on the Salween River.
Ban Mae Sam Leap lies on the eastern bank of the Salween, a river that separates this corner of Thailand from Myanmar, where it is known as the Thanlwin. On the other side of the river from the village is Papun District, in northern Kayin State, an area with a long history of conflict between Myanmar’s armed forces and the Karen National Union (KNU), an ethnic Kayin armed group. These days, however, an uneasy peace prevails in eastern Myanmar, where the government has reached a series of tentative ceasefire agreements with ethnic Kayin, Kayah and Shan rebels.
Although it is still far from certain whether these truces will hold (in Shan State, clashes continue despite pledges to hold the peace), this hasn’t stopped a push to restart long-stalled hydropower dam projects on the Thanlwin.
Altogether, six dams are planned for the river. Two—the Tasang and Upper Thanlwin dams—are located in Shan State, while the Ywa Thit dam is in Kayah State and the Wei Gyi, Dagwin and Hat Gyi dams are in Kayin State. Hat Gyi is the dam nearest Ban Mae Sam Leap.
Watsan Namchaitosaporn, the village’s deputy headman, seemed resigned to the fact that the US $1 billion, 1,200-megawatt dam, to be built by EGAT and China’s state-owned Sinohydro Corporation, would soon wipe Ban Mae Sam Leap off the map. “We don’t like it, but there’s nothing we can do about it. They’re going to build it anyway,” he said.
He explained that the visitors from Bangkok had informed him that even if the Thai side decided not to get involved in the project, the Myanmar government would go ahead with it, with Chinese help. “They [EGAT] don’t want to lose this chance. So we told them that the authorities have to find a new relocation site for us and provide us with proper compensation.”
According to surveys conducted by EGAT, the Hat Gyi dam will force six villages to relocate, while another 13 will be affected in some way. However, independent research by the Thailand-based NGO Karen Rivers Watch puts the number of villages that will need to be moved at 21. Forty-one other communities will also be impacted, the group says, bringing the total affected population to around 30,000 people.
The Hat Gyi dam was first approved by Myanmar’s Ministry of Electric Power in 2006, but until February of this year, when Deputy Minister of Electric Power U Myint Zaw told the Lower House of Parliament about plans to go forward with the Thanlwin dams, it was unclear if the government was still committed to the projects.
Already, even before construction work has begun in earnest, local people are feeling the impact of renewed interest in the dams. According to Steve Thompson, an environmental educator and researcher with the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN), some people living around Hat Gyi have already been displaced, and there has been an influx of Myanmar government troops into the area to “secure” it for the dam project.
There is, in fact, a very real risk that pushing ahead with the dams could reignite conflict in the region. The Hat Gyi dam has long been opposed by the KNU’s Brigade 5, which controls territory near the dam site. But clashes in the area in April involved another group, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), which said it came under attack by a joint force of Myanmar troops and a Kayin Border Guard Force under Myanmar military command when it refused to abandon one of its bases near the dam site.
That incident—which according to DKBA sources claimed more than 40 lives—shows just how fragile the peace is in this part of Myanmar, where insurgent armies have waged a decades-old campaign for greater autonomy. The foreign partners in the project are also painfully aware of this reality: In 2007, one Thai EGAT employee was killed and several others injured when unknown assailants attacked a workers camp at the dam construction site.
Nevertheless, a historic ceasefire agreement between the KNU and the government reached in January 2012 has convinced many decision-makers that the time is right to resume work on the dam, despite local opposition.
According to Mr. Thompson, the researcher at KESAN, the Hat Gyi dam appears to have created a serious dilemma for the KNU. “Local communities are strongly opposed to the dam project, but it doesn’t appear that the current KNU leadership is taking their concerns seriously,” he said.
Mr. Thompson suggested that the KNU leaders may be allowing the project to go ahead, despite its negative impacts, because it believes it is “in the interests of what they see as peace and development.”
In other areas, civil society groups say that the ceasefire agreements have not made it any easier to assess the potential impact of the Thanlwin dams.
Khu Mi Reh, a spokesperson for the Karenni Civil Societies Network, a community-based organization that monitors the peace process between the government and the Karenni National Progressive Party, an ethnic Kayah armed group, said that his organization has been denied permission to inspect the site of the Ywa Thit dam in Kayah State, despite an agreement to allow independent assessments.
“We tried to travel to the dam site after the ceasefire agreement, but they [the government army] didn’t allow us to go the area where the dam will be built,” he said, adding that the heavy presence of government troops in the area has already forced many local villagers to leave.
Like the Hat Gyi dam, the Ywa Thit dam will be built by a Chinese company, the state-owned Datang Corporation, which signed an agreement with the Myanmar government in January 2010 to build three dams in Kayah State, including the 600-megawatt Ywa Thit on the Thanlwin River, and two others on the Pawn and Thabet rivers.
“We are worried about the social and environmental impact,” said Khu Mi Reh, citing concerns about the existence of a fault line near the dam site. “If an earthquake occurred, it could be devastating for people living downstream.”
Driving much of this anxiety is the lack of transparency surrounding many of these dam projects, despite the end of military rule in Myanmar and the cessation of conflict in many parts of the country. Increasingly, ethnic communities are questioning the way that the government and the leaders of ethnic armed groups are making deals without disclosing the details to the public.
This issue came up in late May, when more than 150 representatives from 40 different ethnic Kayin community organizations gathered to discuss the peace process. In a statement, they called on the KNU to speak to the public whenever they want to sign big business deals, such as for power plants and dams, which might damage the livelihoods of local civilians.
Naw Susanna Hla Hla Soe, the director of the Yangon-based Karen Women’s Action Group, said that some projects, such as the dam on the Thaut Yin Ka River in Taungoo District, Bago Region, have already seriously damaged local communities.
“We only find out about the projects after they’re already having a negative impact on civilians. We don’t want such incidents to happen in the future,” she said.
This story first appeared in the August 2013 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.