Activists Point to Links Between Exploitation of Waterways and Conflict, Rights Abuses

By Nyein Nyein 14 March 2019

YANGON—“Let the rivers flow freely means ‘Stop the civil war,’” said prominent poet Ko Lay (or Innwa Goneyi), during a panel discussion in Mandalay to raise awareness about protecting rivers and to commemorate the International Day of Action for Rivers, which fell on Thursday.

The poet, who is in his 80s and has witnessed the 70-year-long civil war, remarked on Wednesday that the prolonged conflict “is not a sincere one and I would say it’s a financial war: Every group uses guns to make money and sells natural resources. So when we talk about protecting rivers, we need to talk about ending the civil war.”

River networks and environmentalists from both the majority and minority ethnic groups have been consistently outspoken about protection of rivers, largely as a way to preserve their ethnic identity, traditions and way of life.

This year, on March 13-14, the Burma Rivers Network, the Save the Salween Network and those who care for the Irrawaddy River raised awareness together about the need to let rivers flow freely with panel discussions, documentary film screenings and cultural exchanges in Mandalay.

They urged the government to listen to the locals’ concerns and include their views whenever they consider development projects, including dams on rivers, whether big or small ones, in minority ethnic regions.

On Thursday, the network members also conducted a prayer service at the Irrawaddy Myitsone area and on the Salween riverbank, according to Boi Nu, a spokesperson for the BRN.

Boi Nu, an ethnic Kuki woman who lives near the upper Chindwin River in Homalin Township, Sagaing Region, added that the local residents are never consulted on development plans, and by the time they learn about it, the projects are already implemented.

“Being a woman, I urge other women to participate in those discussions whenever we hear about the projects, because women suffer most from the consequence of these projects,” said Boi Nu.

She stressed that the local people, both men and women, know when there are changes in the rivers, citing her experience with the Chindwin River. The Chindwin River is contaminated mostly through the Uru (Uyu) River, which suffers from contamination from mining in the Hpakant areas in Kachin State.

“Women also know if the color of the river water has changed. But there is no awareness-raising or immediate instructions about whether the water is safe for drinking and for household use,” she added.

Regarding approaches to development projects, the authorities and the ethnic minorities have different perspectives, said Saw Tha Poe from the Save the Salween Network.

Saw Tha Poe added that the ethnic villagers living along the Salween riverbanks have a lot of different traditions, cultures, languages, knowledge and skills, and these need to be taken into consideration.

Residents of Ei Tu Hta on the Salween River near the Thai border demand no dams and call for peace on their river on the International Day of Action for Rivers on March 14, 2019. / Hsa Moo / Karen River Watch

Sharing his experience working as a researcher on the way of life of people along the Salween River, he said, “They have their own knowledge of life skills built upon the ecosystem of the rivers. The rivers are their schools for survival, and for fishing and river transportation. If the rivers were closed, and the waterways changed, it would directly impact their ways of life. But sadly their views are not included for consideration in the policy drafting process.”

“Our culture also largely depends on those rivers, as the locals use the names of the waters and rivers for their villages. If the dams are built for development, their traditional knowledge would be disregarded,” Saw Tha Poe added, citing the example of the Karen communities in Irrawaddy Region, many of whose residents can no longer speak the Karen language and are unable to practice their customs.

The Karen environmentalist added that his community envies the attention the Irrawaddy River is getting thanks to the presence of the majority Burman group, which speaks out against dams on the mighty river, while many seem to forget about other crucial rivers and tributaries.

“Instead of talking about protecting one river or a key river, this time we have to have a unified voice for free-flowing rivers so that we can leave behind a good legacy for our younger generations. The legacy that we must leave is not the dams, but the free-flowing rivers,” said Saw Tha Poe.

To protect rivers, the environmentalists and authors urged protection of the marine species they contain. In the case of the Irrawaddy River, many Irrawaddy dolphins have been killed due to electric-shock fishing. “If law enforcement was good enough and trustworthy, and if our people were more aware of the need to value the dolphins, we could reduce electric-shock fishing,” said Nyi Pu Lay, a prominent author based in Mandalay.

The panelists also highlighted the dangers of building too many bridges across rivers, which can cause changes to the waterways and sand accumulation.

Large dams drive conflict

In southeast Myanmar, Karen Rivers Watch and some 2,000 members of local communities gathered in Ei Tu Hta on the Salween riverbank to urge that “all proposals [of the government] for the construction of large dams on our [Salween] rivers be completely abandoned” on Thursday.

The Karen communities oppose the government-planned Hatgyi Dam on the Salween River, fearing it will flood and starve their ancestral territories.

“[It] permanently displaces us from our heritage, and inflames conflict and [threatens] security. For our Karen people the Hatgyi Dam is a symbol [of] violence and a tool used by the Burma [Myanmar] Army to occupy our territory,” reads the communities’ statement issued on Thursday.

Locals suffered from armed conflict due to the dam project along the eastern access road leading to the Hatgyi Dam site in September 2016, when the military-backed Border Guard Force moved to the area to take control of the dam site, which lies in Paan district. The action forced the displacement of over 5,000 residents of 28 villages to Myaing Gyi Nyu.

Those displaced people are still not able to return and now live without access to adequate food, medicine or humanitarian support, said Hsa Moo of Karen River Watch.

“Our people want peace, not mega-development projects, as they will not bring us any benefits,” said Hsa Moo. She said large dams like the Hatgyi project drive conflict and uproot people from their homes and indigenous territories.