RANGOON — Military activity and tension at the site of the Hat Gyi dam in Karen State threatens a breakdown of Burma’s nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) as concerns grow over potential clashes between the Burma Army and the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA).
The KNLA is the largest ethnic Karen armed group and the military wing of the Karen National Union (KNU), which signed the NCA with the previous government in 2015.
“If you cross the line [into our territory], there will be fighting,” Gen. Saw Johnny, KNLA Commander-in-Chief was quoted as saying by Karen Rivers Watch, a network of ethnic Karen community-based organizations.
The KNLA’s Brigade 5 partially controls the areas where the Hat Gyi dam will be built, and it has come out against the hydropower project, which has delayed construction.
Hsa Moo, a spokesperson for Karen Rivers Watch, told The Irrawaddy that local villagers who live near the dam site on the Salween River continue to flee their homes as they see signs of military activity, troop deployment, and tension that they fear will lead to confrontations between KNLA and the Burma Army, backed by the region’s Border Guard Force (BGF).
Local concerns were exacerbated by a recent offensive in Myaing Gyi Ngu and Mae Tha Waw regions launched by the Burma Army and the BGF against a splinter group of the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA). The outbreak of conflict displaced more than 4,000 villagers.
Hsa Moo said, “Local villagers tell me that the Burma Army and the BGF had asked them to leave their villages. They were fleeing their homes because they were afraid of further fighting. They witnessed the Burma Army and the BGF moving toward the dam site. They are fleeing for their safety.”
Gen. Baw Kyaw Heh, the KNLA’s vice commander-in-chief, also said that the movement of the BGF and Burma Army troops to strengthen positions on the western bank of the Salween River would “contradict the terms of the NCA, and would only escalate tensions and increase the risk of armed conflict.”
He said he believes that the shift in military activity in the area is an attempt to secure the dam site as government forces must gain full control of the road and the surrounding areas in order to carry out construction of the project.
The rights group also claimed that the Burma Army is using the pretense of eliminating the DKBA splinter group to gain more control over the area surrounding the Hat Gyi dam site.
Meanwhile, KNLA sources say they see Burma Army deployment in the area as an indicator that they are seeking to expand and reinforce territorial control throughout Karen State.
“The DKBA does not operate in the five areas in our Brigade 5 territory that were demanded by BGF,” said Gen. Baw Kyaw Heh referring to KNLA bases which the BGF asked for full control over in early September—a demand which the KNLA turned down.
The five areas are Toh T’Bah Wai, Klaw Tae Hta, P’Tae Hta, Yaw Ma Hta and Mae Lah villages; all are located around the Hat Gyi dam site.
The US$2.6 billion project is being planned by China’s Sinohydro Corporation and Thailand’s Electricity Generation Authority of Thailand (EGAT). The two entities reached a deal for the project with Burma’s Ministry of Electric Power in 2006. The dam will produce up to 1,300 megawatts of electricity, much of it going to Thailand.