The Karen National Union (KNU) is under criticism after signing a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Burmese government on a hydropower project known as the Baw Ka Hta dam.
Saw Tar Doh Moo, the head of Thoo Lay Company Limited, a business body owned by the KNU, signed the MoU with Aye Hsan of the Electrical Power Management Department on February 18 in Naypyidaw. When completed, the dam in Pegu Division’s Kyaukkyi Township would be capable of producing 160 megawatts of electricity. This electricity would reportedly be distributed throughout Pegu Division and Karen State.
Both local civilians and members of the KNU leadership spoke out on social media against the signing of the MoU, pointing out that proper assessments and consultations had not been conducted for the dam, named for its location on the Ba Ka Hta River.
“We only heard [about the dam] from news on the internet. We don’t know everything in detail. We [senior leaders at KNU’s central committee] should know about it,” Saw Thaw Thee Bwe, the first general secretary of the KNU, told The Irrawaddy.
Saw Thaw Thee Bwe said that the Thoo Lay Company should formally explore the impact of the project before proceeding with an MoU. He explained that protocol required that the results of the research be presented to the KNU central committee before a decision could be made.
“After these assessments, the local community, NGOs and environmentalists should get involved to advise on the consequences of the dam. Then we should inform local villagers,” said Saw Thaw Thee Bwe. “Now we don’t know [enough] about the MoU.”
Hsa Moo, media coordinator of Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN) confirmed that no social or environmental impact assessments had been carried out prior to the MoU. She also told The Irrawaddy that ethnic Karen villagers around the Baw Ka Hta project feared that the dam would cause them to lose their land.
Referencing another local dam project also in Pegu Division, Hsa Moo said locals did not want to have to relocate like those in the areas affected by the Shwegyin River hydropower project. The 75-megawatt Shwegyin dam displaced thousands of people from 45 villages when construction began in 2002 and was later completed in 2011. Those who were forced to abandon their homes reportedly did not receive any compensation.
“Local villagers are indigenous people, but they are lacking [a role] in decision making. The Shwegyin dam negatively impacted local people—they lost their land and villages. They became internally displaced,” Hsa Moo said.
“The dam project should be transparent and accountable,” she added. “Local villagers should be consulted and allowed to participate in the decision making process.”
The Thoo Lay company engages in oil and gas extraction, mining, construction, and car imports. Tar Doh Moo, the head of the company, could not be reached by phone for comment at the time of reporting.