KNU Responds to Backlash on Hydropower Project

By The Irrawaddy 29 February 2016

After receiving criticism for signing a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on a hydropower dam project, the Karen National Union (KNU) released a statement saying that it will ensure local communities are involved in decision-making and benefit sharing.

The statement, published by the KNU on Friday, declared that the group’s business body, Thoolei Company Limited, “will not ignore opinions of local communities and engage in activities that might lead to human rights violations.”

The group also promised to “undertake… a feasibility study of international standard” which would measure the project’s social and environmental impact.

The statement came after the KNU company faced a local backlash after signing an MoU on the Baw Ka Hta River hydropower project with the Burmese government on February 18 in Naypyidaw. Critics, including Karen environmentalists, said the MoU was signed without proper assessments of the dam’s consequences and with a lack of consultation with affected civilians in Kyaukkyi Township, Pegu Division.

The KNU responded by stating that the agreement was not for “the realization” of the Baw Ka Hta dam, as was reported by some sources, but for a “project feasibility study report” that will reportedly last for a period of 24 months.

Progress on the hydropower project will also depend on the success of the ongoing peace process between the KNU and the Burmese government, the statement said. The KNU was one of eight ethnic armed groups to sign a so-called nationwide ceasefire agreement with the government in 2015.

The KNU’s central economic committee will undertake a field study with 14 district and central level leaders to address economic challenges that might be faced due to the influx of business operations during the current ceasefire.

If completed, the Baw Ka Hta dam would have the capacity to produce 160 megawatts of electricity, which would reportedly be distributed throughout Pegu Division and Karen State. Yet local Karen villagers around the dam site fear that it will lead to a loss of their land. They have compared the project to Pegu Division’s Shwegyin Dam, built on the river of the same name, where 45 villages were forcibly relocated from 2002 until 2011, when the dam was completed.