On Salween River, Growing Signs that Work on Hat Gyi Dam Resumes

By Saw Yan Naing 22 May 2013

There were further signs this week that construction on the controversial Hat Gyi hydropower dam on the Salween River in Burma’s Karen State has resumed, as representatives of the Thai dam developer visited Thai villages that would be affected by the planned 1,200-megawatt project.

After Burma’s government and the Karen National Union (KNU) reached a ceasefire in January 2012, there has been an increase in activity at the planned construction site, even though Karen rebel groups strongly oppose the dam.

On Wednesday, a team of researchers, consultants and company representatives of the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) visited several Thai villages on the banks of the Salween River that would be flooded due to their location in the planned dam reservoir. The group carried out a survey among the affected the villagers about the potential impacts.

Watsan Namchaitosapon, the deputy headman of Ban Mae Sam Leap village in Mae Hong Son Province on the Burma-Thai border, said the delegation, comprising researchers and students from Chulalongkorn University, consulted local community leaders about the impacts of the dam and sought villagers’ opinions on the project.

Local residents, he said, didn’t like the construction of the dam, but they were told that the Burmese government was determined to go ahead with the project, which is located about 50 km (30 miles) from the Thai border.

The EGAT delegation told the villagers that if Thailand doesn’t help build the dam China would step in to complete the project, according to Namchaitosapon.

“We can do nothing, even we don’t like [the dam] they will build it anyway. So, we told them that the authorities have to find a new relocation site for us and provide us with proper compensation,” the village deputy headman told The Irrawaddy.

Ban Mae Sam Leap is a Thai village located on the bank of Salween River and most inhabitants are ethnic Karen hill tribe. Many rely on local border trade for their livelihoods, while some are fishermen and farmers.

According to activist group Salween Watch, the US $2.6-billion project is being planned by China’s Sinohydro Corporation and EGAT, a Thai government body, which signed a deal for the project with Burma’s Ministry of Electric Power in 2006.

The Hat Gyi dam is supposed to be built on the Salween River in Karen State, but it has long been opposed by the KNU, especially by KNU Brigade 5 which is based in the region. Due to past attacks launched by Brigade 5, construction work at the dam site has repeatedly stalled.

In 2007, one Thai worker from EGAT died and several others were injured when a group of unknown men conducted a grenade attack on a workers camp at the dam construction site.

Last month, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) clashed with the Burmese army and a government-affiliated militia, called the Karen Border Guard Force, nearby the Hat Gyi dam site.

Fighting had erupted after the DKBA, a breakaway Karen rebel group, had refused to follow an order by government forces to abandon one of its bases near the site.

DKBA Maj. Wai Htoo said the Hat Gyi dam’s construction site also bordered on the KNU Brigade 5 area of control.

Both Karen rebel units oppose construction of the dam, and although the groups have fought against each other in the past, they are likely to cooperate in attacking government troops and workers if they go ahead with the dam project.

The groups not only oppose the government forces’ incursion into their areas as the dam proceeds, but they also disapprove of the dam’s far-reaching impact on local Karen communities and the environment.

The Hat Gyi power plant is one of six large-scale dams which have been planned on the Salween River by the Burmese government, which will have a combined installed capacity of 15,000 megawatt, according to Salween Watch.

Deputy Minister of Electric Power Myint Zaw told the Lower House on Feb. 27 that the six dams would be built using foreign investment, state-run newspaper The New Light of Myanmar has reported.