CHIANG MAI, Thailand – More than 1,700 people living near the site of the planned Hatgyi Dam on the Salween River in Karen State’s Hpapun district gathered to show their objections to the project and mark International Day of Action for Rivers on Wednesday.
Saw Tha Poe, spokesman for Karen River Watch, one of the campaign groups opposing dam construction on the river, said the group opposes dam construction on Myanmar’s biggest rivers, the Salween and the Irrawaddy, as well as on other rivers in the state.
In a statement released on Wednesday, KRW called for “a moratorium on all large infrastructure, energy, and extractive projects in Karen areas until genuine peace is established through political dialogue, leading to the implementation of a participatory federal system throughout [Myanmar].”
Although the Karen National Union (KNU) and the Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, signed a bilateral ceasefire in 2012 and the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement in 2015, clashes between Tatmadaw troops and the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), the armed wing of the KNU, have been reported as recently as March 4 in Mutraw (Hpapun) district, northern Karen State.
Following the latest round of clashes, the Tatmadaw deployed more than 600 soldiers across the ceasefire line in Hpapun, forcing 1,500 people from 14 villages to flee their homes, according to KRW.
In 2015 and 2016, it said, the Tatmadaw’s troop deployments in Karen State have “steadily increased”, leading to “intensified armed conflict”. There were over 40 clashes involving, on one side, the various forces of the Tatmadaw, including its paramilitary Border Guard Force, and, on the other, the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army, its splinter group the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, and the KNLA.
Saw Tha Poe added that the refugees displaced after the conflicts broke out near the proposed Hatgyi Dam site in 2016 have not been able to return to their homes. The conflict erupted after the National League for Democracy-led government declared its support in September 2016 for the damming of the Salween River. The fighting has forced some 5,000 Karen from their villages and many refugees remain in IDP camps in Myaing Gyi Ngu.
Despite continual protests by environmentalists and locals against the damming of the Salween, construction on the Hatgyi Dam project has proceeded, said Saw Tha Poe, with a new road having nearly reached the dam. Construction on the dam is scheduled to be complete in 2020-21.
KRW said that proceeding with these hydropower projects would not only dispossess already marginalized ethnic communities who have survived the world’s longest civil war, but also result in “permanent militarization of these fragile regions.”
Ultimately, KRW said, the energy projects along the Salween River, on which 14 large dams are planned or currently under construction, “will export electricity, but import social problems and environmental destruction to river systems that support the lives of millions of people in Karen, Karenni, Mon, and Shan states.”
On Wednesday morning in Shan State’s Hsipaw Township, the villagers of Talong urged a halt to the Upper Ye Ywar hydropower plant on the Namtu River, according to Action for Shan State Rivers.
In Karenni state, some 300 locals and members of the Burma Rivers Network (BRN) came together to show their opposition to the dams being built “within the conflict zones” at Ba He Hta village in Hpa Sawng Township in Karenni (Kayah) State, according to Mi Ah Chai, the organization’s spokeswoman.
She told The Irrawaddy that the BRN welcomed some of the recommendations made by the International Financial Cooperation (IFC) at a stakeholder discussion in Yangon in February. In particular it agreed with the IFC’s recommendation against building mainstream dams on the major rivers, including the Salween and Irrawaddy, “due to concerns over environmental impacts.”
However, it disagreed with the IFC’s recommendation to build dams on tributaries instead, including the Nam Teng and Pawn tributaries of the Salween, which lie in conflict-affected areas of Shan and Karenni states, she said.
“We, BRN, welcome the report of the World Bank and the IFC, but strongly oppose their recommendations to build dams on tributaries, because the tributaries are also important in preserving the ecological health of the river basin and in sustaining the livelihoods of countless ethnic communities,” said Mi Ah Chai.
“This is not development for us, as the prolonged war and suffering there are due to the dam projects, which are in conflict zones,” she added.
BRN also urged the government to review existing hydropower projects to determine whether they are actually benefiting the local communities, and to stop any new planned projects until there is genuine peace and a federal system in place.
“When we discuss peace, people talk about the NCA, but we have not achieved peaceful livelihoods in many places yet,” Mi Ah Chai said.
At KRW’s request, the article was altered to reflect the group’s actual estimates of how many people and villages would be affected if the Hatgyi Dam project continues.