Dam projects in burma: depopulation for electricity exports

A large dam project in Burma threatens to deprive numerous people of their livelihood. Many have already been displaced without compensation.

Peace or displacement? The Salween River is to be dammed. Picture: ap

For the government of Burma, they are symbols of progress and economic development; for people of ethnic groups such as the Karen or the Shan, on the other hand, they mean hardship and displacement: Along the Salween River, the construction of six dams is planned. However, most of the electricity generated there will be sold to neighboring countries such as China and Thailand. According to activists, residents of the dam construction areas are being evicted without compensation.

The Salween stretches a good 2800 kilometers from the highlands of Tibet through the Chinese province of Yunnan, Burma and Thailand until it finally flows into the Indian Ocean. In Burma, it flows through areas including those inhabited by Karen and Shan, two of the country’s numerous ethnic minorities, some of whom have been fighting for more autonomy for decades. A ceasefire was agreed with a number of the groups three years ago, but it has been broken time and again.

Construction of the dams would further exacerbate the situation. "It is clear that the Hut Gyi dam and other projects threaten the peace process," says General Baw Kyaw Hei of the Karen National Liberation Front. Hut Gyi is located in eastern Burma’s Karen territory. There have already been several armed clashes in the dispute over the $2.6 billion (two billion euro) dam project there. Thousands of residents have been displaced, according to refugees and aid groups.

Also affected is Ei Tu Hta camp, home to 4,000 people who were forced to leave their homes because of earlier fighting. If the Hut Gyi project is realized, the camp may have to be evacuated. Representatives of the ethnic groups as well as human rights organizations report that the government is already creating facts in certain areas: They are depopulated, residents are forced to flee. Then the area is virtually populated by military installations: Camps, helipads, roads are being built.

Fear of new fighting

Since June, for example, an area around the planned Nong Pha dam, also in eastern Burma, which is controlled by a Shan group fighting for autonomy, has been conquered in this way. In the southern part of Shan State, around the Tasang dam project, environmentalists reportedly are taking similar action. 9,000 soldiers, they say, are now there. A total of 300,000 people have been displaced since the project was first planned in 1996, human rights activists said.

From the point of view of representatives of the various ethnic groups, a political solution to the simmering conflicts should be found first. "First we need a real ceasefire, then a political agreement, and after that we can talk about dams and other large-scale projects," said Karen General Baw Kyaw Hei. "If the government does not negotiate with the rebels on the (Tasang) project, new fighting could break out," fears Nang Wah Nu, a Shan representative in Burma’s parliament.

A Karen family in Ei Tu Hta camp. Picture: ap

The country’s government is working with Chinese and Thai companies on the dam projects. No compensation is planned for the majority of the people who have to be resettled. There are also no plans to reach an agreement with the ethnic groups who will have to leave their settlement areas. They live largely from fishing.

"The local people will get nothing as compensation for the destruction of the river," says David Tharckabaw, one of the former leaders of the Karen autonomy movement. To implement such a project, transparency, legal certainty, reliable administration would be necessary, corruption would have to be stopped. "If they come now, only the generals and their specias will enrich themselves."

"We are already living in misery"

Scientists also complain about a lack of transparency in dam projects. At an international meeting in Thailand in November to discuss the Salween, Moulmein University staff reported that they were being denied access to information about possible environmental impacts. Many argued that construction of all dams on the Salween should be halted until reliable data on potential environmental impact was available and evaluated.

When asked, the Burmese government did not comment on conflicts surrounding the construction of the dams. It had always argued that the local population would benefit and that the projects would pave the way for peace.

The people in Ei Tu Hta, however, see things differently. They are afraid of the future and of losing their homeland again. "We are already living in misery," says Htine Soe Htoo, who has lived in the camp with his family since 2009. "What will happen when the water comes and we have to flee again?"

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