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The politics of dam construction along the Salween

Maesod (Mizzima) - The dislocation of between 5,000 and 6,000 Burmese to Thailand in the past two months has thus far been reported as a military thrust against the Karen National Union by Burma’s Army.

Coverage has largely focused on refugees, people fleeing forced conscription, forced labor, murder and rape. Video footage of militia armies torching people’s modest bamboo homes and the schools and churches the inhabitants relied upon for their sense of community are widely available on the internet. Free Burma Rangers medical teams shot close footage as community centers and schools built by villagers with material cropped from the surrounding jungle were razed to the ground.

Now, sent packing to Thailand, the people eat from communal kitchens on donated rice rations and sleep under plastic sheets.  

On the surface the offensive, which involved a force of 1,700 junta-aligned soldiers, could be interpreted as a State Peace and Development Council [the ruling junta] bid to wipe out dissent before controversial elections planned for next year.

For 60 years the KNU has fought to defend human rights, people’s land rights and to establish its say in how its people – conservatively estimated at seven million – are governed.

A simple conclusion to draw is that what happened during June and July opposite northern Thailand’s Tha Song Yang District is just another incident, albeit severe, in the world’s longest-running civil conflict. Yet there are untold benefits to be shared between Thailand and Burma.

The planned 33-meter tall Hat Gyi Dam will span a river the World Wildlife Fund describes as supporting “possibly the world’s most-diverse temperate ecosystem”. When completed, it will produce 1,200 megawatts of power per hour, or 7,335 gigawatts (Gwh) annually.

Burmese, Thai and Chinese interests are all to play roles in funding and construction of the dam, the smallest of five planned for the Salween River but the first of which construction is proposed.

The Karen National Union has personally asked Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to halt construction, echoing a plea from 19 villages that will be flooded on the Thai side. Not coincidentally, the dam is to be built just to the north of where thousands of Karen people lost their homes to the Burma Army in June and July.

Po Luang Nu Chamnankhiripai, the local leader of a Thai group in Mae Hong Song Province protesting the dam’s construction, told the government last month that the dam would mean more armed conflict on the Burmese side of the border.

And that, he predicted in a written plea to stop the dam project, would mean more refugees in Thailand. “The construction of the Hat Gyi Dam will exacerbate human rights abuses against the Karen people and Thailand is bracing herself for more refugees and enormous burden,” he wrote.  

The access road to the dam on the Burmese side runs straight through the Karen National Liberation Army’s Seventh Brigade region. At the moment it is a fair-weather road, meaning for about six months of the year it can barely be traversed in a four-wheel drive, let alone trucks moving heavy machinery.

And so, the process of sealing the road must begin, raising once again the specter of forced labor, a crime Burma’s Army has been accused of so often that the junta’s continual denials of such practices ring hollow, to say the least.

For now the KNLA has no base camps in Seventh Brigade – following the Burma Army assault – has lost its general headquarters and is waging a guerilla war with soldiers sleeping rough in the jungle, sometimes without even a pair of boots to their name.  

Thailand and Burma signed a memorandum of understanding to build the Hat Gyi Dam in 2006 and mutual benefits are assured. But on the Burmese side the benefits seem mostly financial and therefore destined for the junta, which is widely estimated to spend 40 percent of its national budget on its formidable military force.

Thai government officials told a July gathering representing the 1,800 people who will be officially relocated that Thailand would receive 90 per cent of the power generated by the dam. Meanwhile, much of Burma’s population relies on diesel-powered generators for electricity, one of the reasons escalating fuel prices acted as a catalyst for the 2007 “Saffron Revolution”.

For Burma to “receive” just 10 per cent of the new dam’s power load suggests there is not much benefit pending for inhabitants of Karen State – a land kept isolated – and certainly none for those who will lose their homes and livelihoods.

Thailand’s current National Energy and Development Plan, which pledges to both diversify energy supply by buying from foreign countries and to reduce national dependence on energy imports, was implemented in late 2006. Even at this stage, almost two years after construction was planned to begin, Thai officials are publicly hedging their bets on whether the Burmese project will go ahead.  

The Salween is Southeast Asia’s longest river that has not yet been dammed, was declared a World Heritage Site in 2003 and is home to 80 endangered animal species. It is also a wild river, with just 89 kilometers of its 3,060 kilometer course being navigable.  

On July 30th, at the 27th Association of South East Asian Energy Ministers’ meeting, representatives of the 10-member bloc agreed on a plan drafted by Thailand, to be known as the ASEAN Plan of Action for Energy Cooperation 2010-2015, including development of the Hat Gyi Dam.

Sometime this month a committee established by the Thai government, at the behest of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, is to recommend whether or not to go ahead with the dam. ASEAN ministers are backing the project as an integral part of the region’s power grid, while Burma’s ruling generals are hungry for more foreign revenue and looking to cement their place as Burma’s legitimate rulers.

Abhisit, in forming a committee to recommend to the government whether or not to go ahead, has distanced himself and his shaky coalition government from the decision.

There will be a maelstrom of international criticism if the Thai government goes ahead with damming the only major river in Southeast Asia that remarkably still follows its natural course.

It is no secret that “development” and securing future energy reserves takes precedence over protecting the environment in most of the world, but what of human rights? And what of the proposed, or lack thereof, benefits for Burma and its people? Only the Thai government at this stage can answer these questions and it is due to do so this month.

In the aftermath of ASEAN’s salute to Thailand and Burma’s plans, environmental and Burmese ethnic groups, not to mention Thai residents who will lose their homes and communities reliant on the river for their existence, issued statements condemning the project. But Ethnic Community Development Forum representative Sai Khur Seng summed it up best: “Energy projects in Burma should be for the benefit of the Burmese people and not at their expense.”


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