- The Washington Times - Friday, June 9, 2006

SALWEEN RIVER, BURMA — The Buddhist and Christian villagers prayed separately then promised together to save their great untamed river from damming, which they fear will not only flood their lands but bring violence, forced labor and relocation at gunpoint.

“They will kill us or drive us out. We will be helpless. I prayed to God that they will change their minds,” said Naw K’paw Say, 56, a Christian farmer from Burma who took part in recent protests to halt the damming of the Salween.

But these villagers are up against Burma’s military junta, which has not hesitated to respond to dissent with gunfire, and against energy hungry Thailand, which is secretive about its plans to join Burma in jointly damming the big river.

The World Wide Fund for Nature, based in Switzerland, says only a third of the world’s 177 largest rivers are still free-flowing, and the 1,740-mile Salween is one of them. Rising in Tibet, it runs through a stunningly beautiful, remote and ecologically rich region inhabited mostly by tribal people. But plans have been drawn up for as many as 18 dams and diversions — 13 in China and five where the river runs inside Burma or forms its border with Thailand.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) describes the river’s course in China as perhaps the “most biologically diverse temperate ecosystem in the world,” habitat for more than 7,000 species of plants and 80 rare or endangered animals. The agency designated part of the region a World Heritage site in 2003.

But China’s booming economy, projected energy needs in Thailand and poverty in Burma, whose capital suffers daily power outages, are driving economic planners into formerly undisturbed areas to find hydroelectric power.

If all are built, the dams on the Nujiang, as the river is called in China, would generate about 20,000 megawatts of electricity — more than the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, the world’s largest hydroelectric project.

Little of this, activists say, would benefit the nearly two dozen tribal groups living along the river. And those in Burma, like the Karen, Shan and Karenni, stand to suffer at the hands of that country’s military forces.

Dams ‘bring torture’

“The dams will bring all the things the Karen have already experienced — torture, killing, rapes, military camps and refugees,” said Nay Tha Blay, a Burmese exile who heads the Karen Rivers Watch, an environmental group along the border. “The junta uses this beautiful word ‘development,’ but it’s just exploitation of ethnic areas and their natural resources.”

The generals who rule Burma have frequently been accused of using forced labor, and in ethnic minority regions projects like logging or a natural-gas pipeline to Thailand have been preceded by military operations to clear the areas of all who might object.

Several ethnic insurgent groups rose against the central government after Burma gained independence from Britain following World War II. Some, like the Karen National Union, are still fighting for autonomy.

The Karen Rivers Watch and others think a current offensive in Karen state, in which villages are said to have been torched and thousands of people driven from their homes, was begun, in part, to pave the way for building the dams.

The government concedes that a military operation is under way, but maintains it’s directed against Karen “terrorists” who have carried out bombings in Burma. It consistently denies claims by the United Nations, the United States and others that its forces violate human rights.

Planning a secret

Planning has been kept secret and, as far as is known, riverside dwellers whose lives will be disrupted by the dams have not been consulted. Neither Thailand nor Burma has published an environmental-impact assessment on the three dams likely to go up first — Tasang, Weigyi and Hutgyi.

In China, an assessment was carried out, and may recommend the construction of only four dams, but it has not been published as required by Chinese law. Chinese officials say security issues are involved since the river crosses international borders, according to U.S.-based EarthRights International.

Chinese central and provincial authorities declined to comment to AP and written queries were not answered. In Rangoon, the former capital of Burma, a senior Information Ministry official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said: “Dams are constructed only after thorough feasibility studies and surveys. Some reports accusing the government of neglecting environmental impacts are too negative. We are trying our best in the interest of the country’s development.”

In December 2005, reports from Burma and Chinese newspaper accounts said the Burmese military regime was moving the capital from Rangoon roughly 185 miles northward into the jungle. The new capital, Pyinmana, lies an equal distance south of Mandalay, the former royal capital on the Ayeyarwady River.

The Asian Development Bank, a major backer of dam building in Southeast Asia, has spoken out against some of the blueprints. In 2002, the ADB studied the Tasang Dam, planned to be the river’s largest and the tallest in Southeast Asia, as part of a master plan for a regional power grid. But it backed away, voicing “serious socioenvironmental concerns.”

“It didn’t pass our first filter. The dam would have a profound impact on the Salween River,” said Rajat Nag, who heads the bank’s Mekong Department. “The project would fragment a fragile river ecosystem, reduce the flow of nutrients and water downstream, reduce the biodiversity. Deforestation is likely and would lead to soil erosion in the rainy season which would exacerbate flood damage.”

Plans proceed

Notwithstanding, Burma and Thailand’s MDX Group signed a $6 million agreement in April to build the dam in Shan state, where mass relocations of Shan villagers have taken place in recent years.

Construction of housing for workers has already begun at Tasang and Hutgyi, in Burma’s Karen state, and a road is being cut through a national park in Thailand to reach Weigyi, on the river border.

“It seems like both upstream and downstream plans are moving closer toward construction,” said Alisa Loveman of EarthRights International. “It wouldn’t surprise me if the dams are built, but there is still a window of opportunity.”

Opponents cite Thailand’s current electricity surplus and a strong anti-dam lobby, Burma’s empty coffers and security concerns as possibly stalling or halting some of the projects. In May a geologist from the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand lost a leg to a land mine at the Hutgyi site and some areas are still controlled by Karen insurgents.

Along the Salween, the people are poor, uneducated and far from the international spotlight. But many came together in March from both sides of the river to join the prayer and protest.

Naw K’paw Say, the protester, said she has lived in Weigyi for more than four decades, her family growing rice, beans and cardamom along the river. Her village and 27 others are to be submerged, displacing about 3,000 people on the Burma side of the Salween.

“We don’t have enough strength to stop the dam,” she said. “But we have no choice but to try because we stand to lose our lands, our livelihoods and perhaps our lives.”

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