From Mon State to Karen State: Traversing the end of Salween River, Listening to communities shouting “No Dam” ( 2 )

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The Salween River in Pa-an district, Karen State, flows gently. Unlike on the upstream in Mae Hong Son Province, where canyons and isles force the river to flow swiftly. But when the water flows into the lowland, the river becomes vast and also supported by the salty water from of the Gulf of Martaban. These slow the current down.

 

Accompanied with 3-4 reporters and documentary shooting team from Thailand, I took about an hour traveling from Mawlamyine to Pa-an district by car.

 

My Hpa-an born Karen fellows told me that, Pa-an was not originally the capital of Karen State. The old capital was in the deeper area but then moved to Hpa-an in colonial day because it was more convenient to control. Therefore, when we talk about Hpa-an, they hesitantly avoid to give any comments.

 

Among ethnic people like Karen , Mon Shan, Kachin and other ethnic groups in Burma, they are still have high spirit of nationalism. Despite the infiltration of Burmese everywhere, they cannot completely combine but full of mistrust as the ethnic people have been oppressed by the Burmese government for a long time.

 

“The Salween River never runs dry. We have lived here for so long. Even though we are Karen, it’s doesn’t mean we have to live only on the hill. Living here, we have fish and rice for our meal. The excess will be sold. Without money, we can live” About 10 villagers from Kawt Ku, a village on the Salween river bank told the fact of their life. They all similarly told us that they had heard about Hatgyi Dam project a bit. Most of them have been told by word of mouth from other villagers but not officially been given information from government or Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT), the concessionaire.

 

Kawt Ku village is a fertile place. After rice cultivation season, other plants such as corn and bean can be grown throughout the year because the Salween River never stops providing nourishment to all living on this land.

 

“We will definitely not move to other place”, said the villagers correspondingly. Kawt Ku village is not very far from Hatgyi dam construction site, so unavoidably, it will be greatly affected. “ We are happy with our daily life. We don’t know where we will move to”

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The voices of people along the banks of The Salween River are similar to the Kawt Ku’s villagers’. Pyin Nyar Thar Mi, the abbot from Taung Ga Lay temple can tell the feeling of Karen people the best.

 

He is not only widely admired by normal Karen people but governing class officials from Pa-an and Burmese government also come to visit to pay respect to him regularly. That’s why he knows clearly about the political situation.

 

“The Dam construction site belongs to our community, not Burmese government. Importantly, the government hasn’t talked to the villagers yet. If EGAT push the project ahead, ithey will surely be in trouble because it will lead to conflicts as KNU and DKBA are active in this area. I have listened to much information. I can say that people will never let it happen”, said the senior monk from Taung Ga Lay with confidence. He believes that the solution is up to the community. If the villagers don’t agree, the dam cannot be constructed.

 

“There will be both advantages and disadvantages when doing something. But now people consider much about interest rather than advantages. In fact, there are many methods for development but we should think carefully. Building dam is not sustainable way for development. There are many other choices such as finding alternative energy”, said the abbot who also knows well about situation in Thailand and can’t help worrying about it.

 

“I used to fly from Bangkok in the evening and saw the light everywhere. Is it excessively using of electricity or not? If it still happens like this, I think not more than 10 years, Thailand will have a problem”

 

The abbot stated that even though EGAT is Thai government’s enterprise, dealing directly with Burmese government but ignore local governors will make the project impossible to proceed in the area.

 

“If they think everything is done after dealing with Burmese Government, it is impossible for EGAT to walk into this place. Because local people and the ethnic army will not allow to do so”

 

Another prominent monk who pointed out interesting issue about the Hatgyi dam project is U Sandavara, the abbot of Thumaydaryalma temple who is appointed as Karen Affair Committee.

 

“If both governments cooperate with each other to build the dam without telling us, we will not responsible for what happen next. If local people rise up against the project, we will not be able to stop them. If we would, it could not be possible to stop them.” U Sandavara viewed the same way with U Pyin Nyar Thar Mi.

 

As well, U Sandavara is venerated widely among various groups of people working for civil society as he plays a key role in many sector of development. That’s why he has more opportunity to be acknowledged about dam projects on the Salween River.

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“The Burmese government really wants to build the dam because they would like to take this chance to send their troop to seize the strategic area. They will claim for security reason but it’s suspicious for a long time. The project to build 6 dams on the Salween River will be conducted in territory of ethnic groups without disclosing to local people. They just talked to other countries and some organizations. If they are sincere, they should announce all together to public without exception. If not, this will be regarded as social irresponsibility.”

 

Another thing that we should keep an eye on is the location of dam construction which is in the KNU -controlled area. Even thought fighting between Burmese military and KNU has been diminished after Burma opens its door to the world outside as well as influx of benefits to the country, the battle still frequently occurred in the dam construction site, which is in the KNU 5th Bridget territory. In the same time, the 5th Bridget is gaining more and more support from Karen people as it never been dominated by benefits.

 

Gen. Baw Kyaw Hae, the KNLA’s Vice Chief of Staff and former 5th Bridget commander said that he would not let the Hatgyi dam built as it would greatly affect to wildlife and forest in the wildlife sanctuary.

 

“They have tried to negotiation with us. But we told them that they should talk to us directly. The Burmese Government is not involved because this area is our home”

The voice of Dam objection is louder in all level. It’s likely that this is not easy for EGAT to step forward.

The Salween River will flow freely from Hpa-an in Karen state into Mawlamyine in Mon State as long as people persist in protection of their main blood as today.

 

The Salween is the river of ethnic diversity as it have nourished and linked up people from various ethnics in this region for centuries.

 

Unfortunately, selfishness of some people has lessened the great functions of the river.

 

 

 

Translated from  “ลัดเลาะท้ายน้ำสาละวิน จากรัฐมอญสู่รัฐกะเหรี่ยง ฟังเสียงชุมชนตะโกน “ไม่เอาเขื่อน” (2)” By Padsakorn Jumlongraj

 

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