Ethnic communities across Burma are raising their voices to strongly oppose plans by the Burma government and the global hydropower industry to build large dams that threaten to destroy their lives and livelihoods.
Rallies marking the International Day of Action for Rivers on 14 March were staged across Kachin, Shan, Karen, Karenni and Mon states, where communities took a stance to defend their traditional lands and the right to decide on how their own resources will be used — or left untouched.
One of the rallies took place in U Wee Klo, a section of the Ei Thu Hta IDP (internally displaced person) camp in Karen State, adjacent to Thailand’s Mae Hong Son province. The camp is located on the banks of the Salween River, one of the longest free-flowing rivers in the world.
Several dams are being planned along the Salween River. If built, these dams will have devastating and irreversible impacts on fragile ecosystems and ethnic communities whose lives depend on the river.
Saw Hser Htoo Plaw, the village leader of U Wee Klo, said of the event: “We are showing our Karen leaders and people around the world that we don’t want dams on the Salween River. Today I am so very happy that our community is working together and we’re showing everyone that we don’t want these dams.”
Some 200 people attended the event organised by Karen Rivers Watch, a coalition of Karen civil society organisations including the Karen Office of Relief and Development, Karen Youth Organization, Karen Student Network Group (KSNG), Karen Environmental and Social Action Network, Karen Women’s Organisation (KWO) and Federal Trade Union of Kawthoolei.
“We are against the dams because we have seen that there is no benefit for our people, especially the people who live near the Salween River,” said Saw Htoo Htoo Stin, president of the KSNG. “If they build the dams, all of our villages and our beautiful mountains and forests will be destroyed, they will be underwater.”
The dams are being developed by companies from Thailand, China and Burma, with planning continuing ith little transparency or participation from local ethnic communities who are only set to lose if the plans go ahead.
“I would like to say to the companies who have the big money: You don’t need to come and build the dams, even if you have too much money, your money is not more important than our human lives. If you build the dam, it will not affect your people, only our local people,” said Naw They Nay, KWO chairwoman for Ei Thu Hta camp.
“If you were our people, how would you feel? For us, we have no benefit.”
On top of the above concerns, the proposed dams are located in ethnic conflict zones, where they function as spearheads of Burma Army expansion into contested areas, fuelling conflicts and causing further displacement in areas affected by war for more than half a century.
“If they build the dams, there will be more armed conflict and more IDPs,” said Saw Htoo Htoo Stin.
Ethnic communities are calling for a halt to all dams on the Salween River until there is a federal settlement to Burma’s conflict and until ethnic peoples have the right to decide on their own resources.
Leena Zieger is the founder and international coordinator of Burma Link, a non-profit organisation advocating for the rights of Burma’s ethnic nationalities and conflict-affected communities.