189 groups urge halt to 'intimidating' Salween dam

Nov 23, 2009 (DVB), Burmese and Thai activists today urged both the Thai premier and a regional human rights body to cancel plans for a dam on the Salween river that could displace more than 50 communities.

A petition signed by 189 organisations and handed to Thai prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva outlined the potential impacts of a project that has heavy backing from both the Thai and Burmese governments, as well as China.

Vejjajiva was warned that while Thailand may benefit from greater electricity, it is also likely to face an influx of Burmese refugees escaping human rights abuses at the site of the Hatgyi dam, in Karen state.

A press release issued by the Northern Activists Community in Chiang Mai, Thailand, said that the dam "will come at the expense of the flight of numerous innocent people who are forced to abandon their hometown and become refugees or cheap labour in Thailand".

The Thai government had previously expressed concern about the possibility of more refugees crossing over from Burma in the run-up to elections next year.

Sayan Khamnueng, field coordinator at Living Rivers Siam, one of the signatories to the petition, said that the Thai government has no clear-cut policy to deal with refugees already living in camps close to its border with Burma.

"We think around 41 communities in Burma and 10 in Thailand will be affected by the dam," he said. "Most of the people in the 10 Thai communities are already stateless, and so are unlikely to receive any compensation from the Thai government."

Although plans have been tabled for seven dams to be built along the Salween river, which runs from China through eastern Burma to the Andaman Sea, little in the way of construction has so far taken place. This means that the Salween is the largest undammed river in Southeast Asia.

Much of the electricity is bound for China and Thailand, with Beijing holding the largest share in the project. China's Sinohydro Corporation is playing a key role in the development, along with the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) and the Burmese government's Department of Hydroelectric Power.

Groups have warned however that the environmental impact will be considerable, with many communities long dependent on the river for day-to-day living.

While the petition called for the Thai government to invest more in alternative energy, Khamnueng said that Bangkok's claims to commitment to alternative energy are "propaganda".

"They say they are, but there is no clear policy or implementation to alternative energy," he said. "The dam remains the 'best option' for them: it's clean and cheap, they say."

Reporting by Francis Wade

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