Recent fighting in the Maethawaw area of Karen State is directly related to plans to build a dam on the Salween River, according to a group opposed to the project.
Speaking to DVB on Thursday, Saw Tha Poe of Karen Rivers Watch accused Burma’s armed forces of carrying out an offensive in the area in order to secure a road to the construction site of the controversial Hatgyi hydropower dam.
“The fighting started along the Maethawaw road earlier this month,” said Saw Tha Poe. “This road is the most direct route to the Hatgyi dam. From Thailand, it takes about two and a half hours.”
While the offensive, supported by a government army-backed Border Guard Force (BGF), is directed at renegade troops of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), it also provides a pretext for clearing local villagers living along the Salween River out of the area, said Saw Tha Poe.
“They [the Burmese army] asked the villagers to leave for security reasons. That’s why we say the fighting is closely related to the dam,” he said.
The fighting has already displaced thousands of local villagers, but Saw Tha Poe said the situation could get much worse, as the army’s push to resume the long-stalled Hatgyi dam risked ending four years of relative peace under a ceasefire agreement with the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA).
“On 18 September, the BGF asked the KNLA if it could make bases in the Hatgyi area to maintain security, but the KNLA refused. But now they [the BGF] have forced the villagers to leave. If they enter into KNLA territory, there will definitely be fighting,” he said.
“Militarization for private infrastructure development will only worsen conflict in Karen State, jeopardizing the ongoing peace process and preventing the return of refugees,” warned Karen Rivers Watch in a statement released on Thursday.
Saw Tha Boe said the Burmese government has plans to finish the 1,100- to 1,500-megawatt Hatgyi dam project by 2021, with neighbouring Thailand receiving most of the electricity it is expected to generate.