Children of the Salween River

Katy Yan

Children by the Salween River in Thailand, International Day of Action for Rivers 2012
Children by the Salween River in Thailand, International Day of Action for Rivers 2012

Hundreds of kilometers downstream from where I was this time last year, on this International Day of Action for Rivers it became clear to me that a major reason why communities in Burma and Thailand are opposed to dam building on the Salween River is because of their children.

Half of those gathered on March 14 along the Salween's banks in a small village in Thailand were kids. Dressed in traditional attire, they danced and sang for an audience of over 200 villagers, artists, activists, journalists, and experts from Thailand, Burma and China. They lit candles that formed a river in the sand. They prayed with Buddhist monks. For me, the abstract phrase "rivers for the future" suddenly became grounded in real concerns: Where would the children go to school if they were displaced by the proposed Salween dams? What jobs could children fleeing the conflict spurred by these dams in Burma get if they lived undocumented in Thailand? Would they have land to farm and fish to catch? What is truly lost when they lose their ties to their birthplace?

The untold stories

At least 20 dams have been proposed for the mainstream Salween River, which flows from the Tibetan Plateau in China through Burma and Thailand to its delta in the Andaman Sea. Thirteen are located in China, with two sites already undergoing preparatory work (Songta and Maji); none have been approved. Another seven are in Burma; two have been suspended but two more – the megadams Tasang and Hatgyi – are under active consideration. China and Thailand plan to invest in both.

Boat by the Salween River
Boat by the Salween River

The likely impacts of these dam cascades range from destroying fisheries and high biodiversity zones to flooding fertile land, from displacing over a hundred thousand largely indigenous peoples to triggering earthquakes and risking dam failure in this seismically unstable region. Of gravest concern for Burmese communities along the Salween, however, is the violence that has erupted around the Tasang and Hatgyi dams between the Burmese military and indigenous groups like the Karen and Shan. Tens of thousands have already been forced to leave their homes to escape the violence and occupation of their homes by the Burmese army.

The untold stories are of how militarization around these dams has affected the women and children, many of whom have fled to refugee camps at the Thai/Burma border. According to the Shan Women's Action Network, which has documented the human rights abuses around militarized zones in Shan State (see License to Rape), villagers are forced into labor and feeding the army. Rape cases in the area have increased. As for the impacts on children, Charm Tong, founder of the organization, told me:

"Children in this area cannot go to school and it is very difficult for them to access health care...This will impact the future of the children."

Communities unite for peace

Candle-lit vigil for the Salween River
Candle-lit vigil for the Salween River

Across Burma and Thailand, peaceful ceremonies in several communities marked this year's International Day of Action for Rivers. A theme throughout this particular Salween meeting was a call for peace, which came not only from the Burmese and Thai participants, but also the Chinese visitors, many of whom were learning about the Burmese plight for the first time. During a press conference on the 13th – where some members of the next generation played within a circle of journalists – experts from all three countries underscored the importance of the health of the entire basin and the need for inter-regional collaboration in order to protect the Salween's irreplaceable resources.

While the Chinese government continues to show caution around the 13 upstream dams in China, Chinese companies like Sinohydro and China Three Gorges Corporation are already engaged in discussions with the Burmese government and the Thai electricity authority over the Tasang and Hatgyi dams downstream. As Sai Sai, the coordinator of the Burma Rivers Network, puts it:

"Our rivers, ecosystems and communities are all connected. Our neighbors should cooperate with us to protect our shared environment, instead of destroying it."

"Save the Salween! Keep it flowing free!"

On the evening of March 14th, activist musicians performed songs for the Salween and its people, strummed acoustic guitars and plucked traditional instruments like the te nah or Karenni harp. The village's children danced and sang, then later led us all in a candle-lit vigil. In the morning, they watched as village leaders blessed and cast downriver a "Save the Salween" boat, which hopefully their neighbors across the waters in Burma could see. Unlike in previous years, villagers in Burma were prevented from joining us by the Burmese army. We wondered how those children were commemorating the day.

Back in the schoolhouse where I was staying, I scanned the room. Turtles and fish swam across the walls. Through the windows, the Salween rushed steadily towards the sea. Hopefully when these kids are grown, the view will be the same.

  • Watch the Salween Basin International Day of Action for Rivers slideshow:

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