Proposed Salween Dams Revive Development Nightmare for Karenni in Burma

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Karenni Development Research Group

Threatened with plans by Burma’s generals to dam the Salween River and submerge vast tracts of their homelands, the Karenni are releasing a new report today which exposes the parallels between the devastating impacts of Burma’s first large scale hydropower project, built in their state, and those of the planned Salween dams. The report highlights the destructive mix of development and military rule in Burma.

The report by the Karenni Development Research Group (KDRG), Dammed by Burma’s Generals, chronicles the impacts of the Lawpita hydropower project since the early 1960s. Promised abundant electricity and irrigation, the local population instead suffered from forced displacement, water shortages, increased militarization, human rights abuses, and thousands of landmines planted to secure the project. Most of the power was sent directly to Rangoon; still today 80% of the Karenni are without electricity.

One of four dams planned for the Salween, the Weigyi Dam, will flood over 640 square kilometers in Karenni State, submerging an area three times the size of the Lawpita reservoir. The report details how twenty–eight towns and villages, including a historical capital of the Karenni, will be inundated, impacting approximately 30,000 people. An entire tribe – the Yintalai, who now number a mere 1,000 – will permanently lose all their homelands. Irreversible environmental damage will be caused by inundation of forests internationally recognized for their outstanding biodiversity.

Under an agreement signed in December 2005 between Thailand and Burma’s regime, construction on the Salween dams is slated to begin in 2007. With likely investment from China, the dams will provide electricity for Thailand and revenue for the ruling military regime.

As Pascal Khoo Thwe, the Karenni author of From the Land of Green Ghosts says in his foreword to the report: "There is no better way to destroy a country than by the combined power of bulldozers and guns."

Civil war continues in Karenni State, leaving an estimated one third of the population internally displaced and over 22,000 Karenni refugees registered in camps in Thailand. If the Salween dams go ahead, many of these people will never be able to return home.

The report urges that the Salween dam projects be scrapped. As KDRG researcher Aung Ngeh states: "We know from bitter experience what hydropower development means under a military dictatorship. It is not about electricity or irrigation for the people. It is about subjugation and control. The Salween dams will mean more soldiers, more landmines, and the gradual annihilation of our people."