Karenni villagers along the Thai-Myanmar border are joining a protest campaign against proposed hydroelectric dams on the river. PIANPORN DEATHS/INTERNATIONAL RIVERS
At a sandy beach near the Salween River on the Thai-Myanmar border in March 2006, boats carrying Karen villagers and other ethnic groups such as Karenni, Yintalai and Shan from various parts of the Salween basin arrive to join in an important but simple ceremony.
Once the 600 participants were ready, a Christian pastor prayed to God. Then a monk lit candles and gave a blessing.
The ancient Karen spiritual leaders performed a ritual to pay homage to the spirits who protect the river and the forest. On this day, the indigenous people of the Salween were grouped according to their religions and beliefs, gathered along the river.
All of this has been brought together to show the collective stand of the villagers to protect the Salween River from damming which would be destructive to the ecology, biodiversity and their livelihoods of the river.
At that time, the Chinese, Burmese and Thai governments were planning to build up to 20 hydroelectric dams along the river, in China and Myanmar as well as on the Thai-Myanmar border.
This was the first time that the peoples of Salween held their local International Day of Action for Rivers event on March 14th. This event is part of a global movement that grew out of a meeting of people affected by dams around the world, held in Curitiba, Brazil, in 1997.
For the past two decades, the Salween River has been a target for the hydroelectric industry. However, thanks to the longstanding efforts of indigenous peoples, the Salween is one of the last free-flowing transboundary rivers in the world.
Originating from melting snow on the Himalayan plateau, the Upper Salween or Nu Jiang flows along the Mekong and Yangtze in China’s Yunnan province. The area is designated as a World Natural Heritage Site by Unesco.
The Salween River enters Myanmar through the heart of Shan State, then flows into Karenni State before forming a border between Thailand and Myanmar and between Karen State and Mae Hong Son Province.
It then flows back to Myanmar before entering the Andaman Sea at Mawlamyine in Mon State with a total length of about 2,800 kilometers.
In 2003, China had plans for a cascade of 13 dams on the Upper Salween River. But the plan was halted several times due to opposition from civil society organizations and local riverside communities, and due to awareness raised by widespread media coverage.
In Myanmar, at least seven dam projects are proposed, all piloted by state-owned enterprises and Thai and Chinese companies.
At the Rivers Day of Action event in 2006, the peoples of the Salween came together to protect the river from two dam projects on the Thai-Myanmar border; the Wei Gyi and Da-gwin dam projects proposed by the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (Egat). Eventually, due to strong grassroots movements and concerns from conservation groups about destructive impacts on the environment, the projects were abandoned.
On another day of action for Rivers, in 2007, an event took place on a beach in Karen State opposite Ban Sop Moei in Mae Hong Son Province. There were hundreds of Karens on both sides of the river. At that time, the Hat Gyi Dam project was being planned for construction on the Salween River in Karen State, just 47 kilometers from the Thai border. It was also an Egat project.
In Shan State, almost every year since 2006, the Shan people have been holding River Day of Action events in different areas, as there has been a plan for three dam projects, including the Mong Ton (also known as Tasang), Kun Long Dam and Nong Pha Dam. The rallies clearly show the efforts of the Shan people who want to save the Salween River, which has been in a region that has been in civil war for decades.
If built, the Mong Ton Dam will submerge the “Thousand Islands” on a tributary of the Salween, the Pang River, which has unique ecological significance and beauty where the clear blue river flows around hundreds of islands.
It is a part of the region where more than 300,000 Shan people in 150 villages have been forced to relocate by Burma’s military dictatorships since the late 1990s. This has involved human rights abuses by the Burmese military , including the uprooting of tens of thousands of Shan who remain displaced today.
In Karenni State, various ethnic villages have continuously held days of action to oppose the proposed Ywatith Dam on the Salween. Karenni State is also facing heavy attacks from Myanmar’s military junta which has displaced more than 170,000 people due to clashes and airstrikes since May 2021.
This year there will be events on the Salween River in several areas calling for its permanent protection.
In Karen State, the indigenous peoples of Salween Peace Park will take a stand demanding the Myanmar junta to stop the attacks and withdraw from their ancestral lands, as well as to stop the dam project on the Salween River.
In Thailand, there will be activities at Sob Ngao, at the confluence of the Ngao River, a tributary of the Yuam River in Mae Hong Son Province.
The Yuam, Ngao, Moei and Salween Basin People’s Network has been monitoring and opposing the diversion of water from Yuam for years. This trans-basin water diversion project was proposed by the Royal Irrigation Department.
It is a 110 billion baht investment that consists of a dam, a large pumping station, a high voltage transmission line and 62 km underground tunnels that will destroy a lush forest ecosystem that spans the three provinces of Tak, Mae Hong Son and Chiang Mai. .
The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report has been criticized as deeply flawed because the process failed to properly obtain free, prior and informed consent and for a lack of public participation, in particular of the indigenous communities concerned.
The EIA and the water diversion project are being studied by the Thai National Human Rights Commission and the Parliamentary Committee on Land, Natural Resources and the Environment.
Additionally, the politicians pushing the project are giving media interviews that suggest the diversion of water from the Yuam will only be the beginning.
Developers frequently say that a Chinese company has offered to build the tunnel “for free”, in return for permits for a “phase two” that would see the construction of a Chinese-led dam on the Salween River in Myanmar.
For two decades, we have seen grassroots efforts to protect the environment, biodiversity and the human rights of indigenous peoples.
As the people of Myanmar face life and death situations, especially after the coup, I still feel the resistance of the Salween peoples who come together to keep peace and the future of the Salween River flowing freely. , as a source of life, culture and heritage for many generations to come.