EI TU HTA REFUGEE CAMP, Myanmar – Myanmar's government calls them signposts of modernity: a string of huge dam projects along the mighty Salween River, one of Asia's last untamed waterways, needed to meet economic goals and energy demands as the country opens its doors to the outside world.
Yet to the Shan, Karen, Karenni and other ethnic minorities living in the river's basin, the six proposed hydro-power dams symbolize violence, anxiety about the future and a tool used by authorities to secure a greater grip over their lives. Some minority leaders say tensions over the dams could even re-ignite civil war in Myanmar, or Burma.
Fighting has erupted in recent months as government troops have moved into areas around proposed dam sites, including the $2.6 billion Hut Gyi dam in Karen State in eastern Myanmar, and clashed with ethnic minority fighters in violation of cease-fires. The military also has forcibly removed thousands of residents close to dam sites, according to refugees and aid groups.
"It is clear that Hut Gyi dam and similar projects are obstructing the peace process in Burma," said Gen. Baw Kyaw Hei, second in command of the Karen National Liberation Army, which has been fighting the government for greater autonomy since the 1940s. He spoke while sitting in a meeting hall overlooking the river at the Ei Tu Hta camp, home to 4,000 refugees from earlier fighting that could be submerged if the dam is built. Preliminary work on this and other dams has already begun.
Economic and environmental issues also are at stake in harnessing the power of the Salween, which seeps out of a Tibetan glacier and winds 2,800 kilometers (1,750 miles) through China's rugged Yunnan province, Myanmar's jungles and along the Thai border before flowing into the Indian Ocean.
The dam projects — all joint ventures with Chinese and Thai companies — include no provisions for wealth-sharing of resources between the ethnic groups and a regime dominated by the Burman majority and the powerful military despite the advent of a civilian government in 2011. Nor are there provisions for many residents whose land, villages and livelihoods might be wiped out by flooding from the dams.
Contracts have been awarded to foreign and local investors, many of them closely tied to government or military leaders. Authorities say the dams will expand access to electricity, which the World Bank says reaches only 29 percent of households in the country. But the bulk of power generated will be sold to Thailand and China.
"Local people will get nothing in return for the destruction of the river," said David Tharckabaw, former vice president of the Karen insurgency and one of its veteran leaders. "For development to work there must be good government, transparency, rule of law, reliable administration and institutions, and no corruption. If they come in now, it will just enrich the generals and their cronies."
Ethnic minority leaders say the government is wrong to forge ahead with such mega-projects before reaching an equitable political resolution to the longstanding conflict.
"First we need a real cease-fire, then a political settlement and then we can talk about dams and other large-scale projects," said Baw Kyaw Hei, the Karen general. "But the Burmese government wants a cease-fire first, then large-scale projects and then a political settlement."
Myanmar's previous military regime tried to crush the insurgencies by the Shan, Kachin, Karen and other groups by razing villages, killing civilians and driving more than half a million rural dwellers from their homes. Ethnic minorities make up more than 30 percent of the country's population.
Cease-fires were signed three years ago with 14 armed ethnic groups, but fighting has broken out near proposed dam sites. Since June, government troops backed by warplanes have moved into an area in eastern Myanmar controlled by the Shan State Army-North near the Nong Pha dam site, according to the Shan Human Rights Foundation.
Ethnic minority leaders and human rights activists say a pattern they call "damming at gunpoint" has been repeated across eastern Myanmar: proposed dam sites are forcefully depopulated by the military without compensation and the region is militarized through the expansion of army camps, helicopter pads, access roads and other facilities.
Fighting also has erupted in southern Shan State around the Tasang dam site. Sai Khur Hseng of the Shan Sapawa Environmental Organization, who visited in October, said the area was ringed by some 9,000 government troops. Authorities began building access roads to this site as early as 1996, and more than 300,000 people in the area have been forcibly moved over the years, human rights and minority groups say.
Enticing ethnic businessmen and insurgents into business deals is another part of the strategy to neutralize the movements for autonomy, Sai Khur Hseng said, doing through commercial means what the government could not fully achieve militarily.
The Myanmar government declined to answer questions from The Associated Press about conflict over the dams, but officials have said that these and other development projects would benefit local populations and pave the way toward peace. They have acknowledged that some human rights abuses, committed by both sides, were the consequences of all wars.
In September, Deputy Minister for Electric Power Maw Thar Htwe said in Parliament that Tasang, slated to be the largest dam in Southeast Asia, would be built to ensure minimal social and environmental impact.
The dam proposals have been characterized by a lack of debate and transparency.
Nancy Wa, a lawmaker from Karen State, said that when the dam issue is brought up in Parliament the ethnic minority representatives are "overpowered, silenced by the ruling party." She spoke at the first international conference on the Salween River, which brought together about 200 scientists, activists and some officials from Myanmar, China and Thailand.
At the meeting, held last month in Chiang Mai, Thailand, even scientists from Myanmar's Moulmein University conducting extensive research on the Salween said they had no access to environmental impact assessments and other vital documents on the dams from the government or private sector.
Many conference participants called for a halt to all dams on the Salween until international standard studies are carried out and made public.
"Fighting could break out if the government does not discuss the project with the rebels," said Nang Wah Nu, a representative from Shan State in Parliament. She said preparation work has already begun on Tasang dam but no information had been provided to residents who fear their homes, rice fields and pagodas will be flooded.
A number of the contracts involve individuals with checkered records. The deal to construct the Kunlong dam was awarded to the Asia World Group, whose senior executives have been blacklisted by the U.S. government for suspected money-laundering.
Partnering with a Chinese company in the construction of Tasang are the sons of hard-line government party leader Aung Thaung, blacklisted by the U.S. Treasury in October for "perpetuating violence, oppression and corruption." According to diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, the U.S. Embassy in Myanmar recommended blacklisting his sons six years ago.
China, meanwhile, plans to build a string of 13 dams on the upper reaches of the Salween River as way to reduce its dependence on coal-generated energy — prompting concerns among Chinese activists and villagers.
For refugees at the Ei Tu Hta camp, constructing the dam could threaten their ramshackle homes — and their futures.
"We are already living in hardship here so what will happened if the water comes and we have to flee again?" asked Htine Soe Htoo, a Karen who fled with his family when soldiers torched his village, prompting them live in the jungle for three years before coming to the camp in 2009. "We can't go back to our own country."
Associated Press writer Aye Aye Win in Yangon contributed to this report.