By Marwaan Macan-Markar
BANGKOK, Oct 31 (IPS) – With the annual monsoon rains ending, there is a growing fear among the Karen ethnic minority living along military-ruled Burma’s eastern border of a dry season offensive. The most vulnerable are villagers residing in the vicinity of the controversial Hat Gyi dam.
The Burmese military will use its proxy force, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), to target the area along the Salween River that is essential to the Hat Gyi dam, environmentalists and human rights activists told IPS.
Besides driving out the unarmed Karen civilians, the offensive will also target the fifth brigade of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), currently camped along the Salween River, which flows past the border that Burma shares with Thailand, they added.
The KNLA is the armed wing of the Karen National Union (KNU), which has been waging Asia’s longest separatist struggle—since 1949—to carve out an independent state for the Karen minority in Burma, also known as Myanmar. The DKBA is a breakaway group, splitting from the KNU in 1995 and joining forces with Burma’s oppressive regime.
“The attacks in the fifth brigade area to defeat the KNU and clear the area for the dam will result in thousands of Karen fleeing across the Thai border as refugee,” said David Thakerbaw, vice president of the KNU. “It will lead to more human rights violations, adding more suffering to what the people have already endured.”
“People in that area are opposed to the Hay Gyi dam for this reason,” he added during a telephone interview from an undisclosed location along the Thai-Burma border. “The dam area will become more militarised; the Burmese army will bring in more troops to keep the site under their control.”
Such a grim forecast stems from what happened in June, soon after the monsoon rains broke. The Tatmadaw, as Burma’s over 400,000-strong military is called, launched an offensive with the DKBA, vanquishing the important seventh brigade of the KNU. The surprise attack forced over 4,000 already displaced Karens to flee into Thailand.
This onslaught and the link it had to the planned Hat Gyi dam, which the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) has agreed to partially finance, prompted the KNU to ask the Thai government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to withdraw Bangkok’s support for the dam. “There has been no proper survey to assess the environmental and social damage that the dam might cause,” wrote General Tamla Baw, president of the KNU, to Abhisit in an early August letter.
“The building of the dam at this time would bring many thousands of the junta’s troops who would perpetrate widespread human rights violations, such as forced labour, torture, extra-judicial executions, rape of women, looting of property (and) extortion.”
“The plan of the (Burmese regime) is to control KNLA positions for providing security to the construction of the dam,” revealed the letter, seen by IPS. “(This area) will become the centre for EGAT to transport construction materials to Yinbaing village, which is at the dam site.”
“I would like to appeal to you and your government not to repatriate the Karen refugees in Thailand and not to initiate construction of the Hat Gyi dam,” added Gen Tamla Baw.
The recent flow of Karen refugees from Burma added to the already 120,000 refugees who have been living in camps on the Thai side of the border for over two decades. Within Burma, the plight of the Karens is as dire. They are among the estimated 540,000 internally displaced people seeking refuge in forests and in the mountains after fleeing attacks by the Tatmadaw.
“The highest rates of recent displacement were reported in northern Karen areas and southern Shan Sate,” the Thailand Burma Border Consortium, a humanitarian organisation helping Burma’s ethnic minorities fleeing into Thailand, revealed this week. “Almost 60,000 Karen villagers are hiding in the mountains of Kyaukkgi, Thandaung and Papun Township, and a third of these civilians fled from artillery attacks from Burmese army patrols during the past year.”
The Karen, who make up an estimated seven million people of Burma’s 56 million population, are one of the largest ethnic minorities in this South-east Asian nation. The Shan and the Kachin are among the other groups in a country that has a patchwork of some 130 ethnic communities.
Burma’s military has been waging wars with nearly 20 ethnic rebel groups since it gained independence from the British colonisers in 1948. The Karen and militants in the Shan area have refused to kowtow to the military regime—unlike the 17 other ethnic separatist movements that signed ceasefire agreements two decades ago—consequently denying the Burmese regime total control of its land area.
Burma’s military regime has attracted interest from China and EGAT, Thailand’s state-run power utility, to invest in a cascade of dams along the 2,800 kilometre-long Salween, the longest untouched body of water flowing through South-east Asia. Its source is the mountains of Tibet, then coursing through China’s southern Yunan province, enters Burma, touches the Thai-Burma border, and then flows out into the Andaman Sea.
In June 2006, Burma’s department of electricity, EGAT and China’s Sinohydro Corporation, signed an agreement to build the Hat Gyi dam, which is expected to stand 33 metres tall. Much of its 1360 meggawatts of power will be destined to quench Thailand’s demand for energy.
“Thailand’s involvement in this dam means that the roads with close and direct access to the Thai border have become important for the Burmese military. That is why the dam area was targeted in June,” said Paul Seint Twa, director of Karen River Watch, an environment group based along the Thai-Burma border. “The Burmese army needs to make the dam site more attractive to the Thai investors.”
Till such attacks in June, the access road to the dam site was more circuitous—passing through central Burma—or through “areas held by the KNU, which controlled all movement,” added Seint Twa during a telephone interview from the Thai-Burma border. “But even after the June attacks, the area is not completely under the Burmese army’s control.”
The heavy human and environment cost to build the dam is turning the heat on the Abhisit administration. “The government has not decided. It is waiting for recommendations from a committee set up to listen to the concerns,” said Pianporn Deetes, coordinator of Living River Siam, a Thai green group based in the northern city of Chiang Mai. “Activists want the government to halt this project, but EGAT wants it to be built.”
The message to Bangkok from Thai environmentalists is the same as the Karen. “There is a link between the conflict and the dam,” Pianporn told IPS. “Our field surveys show the area around the dam is becoming more militarised.”