While the govt is seen to be pursuing peace deals with ethnic rebel groups, tensions continue to simmer between residents and troops in Salween River communities marked out as the sites of controversial major energy projects
The controversial Salween River dam project near the border is shaping as a major stumbling block to achieving lasting peace between the Myanmar army and ethnic groups who fear Nypiyadaw has no real intention of withdrawing its troops.
Earlier this year, the Myanmar government and Karen National Union (KNU) agreed to a ceasefire, but to those on the ground at Ban Sob Moei village by the Salween River it is a truce on paper only.
Since the ceasefire came into effect, Myanmar troops have moved in and taken over from the KNU in the mountainous area opposite the village.
However, the KNU has not gone far, having moved to a nearby area off a tributary of the Salween.
Thai troops on the ground have observed a cat-and-mouse game over the past two months.
”They are still confronting each other from the mountains over there,” said Sergeant Chae, chief of the Thai military camp of Sob Moei.
Over the past decade, 18 dams have been planned for construction by Chinese and Myanmar companies, with Thailand one of the major purchasers of the dams’ electricity. Some of the dams are located in areas controlled by ethnic minorities including Shan, Karenni and Karen people.
While some of the upstream dams have been completed, the downstream dams have been delayed due to the conflicts with ethnic armies. The closest site to Thailand is the Hatgyi Dam, 40km from Sob Moei.
In 2009, the dam project was suspended after heated protests by local residents. But, under pressure from China’s Sinohydro Corporation and the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand, the KNU allowed investors to carry out surveys on Hatgyi last year.
Community group Karen Rivers Watch (KRW) is concerned that differences of opinion at the dam sites could escalate into armed clashes.
”At this fragile stage of the ceasefire process, pushing ahead with the Hatgyi Dam and other mega projects could reignite conflicts and derail the talks. Investing in these projects is sabotaging the hopes of Karen people for lasting peace,” the KRW said in a statement.
”The increased level of Myanmar army security around the dam sites and blatant disregard for concerns of impacted communities are heightening tensions and throwing into doubt the government’s sincerity in conducting ceasefire talks.”
Maj Lao Hseng, a spokesman for the Shan State Army (SSA), which also signed a truce earlier this year, expressed similar fears that the military had reneged on a promise to withdraw an estimated 100 battalions from Shan State.
He said the Myanmar government had passed the withdrawal order to its troops in the area, but instead of following the command, several more battalions were brought in.
Maj Lao Hseng said Myanmar troops had been building up their presence near a planned dam site at Ta Sang, on the western side of the Salween River in Pan and Chiang Tong towns, where dam locations are being surveyed.
The SSA said it had received a report that at least two locations are being surveyed, with Chinese staff involved. One is 15km north of a bridge near Ta Sang, and the other lies 25km away.
”This clearly suggests that the increasing presence of the [Myanmar] troops has something to do with the planned dam construction,” said Maj Lao Hseng.
”Amid the increasing presence of the troops, survey work has begun in the areas. Four Chinese were captured by unknown militants last year, which may be why they need guards.”
Maj Lao Hseng said representatives of the dam project met SSA leaders to discuss the project. The SSA suggested they gauge the views of residents near the dam site before the project proceeds.
He said as the Myanmar troops had been increasing their presence, it was difficult for the SSA to intervene.
Jam Thong, coordinator of the Shan Women’s Action Network (Swan), said she feared human rights abuses could be repeated if conflicts increase.
According to Swan, the fighting often leads to the capture of minority men who are press-ganged into labour and the rape of women.
As reported by IRIN, a news service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, at least 12 new rape cases were recently documented.
”We are concerned that when troops and investors move in, there would again be no protection for the villagers,” said Jam Thong.
Maj Lao Hseng said since the ceasefire there had been at least 13 clashes between Myanmar troops and the SSA.
Sergeant Chae said the situation at Sob Moei village was unpredictable and cited a confrontation between the KNU and the Myanmar military shortly after the truce agreement, which resulted in the deaths of several Myanmar soldiers.
”I don’t think it is easy to get in and develop the [Hatgyi] dam,” said the sergeant.
Ye Bue, a 63 year-old spiritual leader of the village, said about 15 years ago, there was major fighting between the KNU and the Burmese troops which led to the village school being damaged.
But Ye Bue insists his family has no intention of leaving.
”I have no idea what would happen next. If you do build the dam, please think how others could live,” he said.