World Rainforest Movement

Burma: The looming social and environmental disaster of the Tasang dam

Keng Kham is a community located along the Pang River, that flows down from the mountain and into the Salween River in southern Shan State of Burma. The community had an estimated total population of 14,800 before the Burma Army started in 1996 an anti-insurgency campaign that forced relocation and made the majority to flee to Thailand. Now it has dwindled to some 3,000 in 114 villages.

The situation for those that still live in Keng Kham is constantly precarious. Villagers often have to hide from passing Burma Army patrols to avoid harassment, extortion, forced labor, or interrogation. However, those who remain are managing to maintain their traditional rural ways of life and culture in an ecologically unique area.

Yet, they face a further major threat: the Tasang dam, the largest of five dams planned in Burma for the transnational Salween River by the Chinese, Thai and Burmese governments, that will submerge 870 km2 in the heartland of Shan State. Tens of thousands will be displaced by the dams upstream and a half million will be impacted in the delta downstream. Three of the dams will flood areas of outstanding biodiversity and one will submerge the homeland of the last remaining Yin Ta Lai people, who now number just 1,000.

The majority of the power from the dams will be sold to Thailand, providing revenues to the military ruling Burma but not electricity to a domestic population that faces chronic energy shortages. Keng Kham community will be directly impacted from the Tasang Reservoir when the dam is finished as nearly all the 114 villages will go under water together with their river-fed farms, sacred cave temples, pristine waterfalls and forests.

Initial surveys for the dam began in 1998, in the midst of the relocation campaign. Project investors include the Thai MDX Company and China’s Gezhouba Group Company. They are eager to begin construction and have already held a ground-breaking ceremony.

However, the project continues to be delayed by the instability of the area surrounding the dam site. Areas south and southeast of the dam site are under the control of the United Wa State Army (UWSA), a ceasefire group. Since early 2009 the Burmese regime has been putting pressure on ceasefire armies to transform into Border Guard Forces which will be fully under Burma Army control. Many of the ceasefire groups, including the UWSA, are resisting this, throwing into doubt the stability of former ceasefire territories. This will directly threaten the security of the main supply route from Thailand to the Tasang dam-site, which is also the expected route of the power transmission lines.

Meanwhile rampant logging carries on unabated in areas surrounding the dam site. Hard wood trees including teak are being clearcut for transport and sale in China and Thailand.

Logs are transported after the rainy season. From January to May 2009, Century Dragon, a logging company of Tay Za, a close associate of the Burmese generals, and the Wa-controlled Hong Pang Company were actively logging from the east banks of the Salween inland. In the past, Thai Sawat logged only big trees in this area, but today’s loggers are clear-cutting everything.

Most of the forests in the Mong Pu Long area are now gone. Recently Hong Pang Company also started building a logging road west of the Salween between Mong Pan and Tasang. In various areas logs are floated down the Salween for sale in Thailand or sent up the Mekong for sale in China.

The Shan Women’s Action Network has documented sexual violence by Burma Army troops against hundreds of women living around the Tasang dam site and denounced that “Women’s lives are interdependent with nature because we must collect vegetables, firewood, and traditional medicines for the sustenance and health of our families. The natural environment must be preserved for the survival of our future generations and the most important component is water and our rivers. But now Burma’s military government is going to build dams on our Salween River for their own interest. Before building the dams they are logging and constructing the road to carry materials to the dam site. At the same time the number of soldiers is increasing for the dam’s security. This situation is making it very difficult and unsafe for women who depend on the forest around the Tasang dam.”

The Shan Sapawa Environment Organization is calling for a halt of the Tasang dam. They have produced the report “Roots and Resilience” (1). By focusing on the ecologically unique area of Keng Kham community and their struggle to survive amidst civil war, the report tries to reveal the potential human costs and all that will be lost under the flood of the Tasang Dam.

(1) “Roots and Resilience”, by Shan Sapawa Environment Organization, can be downloaded at http://www.salweenwatch.org/

Article based on the report “Roots and Resilience” and the 4 August 2009 press release. Contact: Sai Sai, e-mail: shansapawa@gmail.co