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Thousands displaced by Myanmar dam

Huge construction project pits geopolitical rivals China and India against each other, while villagers are pushed out.

Last Modified: 31 Mar 2013 07:23
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Tamanthi Dam will block the Chindwin River in northern Myanmar, potentially displacing tens of thousands [Al Jazeera]

Chiang Mai, Thailand - More than 2,000 people have been displaced from their homes in northern Myanmar, according to human rights activists - and construction on the Indian-financed Tamanthi Dam hasn't even started yet.

While the fate of the dam hangs in the balance, so does those of the 2,400 people reportedly forced from their homes at gunpoint in the Sagaing region, and an estimated tens of thousands of others who would need to be removed.

The Tamanthi Dam, financed by India's National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC), will be 80 metres high and flood 1,396 sq km - an area larger than Hong Kong. Local human rights groups say this will affect 6,880 hectares of fertile farmland, displacing a further 45,000 people.

John Laban, an ethnic Naga, used to live not far from the proposed dam site on the Chindwin River before moving to Thailand more than three years ago. The people who have been relocated are facing many hardships, according to Laban. Prospects for farming around their new homes are poor, unlike the opportunities provided by the fertile soil near the river, where the "fishing is good".

Laban said his people "have many problems", but "the government doesn't care". They were given neither compensation nor new homes, and now with their farms gone, they have no choice but to take work as day labourers, cultivating and selling someone else's fruit and vegetables - if they can even find the work.

"At present they can't say when the villagers will need to move and they can't say if it will not happen."

- John Laban, villager

The Tamanthi Dam, meanwhile, is suffering the latest setback in a series of delays that have plagued it since the memorandum of understanding was signed back in 2004.

Late in 2012, a detailed project report found the construction financially unfeasible without additional government backing from either the Indian or Myanmar government.

"At present they can't say when the villagers will need to move and they can't say if it will not happen," said Laban. "They are very sad - they don't want to lose their homes."

Last year, he returned to his village. Out of fear of retaliation by the military, he did not want to name the hamlet. Residents had been warned by soldiers stationed nearby not to speak out against the project under threat of fines and long jail sentences, according to Laban.

More than 200 soldiers regularly patrol the region from their main base in Tamanthi village. The tens-of-thousands who haven't been displaced remain anxious about when they too will be forced to move.

India-China geopolitics

According to the deal, 80 percent of the 6,685 gigawatt hours generated annually would be allotted to India, with the remaining 20 percent to be used at the discretion of the Myanmar government.

The project is one of India's only stakes in the many existing and planned hydroelectric dams in Myanmar. The remaining dams are almost all Chinese, with some Thai, according to Sai Sai, coordinator for Burma Rivers Network - an umbrella organisation of many local conservation groups monitoring Myanmar's river systems.

"The dam isn't even active yet but the villagers' lives have already been changed ... They destroyed their old homes. In the new areas, there is nothing."

- Sai Sai, Burma Rivers Network

In the early 1990s, India started its "Look East" policy; a strategy to improve bilateral relationships with Association of Southeast Asian Nations countries, including Myanmar and Singapore.

The policy contrasted with India's previous dealings with Myanmar's former military regime, a time when Indian military intelligence reportedly covertly assisted many political dissidents - during and after the 1988 student uprising - and openly supported Aung San Suu Kyi's struggle for democracy.

But when it became apparent the generals weren't about to pack their bags, India began building ties with the country's administration to counter the growing dominance of its strategic rival, China.

"The dam isn't even active yet but the villagers' lives have already been changed," said Sai Sai. "After they [the Myanmar government] relocated them, they destroyed their old homes. In the new areas, there is nothing, no township administration and nothing is developed for them." 

Business as usual

Many Naga, Kuki and Shan ethnic groups living around the Tamanthi Dam site have been forcibly relocated since 2007.

According to "Stop Damning the Chindwin", a report by the Kuki Human Rights Group, they were forced at gunpoint to sign agreements that stated they had volunteered to move. If compensation for their losses was provided at all, it was as little as $5 per family.

As the army bulldozed their homes, cemeteries and churches, villagers from nearby towns were forcibly recruited to help. Many of the displaced were moved to a new village, named Shwe Pye Aye, after the country's former leaders General Than Shwe and Maung Aye.

After Kuki activists organised a river protection prayer ceremony in Leivomjang village, eight organisers were interrogated and beaten by military personnel, according to a joint press release from the Kuki Women's Human Rights Organisation and Kuki Students' Democratic Front. The organisers were forced to agree not to cary out any further activities against the Tamanthi Dam.

"When you look at infrastructure projects over the last 20 years, most have involved forced relocations. Whether it is a road or a dam, the army is involved to either secure the area or enforce relocation orders."

- David Scott Mathieson, HRW

Displacements resulting from large industrial projects such as the Tamanthi Dam are common in Myanmar, according to David Scott Mathieson, senior researcher on Myanmar for the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch.

"When you look at infrastructure projects over the last 20 years, most have involved forced relocations," he said. "Whether it is a road or a dam, the army is involved to either secure the area or enforce relocation orders."

What's different now is that, in some cases, companies are at least paying token compensation to affected locals.

Although a Myanmar government spokesperson agreed to answer questions by email, the queries went unanswered.

Indian officials also declined to comment on matters related to the dam.

Disappearing turtles

The building of the Tamanthi Dam will not only affect people. The dam would flood the Tamanthi Wildlife Sanctuary and Hukaung Tiger Reserve, which are home to several endangered species, including tigers, elephants and the Batagur trivittata, or "Burmese Roofed turtle", which was believed to be extinct until recently. The few that do live in the wild find homes along the Chindwin River.

"The official number is fewer than 25," said Steven Platt from the Wildlife Conservation Society. "But we think there are about 10 females. They used to be in all the rivers. They don't exist in any other country."

Engineering consultants AF-Consult Switzerland Ltd, hired by India's NHPC for the Tamanthi Dam, also provided consultation for the Chinese-financed Yeywa Dam on the Dokhtawaddy River. That dam, the third-largest roller-compacted concrete dam in the world, also caused forcible relocations, according to human rights groups.

Alan Dredge, chief engineer and project manager for AF-Consult Switzerland, said in an email that steps have been taken to ensure the Tamanthi Dam would have minimal effects on the Batagur trivittata. 

The Burmese roofed turtle is highly endangered
[Brian Horne/Al Jazeera]

He said an environmental impact assessment was carried out and the negative impacts of the project would be "more than balanced by improvements by the execution of the mitigation measures proposed".

The survival of the Burmese roofed turtle would be ensured "through project support to ongoing and any additionally required research and conservation programmes".

However, Platt isn't convinced the recommended mitigation measures for the turtles on the Chindwin River have been implemented. 

All the known nesting sites along the upper river would be inundated by the dam, he said.

"These dams inundate the nesting beaches, where they require deep sandy beaches for nesting," Platt told Al Jazeera. "If that dam is built, they're going to be extinct in the wild."

Follow Brennan O'Connor on Twitter: @BrennanOConnor

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Al Jazeera
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