Myanmar government officials claim a hydroelectricity project along the Tanintharyi River could significantly benefit the Southeast Asian nation. But new research by a trio of human rights organisations offers a dark contrast to that bright picture. Almost 7,000 people could be displaced if a dam is built along the river, according to a joint report, Blocking a Bloodline, by Candle Light, Southern Youth, and the Tarkapaw Youth Group.
“These approximately 7,000 people will lose everything they know, including their way of life, community and kinship, ancestral history, local use of natural resources, and their lands,” Human Rights Watch’s Asia Deputy Director Phil Robertson wrote in an email to Al Jazeera. “If this [project] goes forward, [the villagers] will mark the first day of their displacement as the start of the worst period of their lives, when their rights were trod on by the Myanmar government and they were shuffled off to a wholly inadequate resettlement area where quality land, water, services, and support are entirely lacking.”
The reports suggest the project will alter the livelihoods of the Karen, the area’s indigenous people. This dam could “irreversibly alter the lives of up to 32,000 people living along it,” the authors write. They predict that not only could up to 32 upstream villages be displaced, but 58,500 hectares of land would likely be destroyed.
“The river is the life for the local people living along it. The river provides everything they need,” said Naw Pe The Law. She is the executive director of the group Tanintharyi Friends. “They say that the forest is a ‘free market’ for them… They don’t have to spend money because they can get everything in the forest.”
According to Myanmar law, “indigenous people have to give their free, prior, and informed consent to decisions for projects in the area.” Yet, according to the report, government officials did not sufficiently consult indigenous communities about the risks the dam would pose to them, despite signing 18 memorandums of understanding with companies who want to build the dam over the years.
U Myo Nyunt, spokesman for the ruling National League for Democracy party, told Al Jazeera that the government is currently conducting a study to determine whether to build the dam. “We will decide depending on the outcome of the study concerning the economy, the environment, politics, and the social affairs of our country,” he said, adding that the study involves speaking to affected villagers. “Their opinion will be thoroughly considered in our decision,” he said.
The government’s December 2015 Energy Master Plan promotes hydropower. The plan argues that a dam could contribute to a safer energy future for Myanmar, foster regional development through its infrastructure building, and bring economic, technical and financial benefits to the region. The plan also suggests that building the dam could make hydropower cheaper to produce than most nonrenewable energies once the dam is built.
Instead of “benefitting the region, electricity produced by the dam could be exported abroad,” Pe The Law said. “The electricity is not for us,” she said. “The electricity is for other countries.”
“Communities living in the vicinity of the hydropower site may remain without electricity and have other elements of their security, such as food, water or livelihood, undermined. Meanwhile, the adverse social and environmental impacts are disproportionately burdening the rural ethnic communities in the immediate watersheds, while the energy importing countries receive many of the positive political and economic impacts,” the Master Energy Plan reads.
According to a 2012 report by the Asian Development Bank, Myanmar is a major regional energy exporter. Bank data showed that in 2010, Myanmar, Laos and China served as the subregion’s net exporters. In the same year, energy production per hour in Myanmar surpassed energy consumption per hour. Most of this exported electricity is generated by hydropower energy.
Pe The Law tells Al Jazeera that local villagers often use private power generators because they are not connected to Myanmar’s electricity grid. This type of electricity, she says, is five times more expensive than electricity in urban areas. Less than 40 percent of the Burmese population have access to electricity. Only 33.8 percent of households in the Tanintharyi region have consistent power.
The Myanmar military and Karen National Union (KNU) signed a preliminary ceasefire agreement in 2012, bringing years of armed conflict to a halt. But that peace is fragile, and indigenous communities fear that the dam could contribute to armed conflict, according to the report.
The International Finance Corporation (IFC) has also expressed concerns over renewed conflict caused by dam projects in Myanmar. “Examples from Karen State demonstrate the potential for hydropower projects to reinforce ethnic grievances and trigger armed conflict,” reads a 2017 IFC report on the matter.
“The reality is beyond a simple agreement to stop shooting at each other,” Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson said. “Little has been decided in the so-called ‘peace process’ between the Tatmadaw [armed forces of Myanmar], the Myanmar civilian government, and the KNU. So any change to the status quo on land and use of natural resources will be automatically resisted by the side that stands to lose … The ceasefire between the KNU and the Tatmadaw is already quite frayed, and it would not take much to push it over the edge.”