Hpa-an, Karen State
An historic two-day event to celebrate the natural and cultural heritage of the Salween River was held on March 27-28, drawing over 200 participants. For the first time, state government, local and national civic organizations, academics and others gathered publicly to celebrate one of the world's last great free-flowing rivers.
Saw Tha Phoe, one of the event organizers, said, "We are holding this event to celebrate the beauty and diversity of the Salween River and its people through art and performance. We hope that the whole country will be able to understand the great cultural and ecological value of the Salween River." Participants also shared their experiences and concerns regarding the plans for large hydropower dams which now threaten to imminently change the river forever.
Held in Hpa-an, the event featured art exhibits, expert presentations, civil society updates from Shan, Karenni, Karen, and Mon communities, and performances highlighting the cultural diversity of the Salween. The following day, attendees enjoyed a boat trip to visit riverside communities and participate in poetry and drama presentations celebrating the Salween and pleading for its protection.
Mae Mae, a young woman from Mikayin, stated, "I'm so happy and excited to attend this event. We've never had this kind of event here before. I was born here in Mikayin village near the Salween River, and I never heard about the dam plans. This is the first time I've heard information about the dams. After hearing the information from different experts, I'm worried that we villagers will lose our happy life."
Throughout the event, participants stressed the interconnection of biological and cultural diversity along the Salween, as well as the folly of jeopardizing this heritage by building mega-dams. Referring to examples from other dams in Burma/Myanmar and other countries, several presenters referred to a "domino effect" of impacts ripping through the ecological and cultural fabric of riverine communities disrupted by the dams.
Participants emphasized the inherent danger of large dams. Representatives from Shan, Karenni, Mon, and Karen communities shared their fears that forcing the projects through would reignite conflict in their areas. Dr. Myo Thant of the Myanmar Seismology Committee reviewed the hazards of earthquake-induced dam failure in the Salween Basin, which would unleash a flood of destruction on downstream communities.
Presentations also challenged the claims of government and industry that electricity from the Salween dams will lift local communities from poverty. Such claims ignore the fact that river-based livelihoods will be impacted by the dams, or that the energy from the dams will be sent to Thailand and urban centers, not rural villagers. Presenters from the Renewable Energy Association of Myanmar (REAM) emphasized the potential of energy alternatives such as small-scale hydro, wind, and solar in order to meet the country's energy needs in a more sustainable way.
This Salween River event was successful in bringing together voices from across the Burma/Myanmar portion of the Salween Basin, as well as Kachin who shared their experiences from the now-suspended Myitsone dam project on the Irrawaddy River. The event provided an opportunity to strengthen ties between ethnic civil society from these areas, in order to share experiences, lessons learned, and strategies for protecting local communities. In addition, by linking the voices of ethnic communities with academics, writers, and artists from central Burma, it is hoped that the event will stimulate further information-sharing and help to make Salween River a national cause, not just relegated to the ethnic communities.
"To organize this kind of event, with discussion and information sharing, it's good for the young people to get the idea. It's also good for the investors that will do this project. They will see that more people have joined this event and are aware of their activities, so they might review the projects." Dr. Myo Thant added.
The Salween River is nationally and internationally significant. At nearly 3,000 kilometers long, it is the longest undammed river in Southeast Asia, originating in the glaciated peaks of the Himalayan Mountains in Tibet. The river enters Burma/Myanmar and flows through Shan and Karenni States, then forming the border between Karen State and Thailand's Mae Hong Son province. After passing the Karen State capital of Hpa-an, the river enters the Indian Ocean at the Mon State capital of Mawlamyine.
The Salween basin is home of the cultures of the Shan, Karenni, Karen, Mon and many other ethnic peoples. It is also home to the world's last great teak forest, to dry-season islands rich with crops, and to healthy fisheries upon which many people depend. As the recent Salween River event emphasized, this is a river of vast ecological and cultural value, and it is worth preserving for present and future generations.
Saw Kyaw Hla, a resident of Mikayin village along the Salween River, emphasized that villagers here have to depend on the river:
"The Salween River is important for our livelihood, for our survival. The river provides us with food, drinking water, and irrigation water to grow our crops. The income we earn from farming along the Salween allows us to send our children to school. Tomorrow we gather to gain more knowledge, so that we can make the right decisions about this important river."