Protesting Karenni villagers blocked by Gov’t

A Karenni environmental group claims that the Burma government blockaded their attempt to join in a protest prayer against the damming of the Salween River last week.

Karenni environmentalists from the ‘Love Salween Group’ claim hundreds of Karenni villagers from Pasaung, Loikaw and Ywathit were blocked and denied passage by Burmese authorities to join with other protesters gathering for a prayer ceremony at Wan Awn village. The villagers who all live on the Salween said they where on their way to commemorate the Global Day of Action for Rivers held on March 14.

The ‘Love Salween Group’ claim hundreds of villagers who had arrived by boats at the Wan Awn dock were forced to leave by authorities.

The ‘Love Salween Group’ spokesperson, Khu Thaw Reh, spoke to Karen News.

“The authorities stopped the villagers boats that were traveling to the prayer service at Wan Awn village. Hundreds of villagers were turned away and could not attend the prayers service – only a few village committees and a few local people from Wan Awn held a service in the monastery.”

Villagers from the Salween River valley in Karenni State planned to hold a prayer service to voice their concerns about the building of the Ywathit Dam.

Khu Thaw Reh said the government has not included villagers in discussions about the dams.

“We are disappointed with the government’s blockade. If they [government] carry out the project without transparency and do not inform the people from the beginning, it will cause serious problems like what happened with at Letpadaung [a copper mine at the center of mass demonstrations in central Burma].”

The ‘Love Salween Group’ said permission for the villagers to attend the prayer meeting was sought from the Bawlake district authorities a week before the gathering, but it was rejected.

“The dam project needs the participation of local people. The local people need to be informed about the positive and negative impacts of the project. If there is lot of negative impacts, local people will not want it. That’s why they have come to express their feelings at this at this prayer service.”

The Karenni State Chief Minister U Khin Maung Oo told Burma reporters on March 15 that “geographic surveys on the Ywathit Dam have begun. The project will be implemented only next year – international experts will carry out environmental impacts [caused] by the dam. If they say there are hazards from the dam, we will stop the dam. If not, we will proceed.”

The government owned Datang Corporation of China signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the former Burma’s military regime to build three dams in Karenni State including the 600-megawatt dam on the Salween River at Ywathit.

The dam site is located in a previously contested conflict area between the Burma government and the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP).

Khu Thaw Reh said the upper area of the planned dam site was once inhabited by Karenni villagers who were forced to leave during Burma Army offensives and were forcibly relocated to army designated relocation sites.

“This does not mean that the [government] can do as they please in the area, when the political situation improves the Karenni people forced into refugee camps and to migrate to Thailand will return to their [former] homes.”

The Love Salween Project urged the government to stop the Ywathit Dam and other dam projects on the Salween River during the transition to peace and democratic reform in Burma.

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