Nearby villages flooded with refugees facing imminent crisis
AS MANY as 10,000 people in Kayin State in Myanmar have been displaced due to fighting over the Hat Gyi Dam construction site, as plans move forward to begin building on the Salween River.
Activists have reported a human rights crisis in the area as more than 1,000 refugees have been trapped in two small villages near the border with Thailand and lack proper housing, basic facilities and food.
Fighting erupted last month between the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) insurgent group and the government-affiliated Border Guard Force (BGF) in an area opposite Mae Tha Waw in Tak’s Tha Song Yang district (Kayin State was formerly known as Karen State after the ethnic group that have long inhabited that area).
Karen Cultural and Development Centre director Surapong Kongchantuk said thousands of people had been forced to leave their homes and were struggling to survive in wartime conditions without substantial aid from international human rights organisations.
“My co-workers have found two villages that were packed with crowds of refugees. They have to live in temporary shelters made from bamboo and tent fabric. They are unable to sustain themselves and have no access to fundamental services,” Surapong said.
He said most of the refugees were women and children, many of whom were babies who needed proper food. At present, the refugees only food supply is rice and salt contributed by outside aid.
“The villages heavily depended on help from volunteer groups. My co-workers were there to help refugees with food and supplements from Thailand. Our team also has medical personnel, who can perform basic health checks and provide medical advice to the refugees, but that is all that we can do,” he said.
Meanwhile, a Karen volunteer in the area who asked not to be named said many people had tried to flee to Thailand but were barred at the border, although some Myanmar nationals had managed to cross into the Kingdom.
“The refugees have nowhere to go. They cannot go forward and they cannot return. Right now people in Naw Tak and Htee Thay Kee village survive just because of our help,” the source said.
“There is still no humanitarian aid from any official agency or international organisation. These people are in a very desperate situation.”
The source added that people could not forage for food in the forest because of landmines in the area that have killed and injured many people.
She said many of the refugees told her they had fled from the Hat Gyi Dam construction area, which had become a battleground between the DKBA and BGF, with some walking for almost 24 hours to seek safety.
“We estimate that as many as 10,000 people were affected by the fighting to secure the dam construction site and we believe that there are many more villages that are crowded with refugees in other areas,” she said.
“The people want peace more than anything.”
Surapong urged stakeholders, such as Thailand’s EGAT International (EGATi), the main investor in the dam project, to work together to stop the bloodshed.
EGATi is one of four investors of the project, along with China’s Sinohydro Corporation, Myanmar’s Ministry of Electric Power and the International Group of Entrepreneurs. EGATi has an estimated Bt100 billion investment.
Hat Gyi Dam, sited on the Salween 47 kilometres downstream from Ban Sop Moei in Mae Hong Son, is supposed to produce 1,360 megawatts of electricity.
Under the project proposal Thailand would import electricity generated at the dam, as well as irrigation water to fill Bhumipol Dam for drought relief.
Surapong said fighting was spurred by an effort to clear the area of DKBA influence to establish a safe zone for dam construction.
“Not only is there the humanitarian crisis caused by the dam construction, if the dam is built, large areas will be flooded and large numbers of people displaced forever. Areas in Thailand will be affected as well, including Ban Sop Moei,” he said.