Salween, People, War and Silence

Rewinding to 2005, there were attempts by the Thai and Myanmar governments to build 6 dams across the Salween River. One of these is the Hatgyi Dam, in which the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) is interested in co-investment, located 47 km from Sop Moei village. However, the dam construction is currently at a standstill due to COVID-19 and the war since the coup.

Nature may restore itself under a political vacuum, but the lives of the local people continue to deteriorate in the midst of uncertainty about their safety. This is a result of the war. At the same time, Salween riverside communities such as the Mae Sam Laep Tambon Administrative Organization still hope to restore the community economy through eco-tourism, presenting the natural beauty of both sides of the Salween River, together with the sea of mist on the border covering a large area of the western forest.

“No single drop of water falls into the sea in vain. Every single drop of water, every single river, feeds the land, the eco-system, the people, the trees. No river flows into the sea in vain. Currently, nature-based solutions should be the main policy for national development,” said Pianporn (Pai) Deetes, Regional Campaigns and Communications Director in the Southeast Asia Programme of International Rivers, when asked about the explanation often used by those that advocate large dams. Collecting water for use is undoubtedly better than just letting it flow into the sea without using it for something. If that is true, Thailand would probably have no droughts when considering the number of existing dams and water collection facilities, including check dams which are based on the same concept, which is to reduce the amount of water flowing into the eco-system without getting used.

No single drop of water falls into the sea in vain. Every single drop of water, every single river, feeds the land, the eco-system, the people, the trees. No river flows into the sea in vain.

The concept for the construction of the Hatgyi Dam first started in Myanmar after 2005. Thailand through EGAT was interested in investing in the dam, in order to generate electricity and send it to Thailand. China is a large source of the capital behind the construction. Hatgyi is one of six dams the Myanmar government plans to build across the Salween River, but the location of Hatgyi makes it the one that will affect Thailand the most, since the construction site is only 47 km away from Sop Moei village, Sop Moei District, Mae Hong Son Province. That is very close if viewed from the perspective of the river basin ecosystem where any kind of change often has widespread impacts.

I heard about Hatgyi for the first time around 10 years ago, when I first started to be interested in Myanmar politics. Then news about the construction of Hatgyi could be seen now and then in the Thai media when there is some movement from the constructor – not long after, opposition protests will naturally follow.

Photos of activities on the International Day of Action for Rivers Against Dams, which are often held on the Salween riverside, became something like a symbol for the anti-dam protestors who continue to stand firm after many years. The protests were all held before the coup on the morning of 1 February 2021 – due to this event, the movements of both supporters and opponents immediately disappeared.

A boat used to provide transportation at Mae Sam Laep port. Many have now been moored for a long time for lack of customers.

The Mae Sam Laep riverside during the dry season, revealing the shore and islets. In this area, villagers often bring their livestock to feed on the grass which grows naturally.

Most children of boat people have good swimming skills, since most of their lives are spent on riverside rafts on the Salween.

Although the COVID-19 situation has started to ease, currently Mae Sam Laep port still maintains an inspection point.

The Salween River from a high altitude near Phra That Mae Sam Laep.

Other than goods traffic, Mae Sam Laep port is also used by villagers from other areas to continue travel by vehicle to other districts.

Villagers use small fish as bait. The Salween is
well-known for having many large and tasty fish.

Karen men cross the river to use the telephone signal to contact their relatives in Thailand. They also use the opportunity to download songs and videos to watch after returning to Myanmar.

The atmosphere of Mae Sam Laep port. It is not that busy. Many stores are closed.

The atmosphere of silence first started to reach the Salween riverside since the spread of COVID-19 in 2020 which greatly affected border trade and tourism in the area, especially Mae Sam Laep, Sop Moei District, Mae Hong Son Province, which seems to be an important port for Thailand’s north western border trade. It is also an important tourist spot for both Thai and foreign tourists, who often come to see the natural beauty of the Salween River by boat. The spread of COVID-19 caused the disappearance of tourists, along with diminished border trade, although there are still some goods transported across the river, since most consumer goods used by the Burmese living along the Salween River are made in Thailand.

Crossing the border by boat to buy goods from Thailand is easier than heading inland into town by land due to the distance and safety, which is an important consideration. However, the silence, which makes the area feel as if there has never been a port here, is caused by the war, which left a much bigger impact than any pandemic ever could.

The most recent coup in Myanmar met with protests by large numbers of people, including minorities, one of the key anti-coup movements being the Karen National Union (KNU), a force which has been fighting the Myanmar government for a long time, demanding independence. Most of their forces are along the Thai frontier on the Salween River, and there have been continuous violent exchanges, causing some refugees to flee across the river to hide near Mae Sam Laep port on the Thai side.

At that time, land in Mae Sam Laep village was immediately set aside as a temporary shelter. Outsiders were not allowed to pass, only relevant officials. Even the mass media were not allowed to enter the area to report, due to security and COVID-19 concerns.

I went to the Salween for the first time not long after news that a Myanmar government plane had invaded Thailand’s air space. Mae Sam Laep port was open for service as normal, but there were still signs of strict security measures, since there were still ongoing confrontations on the frontier across the Salween River. The villagers were still afraid of air strikes. “Actually, many villagers took videos of when the plane flew past their homes. But soon after, soldiers came and asked that we don’t upload the videos online and don’t send them to journalists. They were afraid it may affect security. Otherwise we’d have been able to see it from many different angles,” a villager told me about the incident that day, which caused the whole village to implement safety evacuation procedures.

In terms of the environment, it probably cannot be seen as positive, but COVID-19 and the war have created a vacuum regarding large-scale development projects across the region. This includes the Hatgyi Dam construction project which has temporarily been halted, as if to allow all parties to take a step back and review and adjust their fighting methods. This includes the Myanmar government which has become more of a dictatorship after the coup. That may lead to a decision to continue forward with the construction at full force, if the Salween riverside bases can be completely taken back from the KNU – this is something a lot of people are concerned about.

COVID-19 is about to pass, while the war does not appear to be ending anytime soon. Although news of confrontations has disappeared from Thai media, the truth is the opposite. Sounds of gunfire and explosions can be heard in many villages located by the Salween River as if it was part of everyday life. Safety bunkers have been built for emergency situations, just as training for evacuation in emergency situations is part of schools on the border.

Actually, many villagers took videos of when the plane flew past their homes. But soon after, soldiers came and asked that we don’t upload the videos online and don’t send it to journalists. They were afraid it may affect security. Otherwise we’d have been able to see it from many different angles.

Tha Ta Fang village is one example of a place that has made such preparations. We visitors tell each other that this honestly is a village that has received the full brunt of bullets. Traces of artillery shells which missed their targets and ended up in Thailand, along with the echoing sounds breaking the silence both in the day and night, are part of their everyday lives ever since the latest Myanmar coup. Since the Salween River is an important transportation route for provisions and other necessities for the KNU and villagers who are mostly Karen, the KNU Salween base has become a target for the Myanmar army to attack to gain an advantage, which you can see from the choice of fighter planes which are considered heavy weapons, being used to attack.

Karen military camp near the Salween River. All along the Salween, similar camps can be seen in many locations.

Both sides of the Salween are still full of the riches of nature. If there was no war in the area, this could be an interesting tourist spot.

A Karen woman on the ferry headed towards Mae Sam Laep.

The base of the national flagpole at Tha Ta Fang school, by the Salween, was modified into a safety bunker to be used when fights break out across the border.

In the rainy season, the Salween changes to a red brown colour and the water flows quickly, making it difficult to fish. Often, villagers come back empty-handed. In this picture, a fish net tens of metres long has caught no fish at all during the rainy season when the river flows heavily.

Sop Moei near the curve where the Salween River meets the Moei River before flowing back into Myanmar. 47 km south of here is the Hatgyi Dam construction site.

Boonler tent campsite. The Mae Sam Laep Tambon Administrative Organization and villagers hope that this can become a new tourist attraction for the sea of mist which covers the whole mountain where the two rivers meet at Sop Moei village. This sea of mist is called ‘Goselo’, or ‘two-nation sea of mist’.

The impact from the war is also clear to see at Mae Sam Laep, an important trading port for Thailand’s western border. Before COVID-19, Mae Sam Laep port was a transportation centre for important consumer goods, especially for the Karen State across the river. Most people buy goods from Thailand due to their quality and the range of brands to choose from, and crossing the river by boat is more convenient than by land.

In normal times, you would be able to see a line of boats moored, waiting to carry people and goods back to Myanmar. It was the same for tourist boats which were usually filled with both Thai and foreign tourists who came to view the beauty of nature along the Salween, as well as to the stores and restaurants lined up in Mae Sam Laep port. This has all become just a picture of the past, in contrast to the current situation which is quiet. Tourists have yet to return. The transportation of goods can still be seen but only for provisions and necessities back to the Karen state since there is no trust in the border security, unlike other areas post-COVID-19 where people have started to go back to their normal lives.

Nature may revive in a political vacuum, but the way of life of the people in the area is deteriorating in the midst of uncertainty for their safety which is the result of the war. Although the Salween River is still a bountiful river full of various fish, when the river flows strongly in the rainy season, full of white sediment, it means catching fish is difficult. So fishing in the Salween River is more commonly carried out in the dry season when the water is clearer and the river flow is less violent. Making an income from fishing is uncertain, although fish from the Salween River are famous for their good taste and are in great demand from various restaurants, while goods and other expenses continue to increase in price every day.

The Border Police station in Sop Moei. The officer has to report every time a boat passes, or a gunshot or an explosion is heard.

Pianporn (Pai) Deetes, Regional Campaigns and Communications Director, Southeast Asia Program of International Rivers, leading the media to survey Sop Moei’s tourism route.

Villagers trying to collect a fish net that was swept downriver at the mouth of the Moei before it flows into Salween.

December was the last time I went to the Salween area. The cool winter air in Mae Sariang has become lively again, full of both Thai and foreign tourists along the streets.

A large number of hotels are fully booked, proof that the impact from COVID-19 is starting to wane. I returned by boat to Mae Sam Laep to head to Sop Moei in a media trip hosted by Mae Sam Laep Subdistrict, headed by the Chief Executive of the Tambon Administrative Organization, Phongphiphat Mibenchamat, or “Chief Chai”, a name familiar to the villagers. It was an effort to present the beautiful and abundant nature of the Salween, together with the mist which covers the western forest. All this is to encourage tourism to return to the Salween riverside. The Subdistrict sees the importance of tourism as a key supply route which nourishes the community.

Agriculture cannot be practised due to transportation difficulties, since most of the frontier area is a complex of hills and mountains, with four-wheel drive vehicles needed to get to many villages. So it is difficult to transport agricultural products to the market. “If tourism to the Salween River becomes popular, the villagers will receive more income. Nowadays the tourists that come are mostly campers. They come ready with four-wheel drive vehicles and equipment. But we want to present another tourism route by boat along the Salween River. The problem is confidence in their safety due to the war. But it’s hard to talk about this. We need time to build this,” Chief Chai explained the opportunity and limitations of the area.

Every time I do fieldwork near the Salween River, I try to find concrete evidence and traces of some movement for such a large project as the Hatgyi Dam, but the current situation only has silence. which seems to be louder than any other sound. We don’t know when the silence covering the Salween Riverside villager’s difficulties will end.

At the same time, beneath the silence, there may be a large underwater wave building while there is no democracy, just as Thailand is facing a movement to push forward the Yuam diversion project to fill the Bhumibol Dam. This project directly impacts the Salween River.

Both projects are large-scale and are significantly related to each other not only in terms of the river basin ecosystem, but also because the large Chinese capital groups have close relations with the Thai and Burmese governments. If the political contexts of each nation are still directed by the military, it is possible that similar nature-based protests and large-scale development projects will continue forward in the future for a long time.

For local people, their fears are not about the dam construction, but basic issues like food on their plates and safety, that cannot wait, unlike other issues. The louder the gunshots, the clearer the silence on the western frontier. The sound of the Salween River against the shore may be louder than the lamentations of the local people, where the silence reverberates all across the Salween River.

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