A peace park has been proposed on the Salween river in eastern Myanmar. Photo: Facebook / Pai Deetes

A large group of Karen citizens and activists held a special three-day event in Mutraw district in eastern Myanmar’s Kayin State last month to declare the “launch” of a Salween Peace Park.

The event was organized by the local indigenous communities, with the Salween Peace Park Committee and the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN).

It featured traditional Karen ceremonies and included a memorial service for indigenous leader Saw O Moo, a fierce advocate for the Salween Peace Park who was killed by members of the Myanmar military last year.

The event marked agreement on a Salween Peace Park charter, written by Karen communities to embody their “aspirations for genuine peace and self-determination, environmental integrity and cultural preservation.”

This move has been described as a radical grassroots’ alternative to dams on the Salween.

But you would be brave to bet that this laudable and far-sighted proposal has much chance of success. The Myanmar army has dozens of military bases in Mutraw district and little heed has been paid to ethnic voices since the military took power over six decades ago.

The Salween Peace Park is the result of several decades of grassroots efforts such as the establishment of community forests, the enforcement of fish conservation zones, and the demarcation of “Kaw,” or traditional indigenous lands, according to Mongabay.

The initiative was spearheaded by local communities, Karen civil society groups, and Mutraw district leaders in order to protect these community-based efforts as well as “to demonstrate what truly good governance could be and provide a people-centered alternative to top-down, militarized development,” according to a brief on the Salween Peace Park Charter circulated by KESAN.

In particular, the park was created as an alternative to allowing the construction of hydroelectric dams and mining in the Salween River Basin.

“The Salween Peace Park initiative works for the purpose of bringing peace, freedom and security to the area,” Padoh Ten Der, chairman of Mutraw district, said in the statement. “This is the land of Mutraw Indigenous Karen people. To preserve and protect our existing ancestral land, environment and culture, we established the Salween Peace Park initiative.”

The Peace Park it envisages would encompass 5,485 square kilometers (nearly 1.4 million acres) of the Salween River Basin, if it was officially endorsed. That area includes more than 340 villages, 139 demarcated Kaw, 27 community forests, four forest reserves, and three wildlife sanctuaries.

The Salween River – known as the Thanlwin in Burman Myanmar and the Nu in China – is important to the culture and livelihood of many indigenous and ethnic groups in China, Myanmar and Thailand.

The region has been subject to decades of conflict between Karen people and the Myanmar military, but the Salween River Basin in Kayin (formerly Karen) State is considered one of the most biodiverse areas in the Asia-Pacific. It harbors species from the Asiatic black bear and the sun bear to the eastern hoolock gibbon and the Sunda pangolin.

A growing body of research has consistently shown that recognizing the claims of indigenous peoples to their traditional territories is one of the most effective ways to protect forests and biodiversity.

2018 study found that indigenous peoples either own, use, or manage some 38 million square kilometers (nearly 9.4 billion acres) — more than a quarter of the world’s land surface — and that two-thirds of that land is in a “natural” state, which means there are twice as many unspoiled areas in those indigenous-controlled territories as can be found on other lands.

It would take a dramatic turnaround by the Myanmar army, which currently controls the Border Affairs, Home Affairs and Defense ministries, to back down on huge dams proposed by two of its most powerful neighbors, China and Thailand.

The army was reportedly trying to build a road into this area, close to where the Hat Gyi dam is proposed, last year, when Saw O Moo was killed. Fighting between local Karen and the Tatmadaw has prevented this dam from going ahead for more than a decade. Indeed, the hydropower project is said to have caused thousands of local people to flee to Thailand.

Hat Gyi is a 100-billion-baht (about US$3-billion) project for a dam that would allegedly generate 1,360 megawatts of power. It is backed by the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT), China’s Sinohydro Corp and Myanmar’s Ministry of Electric Power.

Dam proposals have been some of the most hated and controversial projects in Myanmar, but the country still has substantial areas that lack access to power. Currently, most of the power from the Hat Gyi dam would go to Thailand, if it is built.

Many other dams are planned on the Salween but strong opposition by ethnic armed groups have prevented most from going ahead.

The Peace Park proposal is, in effect, a tribute to a glorious piece of wilderness, much of which could well end up underwater if these dam projects go ahead.

with reporting by Mongabay

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