Unyielding Water, Unyielding People

March 22nd, 2024  •  Author:   Progressive Voice  •  7 minute read
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Time and again, the Myanmar military has offered foreign investors an opportunity to exploit communities, land, and other natural resources to fuel global capitalism on the backs of Myanmar’s people.

On the International Day of Action for Rivers, a powerful wave of defiance flowed through the valleys and hills of Karen and Shan States in Myanmar. United in peaceful environmental and social movements, young people, villagers, and local groups sent a resounding call for environmental justice, urging the protection of their sacred rivers—which have served as the lifeblood of their communities for generations—and a halt to dam construction along the Salween and Namtu Rivers.

On 14 March 2024, over a thousand local people demonstrated their steadfast rejection of the proposed Hatgyi Dam site, gathering on the banks of the Salween River and holding banners saying “No Dam” and “Let the River Flow Freely.” For the past 20 years, Karen Rivers Watch (KRW), which led the 14 March demonstration, has been at the forefront of anti-dam campaigns along the Salween River, particularly the Hatgyi Dam Project, which seriously threatens local peoples’ livelihoods and security, and was decided upon without their consent.

In the many years of planning for the dam project, the Myanmar military has committed grave violations of human rights against local communities by imposing forced labor, committing rape, and forcibly displacing over 5,000 people. Since its attempted coup, the illegal military junta has intensified its attacks in Karen State, exacerbating the human rights, humanitarian, and environmental crisis affecting the local population. In the face of strong local opposition, the junta leader attempted to resume the project while visiting Karen State in May 2021 as part of the junta’s strategy to continue to exploit the country’s natural resources and force out indigenous populations for its own monetary and political gain.

Similarly, in Shan State, local villagers and youth from Hsipaw and Kyaukme, northern Shan State, and, Kunhing, southern Shan State, held blessing ceremonies along the Namma and Namtu Rivers on the International Day of Action for Rivers, waving the banners saying “May Shan State Rivers flow freely” and “May Shan State people be free.” Despite the people’s unequivocal rejection of dam projects, two large hydropower dam projects—the Upper Yeywa dam in Taung Che Village in Kyaukme Township, and the Namtu Dam in Tadae Village in Hsipaw Township—are continuing unabated for the Myanmar military’s benefit. The former is operated by the military-owned company Myanmar Electric Power Enterprise, with companies from China, Germany, Switzerland, and Japan involved in the dam’s construction. As for the latter, the Natural Current Energy Hydropower Co. Ltd., signed a memorandum of understanding with the junta on April 29 in 2022 and was blatantly constructed while local people utterly opposed.

Meanwhile, in Kachin State, Yup Zau Hkawng, owner of Jadeland Company and a business associate with ties to the military junta, has been expanding his illegal gold-mining operations near the Ayeyarwaddy River, including in prohibited areas. Such illegal mining activities without adherence to environmental regulations are leading to irreversible damage to the flow of the river and water quality.

At this juncture, Myanmar’s people are agonizingly grappling not only with the devastating humanitarian crisis caused by the Myanmar military junta during its past three years of attempted coup and terror campaign against the people, but also with the dire environmental crisis exacerbated by decades of exploitation by the military and its cronies. As the seasons shift, people in Myanmar bear the brunt of extreme weather events in varying ways. Communities suffer catastrophic flooding during the rainy season and severe droughts in the summer. Currently, approximately 115,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Demawso and Pruso Townships, Karenni State, are facing water scarcity, exacerbating their already dire living conditions.

However, hope prevails in the local and indigenous people’s grassroots environmental and social movements, which center the right to self-determination and local governance of indigenous communities over their own land and environment, as we witness in the case of the Karen people. The Salween Peace Park and the Thaw-thi Taw Oo Indigenous Park in Karen State serve as sustainable alternatives to destructive extractive development models, empowering local indigenous communities to reclaim their traditional practices, assert their rights, and manage their own natural resources. These initiatives were led by the collective effort of local representatives and environmental groups, such as the Mutraw Forestry Department and the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network.

In Myanmar’s long history, through ruthless violence and blatant corruption, the Myanmar military has systematically destroyed the country’s economy, natural resources, and environment to amass immense private wealth for itself and its cronies. It has suppressed existing forms of local governance, established economic arrangements, and long-standing socio-cultural practices. Needless to say, they would not have been able to do this without colluding with foreign investors. Time and again, the Myanmar military has offered foreign investors an opportunity to exploit communities, land, and other natural resources to fuel global capitalism on the backs of Myanmar’s people.

The Myanmar military junta’s environmental destruction and ruthless pursuit of wealth through extractive activities come at an extremely grave cost to the people of Myanmar, both now and for generations to come. It is critical for the international community, private companies, and state-owned companies to immediately and responsibly divest from junta-led destructive so-called development projects. Instead, solidarity and practical support, as identified by local and indigenous communities that commit to human rights and environmental protection, must go directly to the people of Myanmar in their struggle for federal democracy, self-determination, justice, and sustainable development. For Myanmar’s rivers to flow freely, respect and recognition of local communities’ wisdom, resilience, and self-determination that protect and preserve their ancestral land and natural resources for their future generations to come are essential.


[1] One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.

Resources from the past week


Statements and Press Releases

Villagers in Three Townships Gather to Oppose Dam Building on Shan State Rivers

By Action for Shan State Rivers

အပြည်ပြည်ဆိုင်ရာ မြစ်ချောင်းများနေ့နှင့် ရေကာတာဆန့်ကျင်ရေးနေ့အတွက် ကရင်မြစ်ချောင်းများစောင့်ကြည့်ရေးအဖွဲ့မှ သဘောထားထုတ်ပြန်ချက်

By Karen Rivers Watch

Statement from Karen Rivers Watch for International Day of Action for Rivers and Against Dams

By Karen Rivers Watch

UN Human Rights Council: Expedite Accountability and Support the Myanmar People’s Efforts to Establish Federal Democracy

By Special Advisory Council for Myanmar

2024 Rohingya Joint Response Plan: UK statement

By United Kingdom (Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office)

Carl Skau: People of Myanmar need more from the international community as situation deteriorates

By United Nations World Food Programme



Burma Coup Watch for The Month of February 2024: Junta lashes out at civilians as it loses more ground

By ALTSEAN-Burma, Asia Democracy Network, Asia Forum for Human Rights and Development, Burma Human Rights Network, Initiatives for International Dialogue, International Federation for Human Rights, Progressive Voice, US Campaign for Burma and Women’s Peace Network

February 2024 – Summary of Monthly Situation Update

By Burma Human Rights Network

Burma Army Puts More Civilians in Crosshairs After Recent Gains by the Resistance

By Free Burma Rangers

Mapping Myanmar’s prisons

By Myanmar Witness

Asia and the Pacific: Weekly Regional Humanitarian Snapshot (5 – 11 March 2024)

By United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”