I heard the name “Salween” before. I didn’t know exactly where it is. I knew it was somewhere close.
Somehow its name portrays a feeling of fearless turbulence. Perhaps, it’s the sound of “S” and the rhyme between “ween” and a Thai word “wian” from the word “wonwian” meaning lingering and wandering which makes me think of the word “namwon” meaning whirlpool.
There is a legend about the two great sister rivers of Southeast Asia: the Salween and the Mekong.
And this is how the story goes:
One day, the two rivers decided to go to sea. They agreed to travel through the mountains together and stopped whenever they wanted to. The Mekong slowly spanned its waterline through the landscape while the Salween hurried its way to claim the frontline.
After rushing ahead, the Salween decided to stop for a quick nap to wait for the Mekong. Days passed and the Mekong was still absent. The Salween thought the Mekong took a chance when it was sleeping to get ahead—to be the first to see the ocean. Angry and feeling betrayed, the Salween rushed through the channels and aimed to destroy any rock that stood in its way. Its wild speed was felt by those living nearby. The Mekong, on the other end, finally arrived at where the Salween was napping. Not seeing its younger sibling did not push it to move any faster. The Mekong continued to crawl and collect waters along the way; it even went off-route to carry fish and water into Tonle Sap before it finally reached the sea.
It is said that many communities believe in this story, though I have only heard it from two people. The anecdote may vary. Though it does resemble the turtle and the hare tale, but stories and legends are much better tools to narrate and describe the difference between the two.
Perhaps, it is the Salween’s anger that makes it the last free flowing river in China and Southeast Asia until 2015.
The Salween is originated from the marshland in the Himalayan Plateau—the same glacial area where the Mekong and the Brahmaputra start their mightiness. It travels over 2,200 kilometres through southwest China, Thailand, and Myanmar. Most of the areas it nourishes are occupied by ethnic indigenous communities. In Yunnan alone, the Nu River (as the Chinese called the upper Salween) feeds at least 22 ethnic groups. The same reality applies to downstream communities at the border between Thailand and Myanmar and major ethnic states in Myanmar (where Burmese names it “Thanlwin”). I remember someone told me that the Salween’s turbulence is reflected by perpetual ethnic tension in the most recent open country of ASEAN.
The plan to dam the free flowing Salween is not new. 13 cascade dams for the Nu River were proposed in 2003 as part of China’s 10th Five Year Plan. Chinese environmentalists immediately called the government to halt the project. Their voices were listened, but the hiatus is now over and the proposed 13 hydropower projects are back on the table.
Thailand’s eyes on damming Myanmar’s Thanlwin/Salween is also not new. Nearly ten years ago, Thai environmentalists became aware of 7,110 MW Ta Sang Hydropower Project, a Thai national dam at the cost of Burmese environment. The news of Ta Sang Dam has been silent but a recent loosely done EIA report and signed MOA for the 1,360 MW Hat Gyi Dam prove that the intention isn’t going away.
7 is the number of proposed dams on the Thanlwin/Salween. Over 20,700 MW will be generated to Thailand and China. The newly built transmission lines that would come with the new dams would gracefully pass over the electricity and wealth to Myanmar’s neighboring countries. Its people would have to look up to the electricity they are not entitled to use while watching their houses and livelihoods inundated by the reservoir.
But the real battle has only started. In June, 2014 Myanmar government switched on the green light for Chinese Hanergy Holding Group Company to tackle its hydropower project in Shan State. Kunlong Dam will stand tall to hold back the Salween while producing 1,400 MW of electricity to be sent back to China.
Large-scale hydropower projects—along with many other environmentally and socially detrimental projects—never prove beneficial to local communities. “The few should sacrifice for the many” is the excuse project proponents always use to dignify their grand prize. However, in this case, “the few” we’re talking here isn’t small in number but their political voice and power to decide how and who would control the river they rely on.
“We call the Thanlwin, ‘the River of Peace’” said Ko Ye, an activist from Dawei who has been fighting against Thailand-proposed mega development project in his hometown. “Because if this river is dammed or falls under one group’s control, the ethnic war in Myanmar will never stop.