A report released on October 5 details human rights violations committed by the Myanmar government in the development of the Upper Paunglaung Dam project in southwest Shan State.
Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), Land in Our Hands (LIOH) and Kayan New Generation Youth (KNGY) jointly published the report which found that households were subject to forced displacement by the government, experienced an increase in poverty and reported food security issues, water shortages, mental health issues and suicides.
Eight thousand people of Myanmar, Pa-oh and Kayan ethnicities, from 23 villages, have been forcibly displaced from the Paunglaung River area since 2013. Many were forced to accept inadequate compensation for the loss of their land and livelihoods as a result of the deliberate flooding of the Paunglaung valley.
On October 5, representatives from some of the villages forcibly relocated spoke at a press conference in Yangon of living in a climate of fear in the wake of the development, whereby intimidation by government officials is common.
U Min Min Hlay, a farmer who lost his land, told the audience: “The government threatened us, they said 'you have to move'... After they knew about this report they threatened us saying 'who are you working with?'”
He added: “We have no food or jobs now, we want a way out. Some of us are committing suicide...”
Depression is rife amongst the displaced population.
Since 2013, 10 people in the Htantabin village at the relocation site have attempted suicide by drinking pesticide. Six were hospitalised and four died, the report said.
It was mostly young, unmarried, and unemployed people who attempted suicide – primarily farmers who lost their land and livelihoods in the forced relocation.
“At least if we have our farms, we have rice to eat. It’s our life. The land is like our mother,” said Min Min Hlay
One young farmer died after he consumed a mix of alcohol and pesticides after the flooding of his farm.
In another case, an 18-year-old girl drank poison after reportedly saying: “If I die my family will have more food.”
The report found that those families who were displaced experienced an average 81 percent drop in income through loss of livelihood. Before the displacement 54 percent of families relied on rice farming as their main source of income compared with 4 percent after, with many families indicating they now rely on wage labour to support themselves, a far less stable livelihood.
Before relocation 15 percent of households lived below the poverty line. Since relocation this has increased to 84 percent.
Villagers say the government has failed to deliver promised compensation they were pressured to accept as a condition of their relocation.
“They've only paid us twice, but they told us we'd be paid five times,” Daw Amar Sein told the audience.
“They told us we'd receive three years of free electricity but then they immediately started to collect payment,” she said
Food and water security is a daily issue faced by residents in the ill-equipped relocation sites.
Using the Months of Adequate Household Food Provision (MAHFP) indicator, PHR established that after their displacement, households averaged 3.2 MAHFP, meaning they did not have enough food for 8.8 months of the year, compared to before displacement when households average 9.9 MAHFP, that is, they didn't have enough food for 2.12 months of the year.
Residents say they now skip meals and have switched to using cheaper food sources.
Roughly 55 percent of households said they didn't have enough drinking water after displacement.
In the years leading up to relocation, the government failed to build sufficient water supply infra-structure in the relocation sites. Instead they deliver “putrid”, un-potable water to tanks on site, which villagers say smells foul and choose not to drink. Instead they choose to incur the 500 kyat it costs in petrol to collect water from other sources.
“They fill our tanks with putrid water, it stinks, we wash our hands 5 times and they still stink,” said Min Min Hlay
Bill Davis of PHR explained: “Poverty creates a cycle. Poverty can result in malnutrition, because households don't have enough money to buy food. That can result in sickness because people who are malnourished tend to get sick easier. People who are sick, are not able to work. This continues into a spiral that is very damaging for their family.”
Dr Aung Myint, a clinical psychiatrist and visiting professor at the University of Yangon told Mizzima: “People lose their human ethics. Ethical codes deteriorate because of the poverty issue. Factors like food security is an important term within developing countries and war-torn areas.”
The Upper Paunglaung dam is being developed by a foreign consortium of British, Swiss and Chinese companies.
When asked for comment concerning the findings of the report, a Yangon-based representative of one of companies involved, Chinese YMEC, told Mizzima they had no knowledge of the Upper Paunglaung Dam project and didn't have the contact details for anyone within the company who would.
There are 43 other large-scale hydropower projects planned for development in Myanmar which will displace more than 100,000 people.
A key recommendation made by the report urges members of Myanmar's parliament to adopt a National Land Use Policy, of which one is currently being drafted to be passed next year.
Another calls for an end to the arrests of land rights activists and for their immediate and unconditional release from detention.
A 2015 report by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) said the arrests of land rights activists are increasing and of Myanmar's 115 documented political prisoners, 58 are behind bars for their role in protesting land confiscations.