The dam suicides

Forced relocations for a hydropower dam at Paunglaung in Shan State have led to a rise in depressive disorders and suicides among displaced farmers.

The house where Ko Maung Nyein killed himself is now under water, along with the rest of his village. One day in May last year, the 35-year-old paddy farmer watched rising water slowly engulf his fields, where he had toiled for many years, then went inside and drank a bottle of pesticide.

His village, Htein Bin, was one of 23 submerged by a reservoir for the Upper Paunglaung dam, a project started in 2006 to generate power for Myanmar’s glistening new capital city, Nay Pyi Taw.

Three other Htein Bin residents have killed themselves and another six have survived suicide attempts since losing their land and their livelihoods in 2013, said a report by New York-based watchdog group, Physicians for Human Rights.

In this agricultural community one of the easiest means of suicide is drinking the poison meant for use against pests.

“He drank every last drop,” Ko Maung Nyein’s mother, Daw Tin Thant, told Frontier as she sat before a large Buddhist shrine in her two-storey wooden house that was rebuilt after being moved from the reservoir site.

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Like most of the 8,000 people displaced by the project, she was resettled at a nearby site beside the reservoir. The picturesque resettlement site is ringed by gentle green hills, but beneath the beauty a severe mental health crisis is unfolding.

A lack of land and job opportunities, and the complete upheaval of the villagers’ way of life, has triggered a widespread sense of despair, said U Nyunt Win of the Paunglaung Regional Development Committee, a civil society group campaigning on behalf of those displaced by the reservoir.

PHR said a survey it conducted of 80 relocated households found that more than 80 percent of the population was showing signs of a depressive mental disorder and should be referred to specialists.

“Most of the villagers want to die,” said U Nyunt Win.

Those who decided to take their lives were young and single, he said. “After moving to the new village they couldn’t get jobs, they argued with their parents, they drank alcohol and got depressed.” U Nyunt Win said many parents no longer kept pesticides at home in a bid to prevent their children killing themselves.

The spike in mental health issues is fuelled by a series of other problems. More than nine out of 10 people told PHR their situation had deteriorated since being relocated. Only one percent said it had improved.

Most residents at the relocation site, such as Ko Maung Nyein, were rice farmers. About 20 percent are jobless, up from one percent previously, and many others have turned to daily wage labour to scrape a living.

Food shortages and malnutrition are also a problem. “We used to eat meat and fish but now we only have leaves and vegetables,” one villager told PHR. The group’s October report said access to food “declined significantly” for average households after displacement.

When the dam is finished, it will help power the capital city about 100 kilometres to the west, where air-conditioners buzz in luxury hotels and multi-coloured lights illuminate grand fountains.

At the displacement site in Paunglaung, a drinking water shortage is affecting residents whose former land lies under millions of gallons of water.

“Water is a big problem here,” said Daw Ahmar Sein, who was relocated because her paddy fields were submerged and is also a member of the Paunglaung Regional Development Committee.

Nearly half of the households surveyed by PHR said they did not have enough drinking water. The government installed pumps at the new site but the water was murky and smelt foul, PHR said.

“At first the government built water pipes,” said Daw Ahmar Sein, “but it was just the pipes, nothing else… I have to get my water from a creek at the top of the hill.”

The villagers’ grievances are not unique. Big infrastructure and industrial projects throughout Myanmar have sparked complaints that human rights are being routinely disregarded.

“The disaster created at Paunglaung is being repeated at dams, mines, Special Economic Zones, agriculture plantations, and other development projects across Myanmar,” the PHR report said. 

It added that “elements of the old military regime” were behind the projects. Despite the recent election victory of the National League for Democracy, the military elite is expected to maintain a stranglehold over large sections of the economy.

Many predict that the victory achieved by the NLD and its leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, will spur an influx of foreign investment.

The Upper Paunglaung dam has been financed and built by companies from Switzerland, China and Britain. PHR said investors in development projects in Myanmar should “undertake a human rights impact assessment to ensure their projects will not cause human rights abuses.”

Ko Maung Nyein did not die alone. His uncle and a group of friends were walking past his house after he drank the pesticide and heard him retching and vomiting. “I drank poison,” he told them when they rushed inside. “I am not happy.”

With no clinics nearby, they carried Ko Maung Nyein in their arms to his parents’ house at the resettlement site. It took more than an hour.

Daw Tin Thant and her husband, U Kyauk Khe, watched their eldest son writhe in pain for 10 minutes before he died.

“The main cause was the Paunglaung dam,” U Kyauk Khe told Frontier. Speaking out against the project is still difficult for many relocated villagers because they fear reprisals from the government. “I’m so angry,” said U Kyauk Khe, “but at the same time I’m afraid to be angry.”

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