Field Trip to the Thanlwin River and Estuary: Encounters and Impressions

by Johanna Götz

After an inspiring workshop (Salween Studies Research Workshop - The Role of Research for a Sustainable Salween River) in Yangon, a group of 12 participants hit the road to travel south to Mon State’s capital Mawlamyaine. On our journey we set out to visit the mighty Thanlwin River and its estuary to recapture some of the topics we have been talking and learning about over the last days. A couple of inspiring days of informative meetings and conversations brought us nearer to (and upon) the river, its inhabitants and the discourses surrounding it, and it underscored the interconnectedness between the Thanlwin and the society around it.

Bilugyun Island

Heading out early to travel to Bilugyun Island where one of our participants, Sayarma Cherry Aung, organized several meetings with members of multiple communities for us, our vans carried us over a bridge only opened in mid-2017 but was already marked by heavy contestation around its naming. With the announcement from the Union level to name the bridge after Burman independence leader General Aung San, local communities and activists from Mon State and beyond felt mistreated with their suggestions being undermined [1]. We would come across this bridge again by the end of the day – not only to get back to the city but also as a felt impact by a village in a relative remote location to the bridge.

 Discussion during our visit on Bilugyun Island (Credit: J. Götz)

Discussion during our visit on Bilugyun Island (Credit: J. Götz)

Besides uncovering historically-rooted underlying tensions between ethnic minorities largely situated along the Salween River and the Bamar-majority in the country, the bridge will – by facilitating easier access – shift life of the so-far largely agriculturally-based communities living on Bilugyun island. While the immediate impact from the bridge shifted certain labor – especially with regard to the previous ferry services – it is also said to have become cheaper and easier to transport goods. With an area similar to the size of Singapore and its strategic position within the Thanlwin Estuary, interests for the future of the island are manifold as we learned from a member of the village steering committee. Besides an interest from the tourism sector in beaches and local handicrafts, amongst others, rumors spread of plans to develop a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) and/or a deep-sea port. Thereby opinions on outside-investment differ amongst those people we talked to. While one respondent sees no resistance against a SEZ from local communities and a gain through indirect positive changes as schools and infrastructures (does not expect direct income-related benefits though), another contact person rejects the idea of a SEZ due to expected issues as pollution or social problems despite the possibility of job opportunities and positive changes in infrastructure. This ultimately connects to questions around land titles and reflects the country-wide issues around land rights and investment.

A topic that would follow us throughout the day was the out-migration of mainly young people to find work, mainly in Thailand and Malaysia, and thereby support their communities back home. While this improves the economic situation of the respective families or communities, it does not go without challenges as a respondent from a youth-focused human rights CSO explained to us. Accordingly, most young people find it hard to envision a future for themselves on the island – which is her main reason to engage with the youth directly. Another important part of her work is focused around women empowerment – with traceable effects: in 2015s election more women went to give their vote. There is, however, still a long way to go: land titles have – according to our respondent – mostly the males’ name on them with a case of a widow failing to change it to her name stressing the problem.

On our next stop, we visited a Kayin village’s school and monastery to learn more about the deep connection between the community and the work of the monastery. Besides funding for public infrastructure and needs (e.g. school building), the monastery is an important provider of drinking water from a deep well to the communities. This is especially important during dry season and the periodic water shortage in particular during the months March to May. Despite the obvious challenges, we also learned about how social solidarity plays an important part of everyday life as manifested in ‘water donations’ amongst and within communities.

 Mon-style dinner with the field trip group at Pao Mon Restaurant, Mawlamyine (Credit: J. Götz)

Mon-style dinner with the field trip group at Pao Mon Restaurant, Mawlamyine (Credit: J. Götz)

As a last highlight of the day, we were able to take part in a very engaging conversation with a group of fishers about their day-to-day business but also the challenges they face with a changing river. The next day would demonstrate us what we had learned on increasing sand mining and its impacts on the life of the fishers (especially problems with noise and changes of fish habitats). But impacts can also be seen from implementations that on the first glimpse might seem to support fishers’ ‘sustainability’. While microfinance has been introduced as a way of money lending to support individual fishers’ investment into equipment, self-described challenges indicate that a great share of recipients were not able to pay back their loans due to a “lack of finance management” leading to the need to migrate to Thailand for extra income. Similarly, the time of fishing bans between May and July, introduced by the Department of Fishery to avoid overfishing, represents the most difficult months for local fishers who have to seek other jobs or live off their savings during these dry spills. Nevertheless, fishery was said to have less generational transfer issues than in other parts of society.

Treated with a tasty Mon food dinner, we sank into bed to get ready for the next day and our trip up the Salween River to Hpa-an.

 Group picture on the Thanlwin Princess (Credit: Darrin Magee)

Group picture on the Thanlwin Princess (Credit: Darrin Magee)

From Mawlamyaine to Hpa-an with the Thanlwin Princess

Early in the day, we set out to board the Thanlwin Princess, which should carry us to yet another capital: Hpa-an, the capital of Karen State. During our day-filling journey we would see the river change. Its material meandering epitomizes the ultimate connection of nature and society. Tracing our moving along the river on our smartphones quickly let us realize the continuous changing of the river and its islands. We were gliding through the water where the aerial image indicated an island and vice versa.

Stopping on one of the many riverine islands taught us how the ‘giving and taking’ of land from the river shapes and shifts life on the river. Where just a few years ago the river was bringing fertile sediments for agriculture, presently parts of the island decline (again), taking away valuable agricultural land. Yet little studied questions arose: How has the river changed in the past and do present changes differ starkly? How does this connect to (changes in) the relationship of nature and society? A visit to the Kawhnat Pagoda Complex allowed us to reflect our impressions so far while being able to marvel at unique shrines and monasteries. Also, we were able to see similar structures of water provision by the monastery to the communities as we have learned the previous day.

 Gravel extraction on the Thanlwin (Credit: J. Götz)

Gravel extraction on the Thanlwin (Credit: J. Götz)

Travelling up the Thanlwin River from Mon State, on and across the border to Karen State, what stroke us was the multitude of gravel-extracting boats. Based on the experience of some members of our group this was also considerably more than they had observed in the past. In the afternoon we arrived in Hpa-an at the site where the ‘Strand Road’ development project is currently being implemented to ‘upscale’ the city based on the model of Mawlamyine’s Strand Road. This project is connected to the observed rise in gravel extraction as are other road and ‘concrete’ infrastructure projects in the area which demand a supply of sand and gravel.

 Discussions during the Salween field trip (Credit: A. Filipowich)

Discussions during the Salween field trip (Credit: A. Filipowich)

Warmly received by University of Hpa-an staff, we spend the rest of the evening exploring local karst caves which house Buddhist memorials, including Sadan Cave, before enjoying a wonderful Karen-style dinner at the Veranda Youth Community Café. Within these intensive and wonderful days, we had learned so much about some of the many voices and faces of the Thanlwin.

[1] https://www.bnionline.net/en/feature/item/3151-the-bilu-kyun-bridge-controversy.html (Accessed 03/2017)