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China's Sichuan Province Tense in Aftermath of Violent Anti-Dam Protests

China's Sichuan Province remains tense as work continues on a new controversial dam power project, which will force 100,000 people from their homes. The dam has sparked major protests, which witnesses say culminated in government troops firing on and killing a number of residents. Access to the area is tightly controlled, but VOA's Beijing Correspondent Luis Ramirez managed to travel to the scene in Hanyuan County and files this report.

A group of elderly women practice the traditional 16-step dance at a pavilion in a town not far from the dam site where the violent demonstrations occurred this month. Their graceful, gentle steps and peaceful expressions hardly suggest what happened near this spot only a few days ago when, according to witnesses, tens of thousands of peasants staged a sit-in at the dam site before they were dispersed by heavily armed riot police. Witnesses say troops fired on the unarmed demonstrators.

This man, who did not want his name used, saw the confrontation and says it is impossible to know exactly how many people were killed. "People died," he said. "Maybe more than 10,000 died. It cannot be estimated."

Others in Hanyuan give accounts of staggering death tolls. But it is impossible to independently verify. The government promptly sealed off the entire region surrounding the dam, and banned all news media from entering. Witnesses cautioned that if journalists were discovered in the area, authorities would detain and expel them.

In a car with tinted windows, this reporter anonymously slipped into the gorge along the Dadu River - past heavily armed soldiers and police, to catch a glimpse of the gigantic dam project and the towns of villages that are to be flooded.

Residents here are protesting against the project because they are not being compensated for having to relocate. The man who witnessed the demonstrations says peasants here are outraged that corrupt local officials are siphoning off compensation money. "The officials took the compensation money, so what was left for farmers was very little: the equivalent of $36 per square meter. People asked for the equivalent of $76. Altogether, the compensation should be thousands of dollars for each household."

Hanyuan County is arid and mountainous, and much of the farming takes place on the flood plains - choice land that is to be submerged. Farmers dread moving up higher to narrow terraces on the steep mountainsides, where harvest yields are much lower.

Fear that the demonstrations would spread to other areas prompted both the central government and the Sichuan provincial authorities to take quick action, on both the military and propaganda fronts. Within days of the violent demonstrations, a steady stream of high-ranking officials traveled to Hanyuan, promising to boost compensation and stop construction work on the dam until the dispute is settled. At least one local Communist Party official was fired following the protests.

Inside the Hanyuan town, there is a sea of green tents housing the thousands of paramilitary troops rushed here from provincial capital. Groups of soldiers with assault weapons and riot shields patrol the streets, which have been plastered with Communist Party propaganda banners. Banners strewn across every downtown street blare out slogans that read: "The Government is Greatly Concerned about Reservoir Area People," or "the People's Liberation Army Supports and Protects the People." Next to the dam, large characters on a billboard call on the public to support the dam project.

Given the swift and overwhelming crackdown on the demonstrations, it appears residents here will have no choice. Dai Qing is an environmentalist and writer who has challenged the government's decision to build massive dam projects. She says money and power interests driving the construction of the Pubugou dam in Sichuan are no match for ordinary farmers and workers. "The central government wants to have everything under control, and the local government and the electricity company wants to get money from the dam project," said Dai Qing. "I really feel sorry for the peasants. This is the situation of China today. We are not strong enough to watch the government and [to] limit it or what they do."

Faced with a soaring need for electricity caused by an economic boom, China's leaders are desperate to boost electricity production. When completed in 2011, reports say the Pubugou Dam is to generate more than 14 billion kilowatt hours of energy a year.

Meanwhile, from behind the car's tinted windows, it is apparent that work on the dam has in fact continued after officials announced they would halt construction. With heavily armed soldiers standing by, crews shovel gravel while others work on a huge intake on a side of the canyon.

The man who witnessed the demos here says protests are not likely to be staged again. "With the soldiers taking charge of this area, nobody dares to start a disturbance again," he said.

Analysts say the government has succeeded in keeping this conflict isolated and specific so that people's anger - for now - remains centered on their gripes against local officials and a singular cause - and not against the central Communist leadership. Officials with the central government were unavailable for comment and authorities in the Sichuan provincial capital, Chengdu, say they have no information on the incidents at Hanyuan.

All photos by VOA's Luis Ramirez