Damming Burma’s War Zone: Proposed Salween Dams Cement Military Control Over Ethnic Peoples

Salween Watch Coalition
Sunday, October 1, 2006

The Salween River - Southeast Asia's longest undammed river - supports a wealth of biological and cultural diversity. Its rich natural resources support up to 10 million people from its headwaters in China to its estuary in Mon State, Burma. But its days as a productive natural lifeline may be numbered in Burma, where the repressive military dictatorship is conspiring with the Thai government, Thai investors and Chinese dam builders to build a series of large dams in civil war zones in Burma. The dam cascade, secretly negotiated over the past decade, will be built in an area where peoples of a variety of ethnic minority groups are systematically being displaced - or worse, robbed, tortured, raped or executed. The dams are part of a military strategy by the dictatorship to increase control over the ethnic peoples of Burma, their lands, and their rich natural resources.

Despite the high risk of operating in a war zone, and in what Transparency International rates as one of the world's five most corrupt countries, the Salween dams, estimated to cost at least US $10 billion, would be by far the biggest ever investment in Burma. The dams inside Burma and on its borders would have a combined capacity of up to 14,000 megawatts (MW) and would include the single largest dam in Southeast Asia, the Ta Sang. A recent spate of agreements has solidified construction plans, although it is currently unclear how the September 2006 coup d'etat in Thailand will affect these plans.

Thailand's Double Standards
Thailand has already over-exploited much of its own natural resources and faces strong civil society resistance to building domestic dams and coal-fired power plants. In response, Thailand has turned to neighboring countries with authoritarian governments whose citizens cannot question government-backed projects. Thai officials have stated that the main purpose of the Salween cascade of dams is to provide large amounts of "cheap" electricity to Thailand and "much needed foreign exchange" to the Burmese military regime. Thailand's political and financial support for dams amounts to direct complicity in the Burma Army's oppression of the peoples of Burma.

Where the Salween runs along the Thai-Burmese border at least 13 ethnic groups live along its banks. Under the current Burmese military regime, there will be no public participation regarding the dams. Few if any of the communities who will be forced to bear all of the negative impacts from dam construction will get any benefit or compensation. Although Burma faces a major and prolonged energy crisis, the country and its people would receive little electricity from the Salween dams.

Secrecy shrouds the Salween dam's development process. Agreements signed in May and December 2005 between the Thai government and Burmese junta contained strong clauses preventing disclosure of information regarding the dams. These agreements run contrary to the 1997 Thai constitution, which grants affected peoples rights to information, as well as participation in decision-making on natural resource management.

In Burma the dams are not only about realizing the country's hydropower potential. In the context of the almost six decades of war against the ethnic peoples of Burma, the dams present a strategic, political and economic weapon of the military regime to increase control over ethnic peoples of Burma and their cultural heritage. All of the planned dam sites are in areas where civil war against ethnic peoples continues to take lives, forces people from their land, and prevents hundreds of thousands of people from returning to their villages and farms. Some of the project site areas are heavily landmined to prevent displaced populations from returning. Many of the surrounding areas are classified as "black zones" where people are shot on sight by Burmese soldiers, or tortured and killed on suspicion of giving support to rebel ethnic resistance groups.

Worsening Internal Displacement
The dams will have a major, permanent impact on the local ethnic people, most of whom have already suffered displacement and dispossession as internally displaced people or refugees. Preparations for the dam construction in Karenni, Karen and Shan States - which includes militarily securing the dam sites - are linked to human rights violations, deforestation and massive, forced population displacement. However these connections have been blurred by the ongoing civil war.

Between 1992 and 2004, the number of army garrisons in Papun District, where two of the proposed dams will be located, increased from 10 to 54. Of the 85 villages in areas close to the dam sites, only a quarter remain. Former residents were forcibly moved to relocation sites controlled by the army, where forced labor and other human rights abuses have been common. The expected flood area from the Wei Gyi Dam will impact four of Karenni State's seven townships, completely submerging 28 villages. The village population that will be directly impacted by the reservoir is at least 8,300 people, which does not include the estimated 13,500 internally displaced people estimated to be currently hiding in the flood zone.

The area around the lower dams, where the largest and most sustained military offensive by the Burmese army in many years is currently underway, has already been largely depopulated. A new military offensive has resulted in possibly 15,000 people being newly displaced in the past many months, some 3,000 of whom were seeking asylum at the border. Strong documentary evidence shows that the Burmese army is targeting civilians and has killed people as they are fleeing from their burned villages into the surrounding forests.

In the two years after studies began for the proposed Ta Sang Dam, some 300,000 people were displaced from the surrounding areas under a forced relocation program ostensibly aimed at ending support for the Shan State Army. Over 200,000 of the displaced fled to Thailand. The large-scale displacement has prompted charges that people are being moved by the junta under the context of war as a mechanism to forcibly pave way for the dams as well as to avoid paying dam-related compensation claims later.

Environmental Damage
The Salween River, known as the Nu River in China and the Thanlwin River in Burma, is home to at least 140 species of fish, one third of which are endemic. The river basin includes some of the world's best natural teak forests. The environmental consequences of the proposed dam projects will be vast and largely irreversible, including severe impacts on downstream floodplain agriculture and delta/offshore fisheries.

The Hat Gyi dam will flood spectacular rapids and part of the Kahilu Wildlife Sanctuary in Karen State. The Ta Sang dam reservoir will flood scarce farmland and dense riverine forests, while the Wei Gyi dam reservoir will inundate one of the two main wet-rice producing areas in Karenni State. The Wei Gyi and Dagwin sites straddling the Thai-Burma border are located within the Thai Salween Wildlife Sanctuary and National Park.

Construction has already commenced on access roads for some of the dams, which will facilitate encroachment by the military as well as logging and mining companies, hunters and monoculture tree plantations. As people are forced to relocate, forests in other areas will also be cleared for farming by the displaced people.

Ethnic Resistances to Dams in Burma
Despite the Salween River basin flowing through a war zone, people are strongly resisting the dam plans. About 15,000 Karen living in Burma's Karen state and along the Thai-Burmese border have signed a petition in a protest against the dam project. On March 14, 2006, on the international Day of Action Against Dams, ethnic peoples of Burma, Thai activists, and international friends gathered together along the Salween River in Thailand to demonstrate their opposition to the dam plans. Ethnic peoples of Burma continue to organize at the community level inside Burma and through NGOs outside of Burma to gain both national and international support in their struggle. Ethnic Burmese as well as Thai NGOs based in Thailand have been engaging with local residents along the river basin to inform them of the dam plans, to educate them on the potential social and environmental impacts of large dams, and for those living on the Thai side, on their rights as Thai citizens. In addition, Thai NGOs have been working with local villagers on "Thai Baan research," which aims to empower local residents to conduct their own research on the ecological and cultural attributes of the river basin (see story, page XX). This is a new ‘ethno-ecological' movement fighting for democracy, self-determination, justice and life itself.

Proposed Dams on the Salween in Burma

Hat Gyi: Officially slated to be the first of the cascade to be built, this dam would be located around 40 km downstream from the Salween-Moei River confluence. However uncertainties remain about the exact site and size of the dam, with official statements varying from 600 MW to 1,800 MW. Landmines have been strewn throughout the area, one of which recently killed a worker involved in the feasibility study survey, prompting the consultant team to withdraw from the site. Despite having incomplete data to properly finalize the study, the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) plans to continue to the next stage of dam construction. In June 2006, EGAT signed a MoU with Chinese state-owned Sinohydro Corporation to jointly develop the Salween hydroelectric dams in Burma, starting with the Hat Gyi dam site at a cost of US$1 billion.

Ta Sang: The 7,110 megawatt Tasang Dam, the largest for Southeast Asia, would have a concrete wall 228 meters high and a reservoir approximately 475 kilometers long. The site is in southern Shan State, approximately 80 kilometers from the Thai border. Pre-construction planning, orchestrated by the private Thai corporation MDX Power Plc, is far more advanced than for any other of the dams. The detailed design of the dam was underway in March 2005 and may already be finished; sources allege that most of the project financing is already in place.

Wei Gyi: The Wei Gyi dam site is located on the Thai-Burma border in Karen State, near Mae Hong Son Province, Thailand. The 168-meter-high dam is expected to generate 4,540 MW of electricity. The reservoir, located mainly in Karenni State, will stretch 380 km upstream.

Dagwin (a.k.a. Tata Fang): Located on the Thai-Burma border south of the Wei Gyi site, the Dagwin dam will have a capacity of between 500 - 900 MW. The dam would however mainly function as a regulator and storage for large volumes of water released by the upper dam during peak hours, pumping water back up into the Wei Gyi dam using surplus off-peak power.

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For more information please visit www.salweenwatch.org

This article appeared in International Rivers, World Rivers Review, Vol 21, No 5. Published in October 2006. Click here to see the full publication.