Chinese Dam Builders Fan Conflict in Burma

Free Burma Rangers
After the army occupied their territory, 30,000 people from Burma’s Kokang Territory escaped to China’s Yunnan Province last week. The Chinese government expressed concern about the stability in the border region. It did not mention that Chinese dam builders were fanning the bloody conflict.

The Kokang are an ethnically Chinese group who live in a self-administered region between the Salween River and the Chinese border in Western Burma. They have a standing army which had observed a ceasefire with the Burmese government army for the last 20 years.

In April 2007, two Chinese companies, the Hanergy Holding Group and Gold Water Resources Company, announced plans to build the 2,400 megawatts Upper Thanlwin Dam on the Salween River. The Salween is the last major undammed river in continental Southeast Asia. Upper Thanlwin is one of 63 Chinese hydropower and transmission projects which EarthRights International counted in Burma. An environmental impact assessment for Upper Thanlwin is not available and not required under Burmese law.

Kokang map
Kokang map
Shan Sapawa Environmental Organisation
Salween Watch reports that dams are often built under military occupation in Burma. Once the army has occupied their area, affected people are pressed into forced labor or forcibly displaced. Human rights organizations have documented widespread intimidation, rape and murder under military occupation. In recent weeks, the Burmese army has also occupied border regions to tighten control over ethnic minorities ahead of next year’s election. On August 27 the army invaded the Kokang Territory. Clashes with the local army claimed the lives of at least 36 government soldiers and an unknown number of Kokang.

Jiang Yu, a spokeswoman of China’s Foreign Ministry, issued a statement expressing hope that the Burmese government could “properly deal with its domestic issue to safeguard the regional stability in the China-Myanmar border area”. She did not mention that the military occupation and conflicts in areas such as the Kokang Territory were often linked to dam projects promoted by Chinese companies.

“The renewed fighting and the flood of refugees into Yunnan should be a wake-up call to China about the risks of investing in Burma”, said Sai Khur Hseng, a spokesperson of the Shan Sapawa Environmental Organisation. “Not only is there no free and informed consent to these dam projects, but they are being built over the dead bodies of our people.”

After Chinese companies clear-cut forests in the border regions of Cambodia and Burma, China’s State Forest Administration in 2007 issued guidelines to regulate the overseas activities of Chinese logging companies. Among other provisions, the guidelines stipulate that Chinese timber companies follow local law in their overseas operations. It is high time that the Chinese government also reign in the activities of dam builders such as Hanergy and Gold Water Resources, which promote projects at the cost of affected people and the environment.

Peter Bosshard is the policy director of International Rivers. His blog, Wet, Wild and Wonky, appears at