A damming controversy – Dams on Burma’s Salween River


Published 17 August 2003, The Hindu Sunday Magazine

Despite growing international criticism of Burma’s military government for human rights violations, Thailand is proceeding with plans to build a series of hydropower dams on the Salween. NOEL RAJESH comments on the controversy.

The proposed site of the Upper Salween Dam … it will generate power and also submerge prime forestland.

Thailand is set to make massive investments in three dams on the Salween in Burma in the midst of growing international criticism of Burma’s military Government especially after the military’s arrest and detention on May 30 of the dissident Burmese leader and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

Thailand’s dam plans are the beginnings of an ambitious Regional Power Grid to connect the Southeast Asian countries while Burma’s generals want the hard currency from the investment.

The plans have sparked controversy over Thailand’s willingness to ignore the continuing human rights violations by the brutal military dictatorship of Burma. The 2,800 km river originates high in the Tibetan mountains, flows through China’s Yunnan province into Burma, and then forms the border between Thailand and Burma before emptying into the Andaman Sea. It is Southeast Asia’s second largest river, after the Mekong. Three hydropower dams are planned for the Salween. The Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) plans to build two dams — the Upper and Lower Salween dams — on sites adjacent to Thailand’s Mae Sariang district in Mae Hong Son province, where the river forms a natural 130 km section of the Thai-Burmese border.

The Upper Salween, on the border of Thailand’s Salween wildlife sanctuary, would be able to generate 4,540 megawatts of power. The lower dam on the Salween national park would generate 792 megawatts. Together costing an estimated $6.15 billion, they would flood about 3,200 hectares of prime forestland on the Thai side and about 5,600 hectares on the Burmese side.

MDX Plc, a Thai construction outfit, has begun work on a third 3,600-megawatt dam near Ta Sarng, a river crossing in Burma’s Shan State, some 80 km north from the Thai border. According to MDX, the Ta Sarng dam — to cost about $3 billion by one estimate — would be the largest hydropower dam in Southeast Asia.

A preliminary study by Japan’s Electric Power Development Co. Ltd. in the early 1990s identified five potential dam sites. EGAT opted for the two border locations because it could be much easier to seek investment funds from financial institutions rather than if the dams were located inside Burma. The Salween dams tie into Thailand’s ambitious plans to establish a Southeast Asian regional energy grid. According to Sittiporn Rattanopas, the governor of EGAT, “The dream of the Association of Southeast Asian Countries (ASEAN) Power Grid cannot be realised without the Upper and Lower Salween dams.”

Sittiporn has been at the forefront of ASEAN leaders to support the regional power grid. He has also travelled to Rangoon, where he secured backing for the project from the head of Burma’s Electric Power Department, and accompanied Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) Summit in Cambodia in November, where he again promoted the regional power grid.

Thailand is willing to fund the entire project if there were financial problems arising from investors not wishing to be involved with Burma’s military regime. According to Sittiporn, EGAT has allocated nearly $950 million for investment in the project and the agency is also ready to put up the money first through its own capital or by issuing bonds.

The Thai Government has begun negotiations with the Burmese Government. Sittiporn expects construction of the dams to begin in 2007 and electricity generation to start in 2012. He said EGAT was prepared to buy the entire electricity output for onward sale to Malaysia and Indonesia, which are forecast to become net importers of electricity by 2010.

The regional energy grid emerged in 1999 when ASEAN ministers adopted plans for a regional Power Grid to integrate the power infrastructures of the member countries. Subsequently, ASEAN ministers of energy agreed to speed up “the realisation and implementation of the ASEAN leaders’ vision of an integrated trans-ASEAN energy network consisting of the ASEAN Power Grid and Trans-ASEAN Gas Pipeline Projects.”

The World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) are closely supportive of the regional power grid. The World Bank assisted in an Inter-Governmental Agreement on Regional Power Trade (IGA) that was signed at the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) Summit in Phnom Penh in November 2002. A policy statement on regional power trade in the GMS was earlier formulated with ADB assistance and endorsed during the Ninth GMS Ministerial Meeting in Manila in January 2000.

The ASEAN energy grid along with the Salween dam plans received a boost from Thailand’s Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra who declared his support for the dams after visiting Burma in February 2003. He also recently announced that the Salween dams were essential elements in ASEAN’s plans to develop a regional power grid, and they should go ahead despite the environmental and social concerns.

Opposition to the Salween dam plans, however, is gaining momentum with diverse people and groups including senators, environmentalists, human rights activists and advocates of ethnic groups based in Thailand and Burma voicing concerns about the serious impact of the dams.

Over the last few years, human rights groups have extensively documented how the Burmese military junta has waged military and psychological warfare involving the killing, raping, and forcible displacement of ethnic peoples particularly Shan communities living inside and along the border areas. Human rights groups have also documented the Burmese military’s use of forced labour as well as the destruction of people’s homes and farmlands, particularly near the Ta Sarng dam to clear the areas for dam construction.

Salween Watch, a Chiang Mai-based non-governmental organisation, has reported that over 300,000 Shan and other ethnic people have been forced out of their homes in central Shan state by the Burmese military to make way for the Ta Sarng dam.

Forced relocation has occurred in areas where the dam feasibility studies have begun. The military usually enters and torches the villages after looting them and forcing the residents to leave. Since 1996, up to 761 villages from six townships around the Ta Sarng dam’s projected flood area have been subject to forced relocation, affecting up to 28,097 households.

Thailand’s Senator Kraisak Choonhavan, chairperson of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, who visited the Salween area earlier this year, warned that the Government would come in for international condemnation if it decided to do business with the Burmese military junta.

He said the project would exacerbate the problem of illegal labour and refugees as ethnic communities flee to Thailand after the inundation of their homes and farmlands. There are already more than four million Burmese immigrants living illegally in Thailand.

Thailand’s environmental groups state that the Upper and Lower Salween dams would cause major damage to the river’s rich biodiversity and the lush forest of the river basin that are habitat to many rare and endangered animal and fish species.

The area of forest that would be destroyed in Burma is yet to be determined until field surveys and an environmental impact assessment are carried out after the Thai and Burmese governments reach an agreement.

A Thai fisherman … the dam could impact the livelihood of ethnic people living along the river.

In December last year, Burma’s opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) led by its leader Aung San Suu Kyi and 69 Thai and Burmese NGOs submitted a letter to Kraisak Choonhavan demanding that the Thai Government scrap the dam plans.

The letter stated that: “The Salween dams are large-scale projects which will have major impacts on communities in the area. “Whether the dams are built in Shan state or on the Thai-Burmese border, they will involve human rights violations. Up until now, Thai politicians, EGAT and private companies have claimed that the Salween River Basin is not populated. In fact, over 10 million people of 13 different ethnicities are living in the basin and relying on the river, which is one of the richest river ecosystems in the world.”

Meanwhile international pressure on Burma’s military is increasing and could pose a moral obstacle to Thailand’s investment plans. Burma was already subject to sanctions because of its poor human rights record and refusal to acknowledge the 1990 elections won in a landslide by the NLD. The military detention of Suu Kyi has brought tough new economic sanctions that could further hurt Burma’s population already impoverished by years of military rule.

The military arrested Aung San Suu Kyi after a junta-backed mob brutally attacked a convoy she was travelling in. The generals followed up with a crackdown on democracy activists countrywide that has led to an unknown number of arrests and the closing of the party offices of the NLD.

Subsequently Japan, the country’s largest donor, suspended new aid. The European Union (EU) has also broadened an arms embargo against Burma, accusing it of serious human rights violations. The measure includes any arms-related training and assistance in its general arms embargo.

EU officials said they acted in response to what they called a deteriorating political situation in Burma, particularly the continued detention of Aung San Suu Kyi.

On July 30, the U.S. declared the closing of its market to imports from Burma stating that “the people of Burma deserve to live in dignity and freedom under leaders of their own choosing”.

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