RANGOON — A Shan lawmaker said her constituents in southern Shan State are growing increasingly concerned over a government plan to build an enormous hydropower dam in the region, after a cabinet minister earlier this week confirmed that Burmese, Chinese and Thai companies have government support for the construction of a 7,000-megawatt dam.
Nang Wah Nu, a Lower House lawmaker from the Shan Nationalities Development Party (SNDP), said villagers from Kunhing Township had expressed concerns to her over the massive project after they spotted Burmese and foreign workers at the proposed construction site on the Salween River, located on the border of Mong Tong and Kunhing townships.
“Local villagers told me that they heard that many villages will be destroyed [by the dam], including ancient Shan pagoda’s and stupas. They are asking me: ‘What can you do about it?’ I told them I would ask about it in Parliament,” said Nang Wah Nu.
She said preparatory project activities were occurring ever closer to the villages in Kunhing, adding that company workers were seen several times in recent months.
“The villagers told me they could not travel near the [project] area because the Burma Army tightened security there, but the locals know that project work has already started,” Nang Wah Nu said.
The project was located close to areas of control of the Shan State Army-South, she said, adding, “Fighting could break out if the government does not discuss this project with the rebels.”
The project is one of at least seven dams that have been planned on the Salween River in eastern Burma in the past decade; all projects are controversial due to their expected impacts on ethnic minority communities and a lack of information.
This week, Nang Wah Nu asked the government about the status of the project in her constituency and expressed the residents’ concerns about its impact.
Deputy Minister of Electrical Power Maw Thar Htwe said in a reply on Tuesday that the government remained committed to a military regime-era deal from 2010 that grants the project contract to the China Three Gorges Corporation, the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) and Burmese joint venture partner International Group of Entrepreneurs (IGE) Co. Ltd.
He said the dam’s massive reservoir would flood about 676 square km of low-lying farmland and forest, but attempted to assuage concerns over its heavy social and environmental impacts.
“We will present details later about the cost of the project after we have done a study about environmental and social issues,” state-run media quoted the minister as saying. He added that Australia’s Snowy Mountains Engineering Corporation had been contracted to carry out a social and environmental impact study.
“The electric hydropower generated by the dam will be used in the country and any excess power we will sell to neighboring countries,” he said.
Nang Wah Nu, the Shan MP, said she remained deeply worried about the dearth of information about the possible eviction of thousands of ethnic Shan villagers from their homes and farmlands if the project goes ahead.
“No one knows yet how much of paddy field, forest, and properties of the people will be damaged as there is no study yet,” she said, adding that it remains to be seen whether local villagers are properly consulted and compensated for loss of land.
“They should tell the locals what opportunities they will get from this project. They have to provide [relocation] space for the locals and pay them compensation if the project destroys their property,” she said.
According to Thailand-based NGO Salween Watch, the dam would be funded by China Three Gorges Corporation and EGAT, with the latter taking a 56-percent stake in the project.
State-owned China Three Gorges Corporation was responsible for the controversial Three Gorges Dam in southern China that displaced some 1.3 million people. IGE Co Ltd is a conglomerate with business interests in banking, timber, oil, gas and mining, and is owned by the sons of Aung Thaung, the Ministry of Industry under the previous regime and currently a lawmaker with the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
IGE has been working on a number of controversial dam projects in northern Burma, while EGAT has been involved in hydropower projects in Burma and Laos that aim import energy to Thailand but will have severe social and environmental impacts on local communities.
Salween Watch has said that Burma’s government has been working on plans for the massive project, believed to be the tallest dam project in Southeast Asia, since the mid-1990 when it was called the Ta Sang dam. At the time, it led to large-scale militarization and an increase in conflict and human rights violations in southern Shan State.
In recent years, the project location was moved further upstream and work quietly resumed in 2012.
Hydropower projects are highly controversial in Burma due to their heavy environment and social impacts, while many large projects are located in ethnic conflict areas in northern and eastern Burma. A lack of information often surrounds the projects, many of which were first planned during the military regime and involve Chinese state-owned or Thai companies, and joint ventures with companies owned by Burmese tycoons.