A Tale of Two Mega-Dams: Burma and Borneo

By Edith Mirante 3 May 2016

Construction of a massive hydroelectric dam meets local opposition. The project potentially profits far away investors, including multinationals from China. As indigenous people’s rights are violated with land confiscation for the project, which would flood biodiverse forests, support for a campaign to stop the dam increases and international awareness grows. Eventually it is announced that the dam project is suspended. Then, under a new administration, the government announces that the dam is completely canceled and the land will be returned to the indigenous people.

Most of this scenario describes the Myitsone dam project in Burma’s Kachin State, and it also describes the Baram dam in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo. The last sentence is where the two situations differ, as of late March of this year. On March 21, the Sarawak state government announced that the Baram dam would not be built. But the fate of the Myitsone dam is unknown, with a decision by Burma’s new National League for Democracy-led government possibly to come soon. The Myitsone dam project, if revived at the scenic and revered Mali Hka and N’Mai Hka confluence would risk disaster for Burma’s vital Irrawaddy watershed. The power generated would go almost entirely to neighboring China, just as the Baram dam’s power would only have benefitted mainland Malaysia’s industrialists and corrupt politicians.

The Baram dam, in planning stages since 2010, would have flooded approximately 400 square kilometers to generate 1,200 megawatts (MWs) of power as part of a grand scheme to industrialize Borneo with power-intensive industries like aluminum smelting. Sarawak’s Penan, Kayan and Kenyah indigenous peoples came together to oppose damming the Baram River, having witnessed the damage done to livelihoods and habitats by other mega-dams in Borneo, such as the 2,400-MW Bakun dam, which relocated an estimated 10,000 people, many now dwelling in miserable disease-ridden settlements.

Some 20,000 Sarawak inhabitants were to be displaced by the Baram dam. In a September 2015 speech, Penan activist Nick Kelesau stated, “They will be forced into resettlement camps or will try to move up from the valley to lands that belong to others. Either way is not sustainable. The camps do not provide enough farmland and the high ground cannot support so many people. In effect this will truly kill our way of life.”

Grassroots networks and NGOs including SAVE Rivers, Baram Protection Action Committee, Borneo Resources Institute and Jaringan Orang Asal SeMalaysia used a variety of tactics and one slogan: “Stop Baram Dam.” Long-term blockades by indigenous groups impeded access to the proposed dam site. Philip Jau of SAVE Rivers observed, “We have petitioned the government and we have collected about 10,000 signatures of the people of Baram who are against this dam project. But the government seems not to listen to the voices of the people. That is why we came up with this idea to put our blockade. With this blockade I think the whole world knows that we are against this project.”

When the International Hydropower Association’s meeting was held in Sarawak in 2013, hundreds demonstrated in front of the convention center. The Sarawak activists successfully pressured an Australian company, Hydro Tasmania, to withdraw participation in the Baram dam project. They connected with anti-dam, pro-river organizations from the region and around the world and a series of short films by the Borneo Project documented the struggle.

Having replaced the notorious billionaire logging baron Abdul Taib Mahmud as chief minister of Sarawak in 2014, Tan Sri Adenan Satem announced suspension of the Baram dam project in November 2015. This gesture was not trusted by the affected communities as it did not permanently end the project and did not return land rights (a situation similar to the September 2011 suspension of the Myitsone dam by order of Burma’s former President Thein Sein.)

Then, with Sarawak’s state election anticipated in April, Tan Sri Adenan Satem came to a decision. According to International Rivers Network, on March 21 “just in time for World Water Day, everything changed. The Sarawak government officially revoked the gazette extinguishing the native ownership rights for land earmarked for the dam site and its reservoir, and returned the land to its rightful indigenous owners.”

Burma’s Myitsone dam opponents might take hope from Malaysia’s example and the defeat of the mega-dam in Borneo might provide a precedent for Burma’s government: choosing the will of the people over the interests of extractive industries. Both Sarawak and Burma have great potential for alternative ways of generating electricity for local needs, including wind, solar and small-scale hydro; they also have abundant offshore natural gas, which may be a less-harmful option than mega-hydro. But even with the Baram dam canceled and the Myitsone dam possibly on the chopping block, there are dozens of other huge dam projects in the works for both Sarawak and Burma, so river rights activists should celebrate but cannot rest.

Edith Mirante is director of Project Maje about Burma’s human rights and environmental issues, as well as author of “The Wind in the Bamboo: A Journey in Search of Asia’s ‘Negrito’ Indigenous Peoples.”