Salween Dams Raise Doubt Over Burma Peace Plans

By Samantha Michaels 29 October 2013

RANGOON — Ahead of a planned nationwide ceasefire conference next month, environmentalists in Burma say dam projects on the Salween River continue to fuel conflict in ceasefire zones.

The Burma Rivers Network, comprising several environmental groups from eastern Burma, reiterated on Tuesday a call for the Burma government to halt plans to build six dams in resource-rich ethnic regions where inhabitants are negotiating for peace after decades of civil war.

The 2,800-kilometer Salween, also known as the Thanlwin River in Burma and the Nu River in China, runs from China down through Burma’s Shan, Karenni,Mon and Karen states. The dam projects in Burma were long stalled by fighting between the former junta’s troops and ethnic armed groups, but activity has resumed after major Shan and Karen ethnic rebel groups signed ceasefire agreements with the government in early 2012.

Securing the dam sites has involved increased militarization and led to violence this year. In the latest incident, government troops earlier this month clashed with soldiers from the Shan State Army-South (SSA-S) in the potential flood zone of the Tasang (Mai Tong) dam in southern Shan State, in contravention of a ceasefire, the environmentalist network said.

The clashes came as Thailand’s energy minister urged the Burma government to speed up construction of the US$12 million hydropower dam, which would be the largest dam planned on the river, at 228 meters tall.

The fighting also followed a decision by the Burma government to approve feasibility studies for all six dams, with the state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper reporting earlier this month that five projects would be constructed and come online in the next few years.

In May, the government’s Border Guard Force (BGF) attacked the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA) to drive the rebel group away from the Hatgyi dam site in Karen State, the Burma Rivers Network added.

It said government troops in March also launched an offensive to force the Shan State Army-North (SSA-N) away from bases along the Salween near the planned Nong Pha and Man Tong dam sites. Thousands of civilians were reportedly displaced in the fighting.

Sai Khur Hseng, a researcher from the Shan Sapawa Environmental Organization, part of the Burma Rivers Network, urged Naypyidaw to halt the dam projects during a press conference in Rangoon on Tuesday.

“It is very clear that the Salween dams are fueling war,” he said. “If President Thein Sein really wants peace, he should stop the dams immediately.”

The push to restart the dam projects has led to road construction this year to some dam sites, as well as survey testing at sites, an increase in security checkpoints and intensive logging in remaining forests around the sites, he said.

He said that despite input from the Burma Rivers Network, the government and ethnic rebel groups had not prioritized discussions of the dam projects in individual ceasefire negotiations, and would likely not address the issue during the nationwide ceasefire conference planned for next month in Naypyidaw.

“They talk about politics,” he told The Irrawaddy. “Until now, they discuss political issues and economic issues, but this issue is missing.”

The government army has deployed 36 battalions in areas around the dam sites, he said, compared with 10 battalions in 1996.

Earlier this month, the Burma Rivers Network organized a three-day meeting with community-based organizations, including affected villagers from Shan, Karenni, Karen and Mon states. Participants said they were concerned that security for the dams was being used as an excuse for government troops to occupy wider areas. They said landmines had been planted to secure the dam sites or to prevent ethnic armed groups from accessing the sites, putting civilians at risk.

They also complained that the government was prioritizing economic development rather than implementing ceasefire agreements, the Burma Rivers Network said in a report.

The six dam projects in Burma—five on the Salween and one on a tributary—would have a combined installed capacity of about 15,000 megawatts and are being planned by Chinese, Burmese and Thai investors.

A majority of the generated electricity would go to China and Thailand, the Burma Rivers Network said.

Environmentalists and local residents say that in addition to displacing communities, the dam projects would trap sediment from the river and keep nutrient-rich soil and water from reaching their downstream farms.

Dam projects are also planned on the Salween River in China, upstream on the Tibetan plateau.

Speaking in Rangoon on Tuesday, Chinese environmentalist Wang Yongchen called for cooperation with Burmese environmentalists to protect the river.

“Chinese companies are supporting these dams,” said the founder of Green Earth Volunteers, a Chinese environmental NGO. “This means we need to work hand in hand, we need to work together to keep the river free for tomorrow, for the next generation.”