China-backed dams escalating ethnic tension in Myanmar

Companies pursuing dam projects on Myanmar's Salween River are failing to learn from painful past experiences

One month after the Chinese government lifted its ban on dams on the upper Salween River (known as the Nu in China), the Burmese government confirmed that it too will allow the construction of Chinese-backed hydropower projects along the lower Salween.

In late February, the deputy minister for electric power told parliament that six dams would be built on the Salween to generate electricity, referring to the Kunlong, Tasang, Hat Gyi, Nong Pa (Naungpha), Mantawng and Ywathit dams. While the Myanmar government has yet to reveal the companies involved in the projects, it is no secret that among them are dam-building giants Sinohydro, China Three Gorges Project Corporation and China Southern Power Grid.

In 2010, the Myanmar government signed memorandums of understanding for these hydropower projects, paving the way for various Chinese-Thai-Burmese joint ventures to develop them. According to those agreements, most of the generated power will to go to Thailand or China.

As in the case of the Myitsone dam – a controversial Chinese-funded project on the Irrawaddy River suddenly suspended in 2011 – the proposed Salween schemes highlight the challenges facing Chinese dam developers overseas and their international responsibilities.

In an interview with Chinese state-owned newspaper Global Times, a spokesperson for China’s embassy in Myanmar noted that, since the Myitsone dam suspension, it had been “the toughest time for Chinese investment in Myanmar”, with some projects mired in controversy and no new investments coming from China.

In response, China Power Investment, the company behind the Myitsone project, has invested significant resources in trying to change Burmese perceptions of the dam – by hosting Burmese media in China, increasing media access to company executives to make their case and leafleting local communities.

It seems that China Power Investment is not the only dam builder learning from Myitsone. Earlier this year, Sinohydro hastily set up over 20 regional new bureaus around the world to focus on communicating the company’s brand and project activities more effectively. But International Rivers has seen little evidence of real change in the way Chinese dam builders go about their projects overseas.

Local people say “no” to Chinese dams

Tensions remain high around China’s role in developing dams in Myanmar largely due to questions about who will benefit. In a country where energy shortages occur daily and about a third of people live below the poverty line, many criticise the development of natural resources for the sake of providing energy to neighbouring states.

A 2008 report by Earth Rights International identified at least 69 Chinese multinational corporations involved in 90 hydropower, oil and natural gas, mining, jade and other natural resource projects in Myanmar. Critics argue the Salween dam projects will do little more than benefit the Burmese government’s cronies, since the projects were initiated by the former military junta, without bringing about the economic prosperity that Myanmar’s people need.

In addition, dam building in the region is exacerbating ongoing conflicts in ethnic minority areas, according to a recent briefing by grassroots group Salween Watch. Apart from being one of the richest ecological hotspots in the region, the Salween River is home to at least 13 indigenous groups including the Nu, Lisu, Shan, Karen, Pa-o, Karenni and Mon. Conflicts between the Burmese army and local Shan and Karen people, as well as Kokang Chinese near the China-Myanmar border, have been under way for over two decades.

Local communities and internally displaced persons are concerned that the dam plans will lead to increased militarisation, human rights abuses, environmental destruction and loss of local livelihoods.

During a gathering of 2,000 Karens on the Salween in celebration of the International Day of Action for Rivers in mid March, Paul Sein Twa, director of the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN) said: “Local people do not want any dams on the Salween River, especially in Karen State, without the free, prior and informed consent of impacted communities. The government and the Karen National Union need to broaden the decision making process so that it is transparent, inclusive and democratic.”

While the government has struck deals with ethnic groups, the ceasefires have not held and the local situation remains tense. It is clear that any attempts to proceed with these dam projects without full consultation and consent of local people, only threaten to plunge both sides back into intense fighting and conflict.

Increased militarisation around dam sites

The incidence of conflict around large dam projects is not unique to Myanmar. Conflicts over water and dams are probably as old as dam building itself, including documented cases in the United States on the Colorado River and between Syria and Iraq over the Eurphrates. While large dams are not always the root of the conflict, they can exacerbate existing tensions.

In the Salween river basin, dam projects have led to increased militarisation of local areas to safeguard Chinese workers. In 2011, the zone around the Ywathit dam was remilitarised to protect the Chinese and Burmese dam survey team following the deaths of Chinese engineers in 2010 during an ambush by Karenni resistance troops. Today, special security troops still prevent local environmental groups from gaining access to the dam site to collect information from the area.

Troops have also been deployed to provide additional security for the Chinese company developing the Hat Gyi dam, despite the conclusion of an initial ceasefire agreement between the government and the Karen National Army in January 2012. This has led many Karen leaders to question whether the government is more serious about peace or natural resource development. According to local witnesses, there are currently no less than eight army battalions stationed around the Hat Gyi dam site. “Right now, private investors are stifling the hopes of the Karens for a lasting peace,” said Paul Sein Twa.

While Chinese-built dams are not the cause of the ethnic conflicts along the Salween River, they are a critical negotiating point. The ceasefire agreement signed by the Karenni National Progressive Party specifically called for greater transparency and disclosure around the proposed Ywathit dam.

Whether Chinese, Thai and Burmese dam builders will respond to the changing political situation and openly engage their key stakeholders or continue to work shielded behind army lines remains to be seen. Unless the dam builders want to risk escalating tensions in the Salween Basin, they must respond to the situation by changing the way they do business. This requires consultation with local people and obtaining their consent for mega-development projects.

In fact, one of the Chinese dam builders, Sinohydro, has already set itself the standard of obtaining the free prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples in its policy framework – in line with international standards. However, it has yet to implement this on the ground.

If dam builders fail to acquire consent, the consequences of proceeding with projects regardless of  local realities and without the will of the local people may plunge the region back into the shadow of a decades-old conflict.