Myanmar’s ethnic border states have been riven by almost seventy years of conflict. From a few months after Myanmar gained independence in January 1948 right up until today, ethnic organizations have been pursuing armed struggle to advance their political demands. These have ranged from full independence to greater autonomy and federalism, and started with the Karen National Union (KNU) which began fighting government forces in early 1949.

Since 2011 — when former-general Thein Sein was sworn in as president of the new nominally-civilian government after the country’s first elections in 20 years — Myanmar has undergone significant reforms and has tried to initiate a comprehensive peace process. On October 15, 2015, the Tatmadaw and eight armed groups signed a multilateral agreement, known as the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA). It is not truly “nationwide,” however, since many ethnic armed organizations did not sign it — including seven ethnic armed organizations that have signed separate bilateral ceasefires with the Thein Sein-led government, and four that have no individual ceasefire agreements with the government and are involved in ongoing conflict with the Tatmadaw.

Building on the patchy NCA, this year’s newly elected government (led by the National League for Democracy) convened with the country’s armed groups to negotiate a national peace settlement at the “Union Peace Conference” during August and September.  Meanwhile, conflict continues, and fighting has intensified in northern Shan state during November between an alliance of four ethnic armed groups (none of whom are signatories to the NCA) and the Myanmar army, leading to the recent displacement of 3,000 people to China.

A soldier from the Karen National Liberation Army’s Brigade 5 stands on the west bank of the Salween. The Karen National Union joined the Nationwide Cease-fire agreement on October 15 2015, but recent fighting between the Tatmadaw, the Border Guard Force and a DKBA splinter group has seen the KNU call on the Tatmadaw and BGF to cease military activities in Karen state, stating it could derail the peace process. Photo by Demelza Stokes.
A soldier from the Karen National Liberation Army’s Brigade 5 stands on the west bank of the Salween. Photo by Demelza Stokes.

Amid Myanmar’s intensely complex conflict scenario, plans press forward to build the five large Salween dams, which all lie in or near areas of contested governance in Shan, Karenni and Karen states. Due to the dangerous situation on the ground in most of the dam site areas, it is extremely difficult for researchers, journalists and local civilians to independently verify the status of the projects.This August, Myanmar’s Ministry of Electricity and Energy’s (MOEP) permanent secretary said at a press conference that the Salween dams would go ahead. And in a recent Strategic Environmental Assessment workshop (more in Part III), the MOEP outlined estimated completion dates for the dams, running from 2021-2031.

The nationwide SEA aims to “promote consensus on a sustainable hydropower development pathway for Myanmar,” and is being led by the World Bank Group’s International Finance Corporation (IFC), which signed an advisory services agreement to cooperate with the government in implementing the SEA. Observers welcome the SEA as an opportunity to improve public engagement and negotiation across Myanmar’s hydropower sector, and the introduction of international standards such as the IFC’s Performance Standards for companies operating in Myanmar. The IFC’s Performance Standard 4 encourages sensitivity to the risks of operating (investing) in conflict or post-conflict scenarios, stating that the risks that a project could exacerbate an existing sensitive local situation should “not be overlooked as it may lead to further conflict.”

Fear of the dams fueling more conflict in Myanmar’s ethnic areas led to a coalition of ethnic Shan political groups to call for the government to halt the Salween dam plans in August this year. “This is a conflict area, until now, the dams could affect peace and cause a lot more conflict in our ethnic areas,” Nang War Nu, Director of the Kun Heing Foundation and ex-member of parliament for the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party told Mongabay.Further to the south in Karen state, ethnic political and military leaders have also urged the government to put a moratorium on the Salween dam projects until there is real peace in the country. “During the peace process, or until we have genuine peace, any mega-development projects should not go ahead,” General Baw Kyaw Heh, Vice Chief of Staff of the KNU’s armed wing, told Mongabay earlier this year. “These deals were signed between the Myanmar government and the foreign companies, not with the inclusion of the Karen people. We haven’t been included in any discussion regarding how these dams will benefit the people. In fact, they have created destruction even before they’ve been started.” he said.

Observers question the government’s ability to ensure genuinely participatory and transparent consultations with communities living around the Salween dams as IDPs continue to flee from conflict near the sites in Myanmar’s Shan and Karen states (more in Part III). “It is unclear whether the SEA will be able to stop the clock on controversial projects to enable meaningful and inclusive debate about whether projects should be built,” Pianporn Deetes, Thailand campaign coordinator at environmental group International Rivers told Mongabay.

Evidence of construction activities already occurring at the dam sites highlights the massive discrepancies between hopes at policy level in Naypyidaw (Myanmar’s capital) and the reality of life on the ground in active conflict zones, where a multitude of actors operate outside the control of the central government (including possibly the Myanmar army and private companies). UN special rapporteur on human rights for Myanmar Yanghee Lee said in July she “observed the very real tension between a new civilian leadership and a bureaucracy inherited from previous military regimes which often resulted in a duality in policy and approach.”

Critics of the dams fear the projects are already bulldozing ahead with scant regard for the welfare of local people and with no genuine mechanisms in place to ensure that they are either involved in public consultations or receive fair compensation if they give up their land for the projects. Land disputes in Myanmar are a “major national problem” according to Human Rights Watch, which found those displaced by natural resource extraction and infrastructure projects (even in peaceful areas) are often displaced without adequate consultation, compensation, or due process of law.In Karen state, ethnic Karen leaders and local people directly connect recent fighting in Karen state with the drive to build the Hat Gyi dam.

The clashes in September this year in Myaing Gyi Ngu and Mae Tha Waw areas of Karen state’s Hlaingbwe township led to the displacement of around five thousand people. Some attribute this year’s conflict to efforts by the Tatmadaw via its allied BGF to rein in a renegade DKBA-splinter group, who are not a signatory to the NCA. But observing the topography of the areas in question, some ethnic political leaders in the KNU, leaders of the KNU’s armed wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), and civil society link the recent conflict in Karen state with the need to secure access roads to and the Hat Gyi dam site.

Lieutenant Colonel Kyaw Mue of the KNLA’s Brigade 5 has been based on the Salween for over 20 years. “I don't think it is good to build dams on Salween River in our territories at this moment as the peace process is not completed and there is no certainty for a lasting peace,” he told Mongabay. Photo by Demelza Stokes.
Lieutenant Colonel Kyaw Mue of the KNLA’s Brigade 5 has been based on the Salween for over 20 years. “I don’t think it is good to build dams on Salween River in our territories at this moment as the peace process is not completed and there is no certainty for a lasting peace,” he told Mongabay. Photo by Demelza Stokes.

The fighting occurred in areas along the Myaing Gyi Ngu – Mae Tha Waw road, which runs from near to the Hat Gyi site to the Thai border. Observers call it an “access road” to Hat Gyi, that will be needed to transport construction materials from the Thai border to begin work on the dam. The KNLA’s General Baw Kyaw Heh told NGO Karen Rivers Watch (KRW) in a statement this year, “In order to implement the plan for Hat Gyi Dam, the Burmese and BGF must have full control of the road and the surrounding areas.” In their statement, KRW accuses the Tatmadaw of “using the pretense of eliminating the DKBA splinter group to take control of more Karen areas” around the dam site.

“It is important that fighting stops in the area. It is KNU policy that before we have reached a political agreement with the government, these mega-projects should not be built,” Naw Zipporah Sein, vice chairperson of the KNU, told Mongabay in a phone interview. Concerned with the recent escalation in fighting, the KNU released a statement on September 13 calling for the Tatmadaw and the BGF to cease military activity in Karen state, stating it could derail the peace process.

The Hat Gyi dam will be located in Karen state’s Hlaingbwe township, approximately fifty kilometers from the Thai border and 100 kilometers from the mouth of the river in Mon state, where it flows into the Bay of Bengal. The 1,360 MW project, will be developed by EGAT International Co. Ltd. (a subsidiary of the Thailand’s state-owned Electricity Generating Authority), Myanmar’s energy ministry (MOEP), Myanmar’s International Group of Entrepreneurs Co. (IGE), and Chinese state-owned Sinohydro. IGE company is owned by the son of former military regime minister Aung Thaung, who died last year, and was placed on the United States Treasury Department’s blacklist in 2014 for ‘…perpetuating violence, oppression, and corruption,’ as well as undermining Myanmar’s democratic transition. The MOEP’s estimated completion date for the Hat Gyi dam is 2020-2021.


Researchers have documented militarization of the Salween dam areas through expansion of army camps and army personnel, increased checkpoints along access roads, and through the provision of security for construction companies (and mining or logging companies). Some of the areas have essentially become no-go zones for local people. “When the companies come to visit and implement the projects, the military comes to protect them and provides security. Because of that they also don’t allow locals to go there,” Nang Kham Mai, campaign coordinator at the Shan Sapawa Environmental Organization, told Mongabay.

Residents living around the Salween dam sites have documented an increase in other activities such as logging and mining in the future reservoir sites. Companies affiliated with the Tatmadaw, the Tatmadaw itself and ethnic armed groups all engage in a militarized extraction of Myanmar’s rich natural resources. In areas where rule of law is thin on the ground, this carries with it a deluge of threats (and human rights abuses) to local people living near the dam sites where preemptive resource extraction takes place. The Shan Human Rights Foundation (SHRF) reported in 2013 that the Tatmadaw provided security for loggers clearing teak from the Mong Ton dam’s projected flood zone, and conscripted local villagers into forced labor for the military. Forced labor and a host of other human rights violations by armed groups have propelled thousands of ethnic Shan people to migrate to Thailand over the last two decades.

A Chinese gold mining boat picture north of the Mong Ton dam site in 2015. Photo courtesy of the Mong Pan Youth Association.
A Chinese gold mining boat picture north of the Mong Ton dam site in 2015. Photo courtesy of the Mong Pan Youth Association.

More recently, local researchers working on a project with think-tank CGIAR documented in February this year that the Myanmar army and a Lahu militia provide security for the Chinese construction and gold mining companies currently operating at the Mong Ton dam site. Chinese companies hired the Lahu militia through the Myanmar army to provide them with protection, villagers living near the dam site claimed. The villagers also told researchers that when the Chinese (and their security) are present, they are too afraid to venture into the forest except during daylight hours, and do not go to the river to fish or pan for gold at any time the Chinese are present. Some activists are afraid that these conditions will result in a forceful depopulation of the area surrounding the Mong Ton dam site.

“Those who belong to the Thanlwin river are the people who will be most affected by the dams,” Daw Nang Khin Thar Ye, current member of parliament and member of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, told Mongabay. “They have already suffered from years of war, so I am against the dam projects,” she said.Whether or not dams are a root cause of conflict in Myanmar, ongoing conflict and well-documented militarization around the dam sites is causing the displacement of thousands of ethnic people, many of whom remain unable to return home.

With the dams moving forward in the meantime, it remains to be seen if Myanmar’s new civilian government can ensure dam companies commit to international standards of practice and ensure affected peoples’ human rights. For now, villagers fleeing conflict in the Myaing Gyi Ngu area are too afraid to return because of landmines planted during this year’s conflict. “I fled with nothing,” Leh Paw told Mongabay, “I came here in the clothes I am in. We left all our belongings. We couldn’t carry food, rice, or clothes. We didn’t finish planting our crops. My husband wants to go back, but we are too scared.”

Continue reading Part III, which explores ethnic and ecological diversity in areas that will be affected by the dams.


Article published by Isabel Esterman
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