Thailand’s electricity utility may be complicit in human rights violations in Myanmar’s Salween dams

The building of the 241 meter high Mong Ton (also known as Tasang dam) is well underway in the Upper Salween River in the southern Shan state of Myanmar.

The largest dam planned on the Upper Salween River, the US$10 billion Mong Ton dam’s reservoir  will flood at least 640 square km stretching across two-thirds of Shan State. It will produce 7,000 MW of power, 90% of which will be exported to Thailand and China.

It is a joint project between China’s Three Gorges Corporation, the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) International Co., Ltd., and Myanmar’s Ministry of Electric Power and International Group of Entrepreneurs (IGE). IGE is a conglomerate with business interests in banking, timber, oil, gas and mining. IGE is owned by the sons of Aung Thaung, the Ministry of Industry under the previous military regime and currently a lawmaker with the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).[1. http://www.irrawaddy.org/burma/meeting-salween-dams-troubles-shan-communities.html.]

The Mong Ton is one among six hydropower projects being developed on the Salween River, the others are: the Upper Salween Dam, also known as Kunlong Dam (1,400 MW), Nong Pha Dam (1,000 MW), Manntaung on a tributary of the Salween (200 MW) (the four dams are located in Shan State), Ywathit Dam in Kayah (Karenni) State (4,000 MW) and Hat Gyi Dam in Karen State (1,360 MW). All the projects are being developed jointly between Chinese corporations, Thailand’s EGAT International Co., Ltd. and Burmese investors.[2. http://www.internationalrivers.org/resources/hydropower-projects-on-the-salween-river-an-update-8258.]

These projects would affect tens of thousands of people from various ethnic communities living along the length of the Salween River, which runs from China through eastern Burma’s Shan, Karenni, Karen and Mon states.

Suffering and extortion at the dam site

The dam site is heavily militarised, being built in the remote Keng Kham Valley under the close watch of the Myanmar military. A 20-mile stretch of the Salween River around the dam site is strictly out of bounds except for the dam builders and militia.

The dam site lies in an area that has featured the heaviest fighting in decades between Myanmar military and many ethnic armed groups in Shan State.

Since 1996, the military has forcibly relocated over 300,000 people from their lands around the planned dam site. In December 2013, the Shan Human Rights Foundation (SHRF) reported that residents in areas potentially flooded by the dam were recruited as forced labour by the Myanmar military that was providing security for teak logging in the reservoir area. Army battalions have forced people in nine villages in Murng Pu Long Township to build and repair military barracks and roads. Often the troops extort food and money from the local people. These human rights abuses have resulted in an influx of refugees into Thailand from Shan State.

The mounting accounts of human rights violations and abuse in the building of the dam and the exodus of people fleeing to Thailand have resulted in Shan community-based groups and Thailand and other international civil society organisations voicing concerns about the Salween dams.

At a media event on 9 June in Bangkok, Sai Khur Hseng, the coordinator of the Shan Sapawa Environmental Organization, stated that: “The Burmese authorities must immediately cancel stop its plan to build the Mong Ton dam, as well as all other plans to build dams on the Salween River.”

The ethnic peoples in the area have not been provided information about the dam nor are part of the decision-making process about the development of the Salween River that they depend upon for their farming and fishing livelihoods.

The Mong Ton dam protest held recently in Shan state. (Photo by Shan Sapawa.)

The Mong Ton dam protest held recently in Shan State. (Photo by Shan Sapawa.)

“The dam site is located far from the capitals of Nyapyitaw, Bangkok and Beijing. The remote areas are mostly populated by ethnic peoples who are both geographically and politically marginalised,” said Pianporn Deetes, Thailand Campaign Coordinator of the International Rivers.

Local protests have continued against the environmental and social impact assessment studies (EIA/SIA) being carried out by the contracted company, Australia’s Snowy Mountain Engineering Corporation (SMEC).

Shan groups have called the “consultations” organised by SMEC a sham that is usually attended by military and pro-government speakers including the local commanders. Increasingly vehement local protests have led to the cancellation by SMEC of a public meeting scheduled for 30 April 2015.

Egregious[3. Adjective; Meaning: extraordinary in some bad way; glaring; flagrant; notorious; shocking; gross.] EGAT

Most of the electricity is intended for sale to Thailand, although no power purchase agreement has been signed yet with EGAT.

With its investment in the Mong Ton dam, EGAT is complicit in the wide-ranging human rights violations and abuses including reports of forced labour, displacement and extra-judicial killing in the building of the dam.

EGAT is no stranger to controversy. It is already facing a lawsuit in Thailand’s Administrative Court from Thai villagers who will be affected by the Xayaburi dam being built on the mainstream Mekong River in Laos.

Piyaporn stated at the media event that EGAT has gone to invest in neighbouring countries mainly since it has faced criticism in the past over its dam projects in Thailand. Its investments in Myanmar and Lao PDR also ensure it can avoid strong environmental and legal procedures to hold dam builders accountable to the impacts from their projects.

There are also wider concerns whether Thailand indeed does need the energy from these Salween dams. Thailand’s new Power Development Plan (PDP 2015), which lays out Thailand’s energy and investment plans for the next 21 years aims to double Thailand’s installed energy capacity in the next two decades to reach 70,410 megawatts by 2036.

However, EGAT has a track record of consistently overestimating yearly forecasts of Thailand’s energy demand, with reserve margins set at up to as high as 40% in the next decade, often leading to over-investment.

Thailand’s civil society including consumer groups has tried to exert influence on EGAT to provide a more transparent and accountable energy planning process that also accounts for the human and ecological costs of producing electricity from dams such as the Upper Salween and Xayaburi.

EGAT needs to make the conscientious choice now before it’s too late: disinvest from the Upper Salween dams until the Myanmar government can provide its ethnic peoples in the Salween River Basin the power to decide the future of the area’s natural resources.

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