Visit is chance to rethink investments
This week's visit by Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's state counsellor, to Thailand appears to hold out hope for Thai state and private investors to revitalise their plans for key investments in Myanmar. Among these projects, the most prominent are the Dawei Special Economic Zone and a cascade of hydroelectric dams on the Salween River.
While these projects have been in the pipeline for at least a decade, they have not materialised, as they face strong opposition from local communities and groups in Thailand and Myanmar.
Under Thailand's Power Development Plan (PDP 2015) approved in May 2015, the government intends to import up to 10,000MW of electricity from Myanmar over the next two decades. Much of this electricity is expected to come from planned hydropower projects on the Salween River which is known in Myanmar as Thanlwin.
However, energy experts have questioned the legitimacy of projected demand, and whether such ambitious plans -- which bring with them extensive environmental and social costs -- are necessary.
Pianporn Deetes is Thailand and Myanmar Campaigns Director, with International Rivers.
A Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed between Thailand and Myanmar for the Salween dams project, which includes five dams on the Salween and another dam on the Tenasserim River.
To date, the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) has been pushing forward two projects: the 1,360MW Hatgyi dam in Karen State and the 7,100MW Mong Ton dam in Shan State (formerly known as the Tasang dam).
The proposed projects have drawn fierce opposition as a result of their expected environmental and human rights impacts, as well the ongoing armed conflict between Myanmar security forces and ethnic groups.
The massive reservoir of the Mong Ton dam, planned in central Shan State, would span along the Salween and Pang rivers, covering an area the size of Singapore. Communities from central Shan State have already suffered years of persecution under the Myanmar army and also conflict and unrest in this area. Between 1996-1998, more than 300,000 people were forcibly displaced from their homes. Many fled along the border areas with Thailand to seek refuge. If built, the Mon Tong dam will permanently inundate thousands of hectares of land and homes, destroying any chance that these communities have of returning home; leaving them landless and stateless.
In this post-election era, the world is watching Myanmar. There are strong hopes and expectations for a move towards democracy and peace in a country that for decades has been ravaged by violence. However, plans for hydropower development along the Salween River have the potential to undermine these critical processes and instead create greater conflict in these already fragile areas.
If Mrs Suu Kyi is serious about working towards peace, it is critical the challenges facing hundreds of thousands of ethnic citizens in Myanmar, including those displaced along the Salween River, be addressed first, before agreements are signed for future projects.
And that under Myanmar's new democracy, these communities are informed and have a voice in decision-making processes that will affect their lives and futures. Egat and other state agencies in Thailand are already in hot water for their overseas investment in the Xayaburi dam on the Mekong River.
A case, now under review in Thailand's Supreme Administrative Court, is examining the legality of the Power Purchase Agreement for the Xayaburi dam signed by state bodies, due to the project's transboundary impacts on communities in Thailand. The case has brought increased scrutiny of the way in which Thai companies and state agencies invest abroad.
Another project of concern is the Dawei Special Economic Zone (SEZ). Research done by the Dawei Development Association, and submitted to the Thai National Human Rights Commission, estimated that 22,000 to 43,000 people would be directly affected by the Dawei SEZ and related projects, including industrial estate, ports, road links, reservoirs and resettlement areas.
An investigation by the NHRC, which was acknowledged by the Thai cabinet, found the Dawei SEZ has already caused negative impacts to local people, due to a lack of meaningful consultation, and a deeply flawed compensation process.
Thailand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs published a series of policy recommendations concerning the business operations of the private sector abroad and the Dawei deep-sea port and Industrial Estate Development Project. The ministry's recommendations highlight the need for mechanisms to oversee and encourage the respect of fundamental human rights by the private sector in their investments; and the need to develop further measures to bring into practice the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs).
A group of 20 Thai civil society organisations from Thailand and Myanmar have urged Mrs Suu Kyi to "suspend decisions on any projects, pending the completion of strategic and transboundary impact assessments; and allow people to make informed decisions, ensuring transparent and accountable investments, which mutually benefit both Thailand and Myanmar".