Salween dams threaten river communities
The Thai government's recent push to speed up its energy investment in Myanmar's Salween River contradicts its own efforts to warn Thai investors from operating overseas projects that violate human rights.
A number of hydropower dams proposed for the Salween River, and co-invested in by the state-run Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (Egat) and companies in China and Myanmar, would force tens of thousands of ethnic minorities to leave their homes and undermine the current peace process in Myanmar.
In May this year, the Thai government issued a cabinet resolution proposing measures that would require Thai investors to adhere to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights wherever they operate overseas. The UN framework specifically highlights the threats to human rights posed by investment in conflict zones.
But early this week, Thailand's permanent secretary for energy Areepong Bhoocha-oom, said the Ministry of Energy planned to meet its Myanmar counterpart to discuss the country's investment in proposed hydropower projects on the Salween River, along with a coal-fired power plant in the southern town of Myeik.
Pianporn Deetes is Thailand and Burma Campaigns Director of International Rivers.
The Salween River, known as Thanlwin in Myanmar, is one of Asia's last largely free-flowing rivers, running from China, through to Myanmar and Thailand. It is also the site of a planned cascade of six massive dams, including the Mong Ton Dam in Shan State and Hat Gyi Dam in Karen State. The majority of the electricity will be sold to Thailand.
In an interview with a Thai newspaper, Thansettakit, this week, Mr Areepong insisted that planning for the two hydropower dams would move forward.
"The 6,000-MW Mong Ton Dam has been in negotiation for a long time. The initial agreement is that the dam will be smaller [than previously planned], and divided into two phases. The plan is to start construction in 2019. There will also be discussion to advance the Hat Gyi Dam. We expect the meeting will result in the rapid materialisation of our plans," said the permanent secretary.
At the same time, this week in Yangon, Keng Tung and Chiang Mai, Shan State Rivers, a local community network of affected people, launched the film Drowning a Thousand Islands to echo their concerns over the proposed Salween dams. The film documents the beauty and tragedy of war-torn central Shan State along the Salween and the Nam Pang River, a major tributary. It reveals the spectacular landscape of the Thousand Islands, known as Kun Heng, on the Nam Pang River. Here, the bright jade-coloured water flows into braided channels, forming a myriad of islands, islets and waterfalls.
The area's ecosystem and biodiversity are pristine. It remains largely unknown and if the Mon Ton Dam moves forward, it may soon be inundated.
This hidden gem is also home to hundreds of thousands of villagers uprooted by the Myanmar army during forced relocations between 1996-1998, when large numbers of refugees fled from Shan State to northern Thailand. Many of these people have been unable to return due to decades of armed conflict.
Egat has stated that 20,000 people will be relocated to make way for the Mon Ton Dam. This figure does not take into account thousands of refugees forced to abandon their homes in the area. Constructing the dam will destroy any hope for them of returning home; yet they are absent from Egat's estimates and unaccounted for among the project's "affected people".
Early this month, clashes broke out in Karen State between the government Border Guard Force and a splinter group of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, close to the site of the proposed Hat Gyi Dam. More than 5,000 villagers in Mae Tha Waw were forced to leave their homes. The conflict was seen by many as a move by the military to secure the area in preparation for construction of the dam.
The Salween River holds a unique place in the identity of the diverse ethnic peoples around it. The history and significance of the river runs deeply through these communities. Due to decades of armed conflict, it is also a highly sensitive and contentious area. Salween communities have long been affected by violence and displacement: the dams represent yet another instalment in this long pattern of devastation.
International scrutiny of Thailand's outbound investment has been intensifying. Thailand's major role in the development of the Xayaburi Dam on the Mekong River in Laos has resulted in an ongoing lawsuit against Egat and other stakeholders. The lawsuit has been filed by Thais living along the river, challenging the approval of the project's Power Purchase Agreement made between Egat and the Lao government in the absence of adequate studies and consultations. The outcome of the lawsuit, accepted by the Thai Supreme Administrative Court, may have implications for Thailand's plans to purchase electricity from dams on the Salween, where the scale of the projects and their proximity to Thailand also threaten trans-boundary harm.
Egat and the Thai government have demonstrated disregard for the significance of the Salween and livelihoods of communities living along the river. It is critical that Thai investors and developers recognise the far-reaching consequences of the proposed dams on the rights of ethnic populations to determine the future of their lands and environmental heritage.
Thailand and Myanmar Campaigns Director of International Rivers
Pianporn Deetes is Thailand and Myanmar Campaigns Director of International Rivers.