New dams could drown hopes of returning home for refugees

New dams could drown hopes of returning home for refugees

In mid-June, the Thai military government and its Myanmar counterpart signed a memorandum of understanding on energy, with an eye to expanding Thailand's import of electricity from Myanmar, by up to 10,000 megawatts. The initial agreement also promotes overseas investment by Thai state-owned and public companies in numerous coal and hydropower projects in Myanmar, including the Hat Gyi, Ywathit, and Mong Ton dams on the Salween River. Significantly, these projects are all situated in ethnic states, namely the Shan, Kayah, Karen, and the Tanesserim divisions, which make up some of the country's most vulnerable areas and populations.

A Shan colleague of mine recently visited the proposed Mong Ton dam on the Salween River, and met a Shan pro-democracy commander who spoke of the area's history of forced displacement and ongoing conflict. "This area was depopulated during the massive anti-insurgency campaign of the Burmese army between 1996 and 1998. Around 300,000 villagers in 11 townships in central Shan state were devastatingly uprooted during the period. To date, only around 30% of the population has returned," he said.

There are numerous reports from this period which document widespread human rights violations committed by the Myanmar military against civilians including looting, rape  and massacres.

"We were ordered [by Myammar soldiers] to leave our village immediately. If they returned and saw anyone, they would shoot," a 50-year-old Shan man told my colleague. "It happened to many of us. We had no choice but to leave our homes, rice paddies and farms, livestock, and everything. My family hid in the forest for months, then decided to go back to our farm as we needed to feed ourselves." His story is similar to that of thousands of other victims.

The forced mass relocation resulted in the division of villagers into three groups: those who fled to the Thai border, those who were forcibly moved to relocation sites, and finally those who hid in the forest and became internally displaced persons. According to a Shan human rights activist, humanitarian groups provided rice and food for as many as 150,000 refugees in Thailand's Fang district, Chiang Mai, during the first months of the relocation. Later many became migrant workers in fruit orchards, construction sites, and elsewhere in Thailand.

Almost a decade later, a number of villagers have decided to return to their damaged villages and rebuild their homes, temples, and schools. However more than half of those who fled are still not back as they are uncertain about the military situation. Now their future is even more unclear and again in jeopardy due to the proposed Mong Ton dam. The 7,000 megawatt project is the largest planned Salween River dam, with a reservoir the size of Singapore, and threatens to swallow up thousands of hectares of land and homes.

The claims that peace and democracy are in the process of being restored in Myanmar, seems surreal and distant in this part of the country; particularly when it is evident that agreements, such as the one between Thailand and Myanmar was signed before fair elections occur.

"If the [Myanmar] government proceeds with building the Mong Ton dam under current conditions, it is certain that they will send in larger numbers of troops and increase military fortifications to secure the area. This will in turn fuel greater conflict, and lead to increased abuses against local communities," said a statement by Shan community organisations in May. "Conflict will be further inflamed by the fact that Nay Pyi Taw is proceeding to sell off the Salween River section by section to neighbouring countries, instead of waiting until there is a negotiated federal settlement under the peace process, which would give ethnic peoples decision-making power to protect the natural resources, including waterways, in their areas."

While electricity from Myanmar might look cheap for investors from the outside, its significant environmental and social costs have not been taken into account and will be borne by marginalised communities, including tens of thousands of refugees in Shan state and throughout the country.

For Thailand, it's time we recognise the trans-boundary impacts of our projects being built in neighbouring countries, particularly in war-torn areas of Myanmar, where the real owners of the resources still do not have a say over their land and natural resources.

As an emerging energy investor, Thailand must begin to consider its extraterritorial obligations when investing in large infrastructure projects abroad. It's time to stop investing in hydropower and coal in conflict areas of Myanmar or risk further jeopardising the already fragile peace-building process underway.


Pianporn Deetes works as the Thailand Campaign Coordinator for International Rivers, a US headquartered NGO working to protect rivers and the rights of communities who depend upon them.

Pianporn Deetes

Thailand and Myanmar Campaigns Director of International Rivers

Pianporn Deetes is Thailand and Myanmar Campaigns Director of International Rivers.

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