The power struggle at Salween River

The power struggle at Salween River

Thailand is on the verge of striking an agreement to buy the bulk of the electricity from the planned Hatgyi dam, but at what cost to the locals?

The Salween River meanders through pristine mountain forests before reaching a camp for internally displaced people at Ei Htu Hta, near the Thai-Myanmar border. Temporary bamboo shelters dot the hills around the camp, with small solar panels attached to the thatched roofs providing power for a few hours a day.

Flowing uninterrupted, for now: The Moei River meets the Salween River at Sop Moei village near the Thailand-Myanmar border.

There is no government electricity supply to the camp and many of the people displaced by the fighting between the Burma Army (BA) and ethnic armed forces believe there never will be, despite seven dam projects proposed for the Salween. They also believe that the recent outbreaks of fighting between the BA and Karen forces are part of a master plan to ensure the dam projects, many of which will supply cheap energy to Thailand, go ahead.

Worried: Gen Baw Kyaw Heh, vice-chief of staff of the Karen National Liberation Army.


Once an ally, the Myanmar military is now in open conflict with the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army, having fallen out in 2010 after the army tried to coerce the DKBA into joining a border guard force subsuming all ethnic militias.

While peace negotiations are ostensibly under way, the DKBA is now being drawn into an alliance of armed Karen groups, seeking a unified front for Karen political aspirations.

The fighting started in September in Kyaikmayaw township in Mon state and the Thai-Myanmar border town Myawaddy. By early October it had spread to Karen state.

At least four DKBA base camps in the Salween River area — Me Zine Taung Chay, Kan Nyi Naung, Waboe Taung and Mae Tha Waw — were attacked. More than 2,000 villagers were forced to flee their homes.

On Oct 17, sustained attacks were heard near the proposed site of the controversial Hatgyi hydropower project, starting about 10pm and continuing until noon the following day.

Karen Rivers Watch field researchers reported hearing mortars being fired on Waboe Taung DKBA base camp in Hlaing Bwe Township, which is two hours by road from the dam site.

“We heard that a new agreement was made for the Hatgyi dam in October,” Gen Baw Kyaw Heh, vice-chief of staff of the Karen National Liberation Army, the Karen National Union’s (KNU) military wing, said at the Ei Htu Hta camp.

“But we have very limited access to the information,” he told Spectrum. “The news came at the same time that the Myanmar military started attacks at the [DKBA base camps] at the proposed dam site.”

Three Myanmar military base camps were recently set up near the proposed dam site, 90km south of the Ei Htu Hta camp, with small units patrolling the area and an access road repaired.

Let the sunshine in: Villagers rest at a floating grocery store at Mae Sam Laep village near the Myanmar border on the Salween River. Solar energy is their only source of power.


Located in an area where many ethnic conflicts have taken place, the Hatgyi dam is one of seven proposed hydropower projects on the Salween River, which stretches unimpeded for 2,800km, from China to the Andaman Sea.

First proposed by the Myanmar government in 1998, the projects’ progress has been marred by bloody conflicts and the displacement of thousands of villagers.

Thailand also has a keen interest in the development of the dam. In 2004, Myanmar reached an agreement with the Thaksin Shinwatra administration to push forward with Hatgyi, the first to be built, and other lower Salween dams, the Tasang, Weigyi and Dagwin.

But in the same year, two Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (Egat) employees were killed by grenades and land mines while conducting a site survey at Hatgyi.

In 2005, Myanmar and Egat signed a Memorandum of Understanding to develop the Hatgyi dam. The Myanmar military then launched attacks on armed Karen groups which controlled the area surrounding the dam site, but another member of Egat’s staff was killed in 2007.

In 2008, about 4,000 Karen villagers were forced to flee their homes after another MoU was signed between the Myanmar government and Chinese firm Sinohydro Cooperation.

Two years later, an MoU was signed in Nay Pyi Taw for joint development of the Hatgyi hydropower project by four shareholders — Sinohydro, Egat’s subsidiary firm Egat International (Egati), the Department of Hydropower Planning under Myanmar’s Ministry of Electric Power (Moep), and Myanmar firm International Group of Entrepreneur Co.

No financial details of the deal were disclosed.

Subject of harassment: Karen fishermen have faced intimidation from gangs.

Civil society groups claim 90% of the electricity generated from the Hatgyi dam, which will have a capacity of 1,360MW, will be sold to Egat to meet electricity demand in Thailand.

In February last year, heavy fighting broke out again around the dam site when Myanmar’s Ministry of Electric Power declared in parliament that construction of the Hatgyi dam as well as six other dam projects had been approved.

At the same time, attacks were launched near the Tasang dam site in southern Shan state, where Karen civil society groups claimed the Myanmar military had killed some villagers and used others for slave labour.

They believe the recent clashes indicate a fresh drive to kick-start the Hatgyi dam project.

The clashes also happened around the time Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha started his first official visit to Myanmar, and energy cooperation was on the agenda in his talks with Myanmar President Thein Sein.

Gen Baw Kyaw said he could not confirm whether the two leaders discussed Hatgyi. However, reliable sources confirmed lower level officials had discussed it on the sidelines of the leaders’ meeting. 

“Mega development projects like the Hatgyi dam should be processed step by step — a ceasefire in a conflict zone, the political direction, and then an open dialogue for development. But it seems the Myanmar government wants to jump to investment,” Gen Baw Kyaw said through an interpreter.

“If investment starts when there is unrest in the political situation, it would be a superficial development project where benefits fall into the hands of only some people.”

Barely the basics: A Karen man rests in the shack that serves as Ei Htu Hta's camp hospital.


Myanmar is eager to boost its energy revenue, and Thailand is a keen customer.

Energy Minister Narongchai Akrasanee announced he will push for a new MoU that would allow Thailand to purchase more than 10,000MW of power from Myanmar, replacing the existing agreement of 1,500MW, which expired last year.

The Ministry of Energy is preparing a draft of the MoU, which is expected to be signed by early next year. However, details of Myanmar’s power sources have not been made clear.

Montri Chantawong from the Foundation for Ecological Recovery, who has studied the Salween River for more than a decade, is worried about where the Myanmar electricity will be sourced.

“We are concerned that electricity generated from the Hatgyi dam will be included in the new Power Development Plan (PDP). In this circumstance [under the military government], there are few channels for people to voice their concerns.

“Hydropower is the lowest-cost power, but it overlooks the cost of environmental impacts, the change to local livelihoods and the impact on displaced people.”

After the coup, the Ministry of Energy announced its Power Development Plan, which will specify sources of power supply from 2015 to 2036.

Egat data shows that the national requirement for peak power generation was 27,913MW in 2013 while the installed capacity was 33,681MW — 65% from natural gas, 21% coal, 7% imports, 4% hydropower, 2% renewable resources and 1% oil.

Power requirement has been increasing 3% each year, which the ministry claimed meant Thailand would face a power shortage if it did not seek more sources.

Natural beauty: A rock formation on the Salween riverbank near Sop Moei village.

The new PDP, due to be outlined in January, is being discussed by a Ministry of Energy subcommittee. Suphakit Nantavorakarn, a subcommittee member and commissioner of the Independent Commission on Environment and Health, said the committee has not yet officially decided to increase electricity purchases from Myanmar.

“Good governance is a chronic problem for the PDP, which should set the lead on power policy. But what’s happened is that the governments have signed an MoU and use that MoU to lead the policy.”

There are also talks at the ministerial level to increase power purchases from Mekong countries including Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, while reducing power from renewable resources.

The Yingluck Shinawatra government set a target for providing power from renewable sources at 13,900MW by 2021.

But the new government’s target may be reduced to 8,300MW, and then increased to 31,000MW in 2036.

“Thailand says it needs about 4,000MW of power reserves,” Mr Suphakit said. “Now its capacity reserves surpass the demand, at over 7,000MW — the surplus 3,000MW is equal to four coal power plants. A typical coal power plant can generate 800MW of power.

“If we can boost renewable energy’s effectiveness, we can suspend coal power plant projects and even Hatgyi dam.”     

No benefits: A Karen family at Ei Htu Hta camp, near the proposed hydropower dam site.


“There is no official information given to us locals,” said Saw Alex Htoo from the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network.

“The projects will create more conflict between the Karen and the Myanmar government. It’s not the time to invest in the conflict area.”

On Nov 20, Karen communities living along the Salween River lodged a complaint with Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). They are demanding an investigation into whether the role Thai authorities played in pushing for the Hatgyi and Tasang hydropower projects has resulted in human rights violations.

They also asked the NHRC to pressure Egati and other interested parties to publicise details of the project.

Between 2006 and 2008, Egati hired a team of Thai academics to conduct an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for Hatgyi dam.

Surveys were launched in three Thai villages adjacent to the Salween River with no mention of cross-border social and environmental impacts. This is despite the dam site being surrounded by two wildlife sanctuaries and the world’s largest teak forest.

Some Karen villagers have complained that no public hearings were conducted in their communities and that they cannot access the EIA results in their own language.

Egati has said the EIA was transparent and comprehensive, however, they are preparing to conduct a second one after being pressured by civil society groups.

Thana Putarungsi, Egati's acting president, told Spectrum that he could not comment on Hatgyi dam at the moment.

As Hatgyi dam is located on the Myanmar side of the border, it is unlikely an EIA will have to be scrutinised by environmental experts and officials from Thailand’s Office of Natural Resources and Environment Policy and Planning.

Environmental activists fear that Egati's holding company, Egat, will submit the “questionable” EIA to the Energy Ministry and cabinet to get approval to invest in the dam.

“We neither protest against nor support the [Hatgyi] dam,” said Decha Srisawai-daoreung, 30, the headman of Mae Hong Son’s Sop Moei village, 45km upstream from the dam site.

“We can’t decide when no clear information is provided to us.”

Sop Moei village is where the Moei River flows from Thailand into the Salween.

About 900 villagers, a mix of Karen and displaced people, depend on fishing and riverbank vegetable gardens for their livelihoods. They have been told by authorities that the dam would not affect their livelihoods.

“I’m worried that we will lose our land and workplace as many of us have citizenship problems. Our rights are not guaranteed,” said Bamrung Sudsai-doaerung, 45, a Karen villager.

The teak forest surrounding Sob Moei village is a prime target for Salween log smuggling gangs. The gangs have harassed villagers and their logging is also having a damaging effect on the environment.

Thai officials intensified operations to suppress the gangs, however, the smuggling continues. Local villagers who reported to officials were harassed and a boat was sunk. Sand was found inside the motors of their boats.

Concerns have been raised about the possibility of an increase in smuggling as the dam would flood parts of the forest opening, making crossing the border easier.

No power for the people: A small grocery shop without electricity at Ei Htu Hta camp.


An international conference this month attended by representatives from China, Myanmar and Thailand called for more information on environmental issues along the Salween River.

While the governments of the three countries are pushing for the dams on the lower Salween, China signalled that it wanted to press forward with some of the 13 dams proposed in the upper Salween River, a Unesco World Site, since 2003.

“We’ve learned from the Mekong River that, without meaningful public participation and government consideration of the river's value and riparian communities, large dams are built based solely on politics and business,” said Pianporn Deetes, International Rivers coordinator.

The lesson comes largely from the Xayaburi dam, which the Lao government began building in early 2012 without prior consultation with other lower Mekong countries.

About 95% of the power generated will be sold to Thailand, with few benefits reaching the hands of local people who will bear the burden of the social and environmental changes.

But for all the potential international implications, at Ei Htu Hta the consequences are all too close to home.

At the inpatient ward of the camp hospital — where cases vary from basic illnesses, wounds from landmine explosions to bruises from fist fights — an eight-year-old Karen boy is lying exhausted on a hard bed.

The ward, which looks more like a shack with eight beds, is run without electricity and has little capability to treat patients effectively.

“He was diagnosed as having a liver problem. Taking medicine is the only available treatment,” said the boy’s father Mue Hoh, 55.

His future could be vulnerable as the power conflict on the Salween River continues. n

No computers here: Students in class at Ei Htu Hta camp, where the equipment is rudimentary.

Energy rush

Global investors have been eyeing Myanmar’s vast energy resources since the country began opening up and entering peace talks with rebel ethnic groups in 2011.

The Ministry of Electric Power estimates the country’s energy potential at more than 100,000MW for hydropower, on top of its reserves of around 500 million tonnes of coal, 145 million barrels of oil and 16.6 trillion cubic feet of gas.

Foreign energy experts believe those estimates are conservative.

In October 2013 and March this year, Myanmar awarded 36 major oil and gas concessions to 47 international and local companies.

In June, Deputy Electric Power Minister Mar Thar Htwe announced a long-term electricity master plan that would increase the country’s power capacity from 3,970MW to 23,594MW by 2030.

Under that plan, 38% of Myanmar’s energy output would come from hydropower — down from its current 74% share — while 33% would come from coal, 20% from gas and 9% from renewables.

Build-operate-transfer agreements and joint ventures with foreign investors are being encouraged, as is exclusively local investment. Mar Thar Htwe said the plan aims to improve local living standards, as presently less than 30% of the country’s population has access to electricity.

But the plan has been criticised for providing only limited domestic supply, despite the massive increase in output.

Most of the electricity generated will be exported.

India’s National Hydroelectric Power Corporation signed an MoU with the Myanmar government in 2004 to develop the 1200MW Tamanthi dam on the Chindwin River in the country’s northwest. About 80% of the power generated by the dam will go to India.

Although construction of the dam is yet to begin, some 2,400 villagers were forced to leave their homes last year to make way for the development.

Seven new dams on the Salween River — part of which straddles Thailand — with a total installed capacity of more than 20,000MW will also export more than 90% of their generating power to China and Thailand, according to International Rivers, a US-based NGO.

About 90% of power from the Hatgyi dam, one of the seven on the Salween, is expected to be sold to Thailand. n

Do you like the content of this article?