Thursday, June 16, 2011

Dozens killed in Burma amid clashes over Chinese dams

Dozens killed in Burma amid clashes over Chinese dams
Jonathan Watts
16 June 2011

A bloody outbreak of fighting that has ended a 17-year ceasefire between
Burmese government forces and a tribal militia was partly caused by the
expansion of Chinese hydropower along the Irrawaddy river,
conservationists claim.

Dozens of people in northern Burma have reportedly been killed in the
clashes between government troops and the Kachin Independence Army.
Thousands more are trying to flee across the border after fierce
fighting erupted this month around the construction sites of two
Chinese-financed dams in the region.

Amid growing fears that the conflict could escalate, the Burma Rivers
Network said China's massive hydropower investments had widened the gulf
between the government � which wants to benefit from cross-border
electricity sales � and Kachin independence groups, which fear the dams
will bring environmental, cultural and social disruption.

"The conflict is closely related to the dams. The government has sent in
troops because it wants to gain control of a region that hosts major
Chinese investments in hydropower," Sai Sai, of the Burma Rivers
Network, told the Guardian.

Details of the fighting remain sketchy. The authorities have yet to
acknowledge the conflict. The Irrawaddy magazine � which is published
online by overseas critics of the Rangoon government � said stability in
northern Burma had deteriorated rapidly with several explosions in the
Kachin state capital, Myitkyina, the government closure of Sino-Burmese
trading routes and the destruction of at least three bridges.

Burma Rivers Network said power transmission pylons at Dapein dam had
been toppled, the fighting had spread to Shweli dam and Kachin forces
had vowed to widen the conflict to all areas under their control. The
death toll is said to be close to 50.
Dams are by no means the only cause of tension in the region. The uneasy
standoff was shaken last year when the Kachin Independence Army rejected
a proposal to fall under central government control as a border guard
force. Since then the two sides have jostled over territory.

But China's plans to finance, build and generate electricity from at
least seven dams in the region may have given the government a greater
economic and diplomatic incentive to take control of strategically
important areas that have long been in the hands of Kachin forces.
According to Burma Rivers Network the investment is worth $3.6bn and
will result in annual power sales of $500m.

The state-controlled firm behind the projects � China Power Investment �
refused to comment. "We don't accept any interview on our overseas
projects. Every company has their own business secrets," said a
spokesperson from the Hong Kong-listed corporation.

The Kachin Independence Organisation has co-operated with most of
China's engineering plans, which are seen as beneficial to the economic
development of the impoverished region. But it has fiercely opposed the
biggest of the nine-planned dams: a 3,600MW hydropower plant at
Myitsone, which is an area of great cultural and ecological
significance. The environmental impact assessment on this first dam on
Burma's stretch of the Irrawaddy also expressed grave concerns.

In March the Kachin Independence Organisation sent an open letter to the
Chinese government calling for the plan to be shelved: "We would not be
responsible if civil war broke out because of this hydropower plant and
dam construction."

China has repeatedly emphasised the need for stability along its borders
but it faces awkward questions about the conflict � which broke out a
few weeks after President Thein Sein of Burma made his first visit to
Beijing since taking office.

Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, China adviser at International Crisis Group,
said: "Hydropower projects in Myanmar are fostering strong popular
resentment due to their unequal benefit distribution and lack of
transparency, as well as environmental damage and forced displacement of

"Without addressing the negative impact of its companies China risks
recurring instability on its border with Myanmar."

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