Thein Sein Enjoys Myitsone Praise as Dams on Salween Secretly Proceed
By WILLIAM BOOT / THE IRRAWADDY
May 9, 2013
President Thein Sein's surprise suspension of the Chinese-led
hydroelectric dam on the Irrawaddy River at Myitsone in northwestern
Burma secured him widespread praise at home and abroad and seemingly
This was a project that would help solve power shortages in China's
Yunnan Province by generating up to 6,000 megawatts of electricity to
pump north across the border.
But away from the mass media spotlight, environmentally questionable
large hydro dams further east in Burma on the Salween River are quietly
going ahead with the approval of the Thein Sein government.
Approval for a clutch of dams on the Salween which collectively will
generate much more electricity than the Myitsone project has been given
in the old-fashioned military regime wayï¿½without any public
consultation, independent environmental impact assessments, or regard
for the simmering military-ethnic conflicts in their midst.
Apart from a brief announcement earlier this year by the Ministry of
Electric Power, the Naypyidaw government has so far failed to identify
who will build the Salween dams, who will benefit from the electricity
generated and how the local communities will be compensated.
The ministry said approval had been given for six projects on the
Salween in Shan and Karen states.
They include hydro dams at Tasang and Hatgyi which have been debated for
years and have had a number of Chinese and Thai backers, including the
Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand, or EGAT. They would have a
combined installed capacity of 15,000 megawatts, according to the
US-based environmental lobby group International Rivers.
That is about four times Burma's present total electricity producing
"These projects are proceeding in areas where conflict is continuing
between ethnic resistance forces and the Burmese Army, and are shrouded
in secrecy," says International Rivers. "Investment for these projects
will come from five Chinese and three Burmese corporations, and
Thailand's Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand."
The Beijing-based environment lobby group China Dialogue has identified
three large Chinese state-owned companies it says now have contracts
from the Burmese government to proceed with dams construction on the
They are Sinohydro Corporation, China Three Gorges Corporation and China
Southern Power Grid.
The Three Gorges Corp developed the world's biggest hydroelectric system
on the Yangtze River in China which has caused considerable
environmental problems since its completion. China Southern is not a dam
builder but an electricity transmission infrastructure builder
responsible for all power supply in southern China.
"Tensions remain high around China's role in developing dams in Myanmar
largely due to questions about who will benefit," says China Dialogue,
which also has offices in London.
"In a country where energy shortages occur daily and about a third of
people live below the poverty line, many criticize the development of
natural resources for the sake of providing energy to neighboring states.
"Local communities and internally displaced persons are concerned that
the dam plans will lead to increased militarization, human rights
abuses, environmental destruction and loss of local livelihoods," China
The risk of armed conflict around two of the Salween dam sites has
heightened recently with demands by the Burmese Army for local militias
to move away.
The army's Southeast Command ordered Karen militia forces to leave an
area near the Hatgyi dam site they are occupying by May 4, but the Karen
have not complied.
This follows an earlier order by the Burmese Army to the Shan State
Army-North to vacate their base beside the Salween which they have
occupied under the terms of a ceasefire agreement.
Their base is near the sites of two planned dams. One is at Nong Pha and
one at Man Tung on the Nam Ma tributary of the Salween and they will
have a combined electricity generating capacity of 1,200 megawatts,
according to the Burma Rivers Network NGO.
"To my knowledge, EGAT International is actively involved in the Hatgyi
dam, but has tried to keep itself more behind the scenes," International
Rivers' Thailand coordinator Pianporn Deetes told The Irrawaddy on May 8.
"EGAT International and Sinohydro are taking advantage of the conflict
situation [along the Salween] to proceed with their investment. Most
local ethnic people have already been forced to flee to the border and
were not given a say in the decision to build the dams.
"Dams on the Salween including Hatgyi, Tasang, and others, have been
used as a weapon to control the conflict areas."
The Bangkok government is anxious to reduce the country's dependence on
natural gas to fuel electricity generation. Thailand's own gas resources
in the Gulf of Thailand will decline after 2021 without new discoveries
and the Thais already import about 30 percent of their needs from
There is a virtual moratorium on new dam construction within Thailand
because of vocal public opposition and EGAT is already co-financing
development of a highly controversial hydro-dam directly on the Mekong
River inside Laos.
EGAT is the main financial backer of the US $3.7 billion Xayaburi dam
and Thailand will buy most of the electricity generated by the 1,260
megawatt capacity operation.
The Xayaburi project is going ahead despite objections by the
governments of Cambodia and Vietnam, which share the Mekong downstream.
They argue that the dam will disrupt river water flow and levels and
undermine agriculture and fisheries.
EGAT has for a long time eyed the lower Salween's potential to provide
electricity to also help solve Thailand's future power needs. It flows
parallel to the Thai border and electricity could easily be transferred
across it by power grid cable.
Meanwhile, at the upper end of the Salween in Burma, China could yet get
the electricity it needs for Yunnan Provinceï¿½without the Myitsone dam
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