A Stark Warning for Myanmar’s Hydroelectric Projects

August 2nd, 2018  •  Author:   Progressive Voice  •  6 minute read
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“the dam disaster in Laos must serve as a wake-up call for the Burmese government. They must immediately ensure stability of all existing dams and suspend construction of any new ones.”

Mi Ah Chai, Burma Rivers Network

As regional neighbor Laos reels from the huge devastation caused by the collapse of an auxiliary dam to the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy hydroelectric project, Myanmar’s ethnic communities’ continuous warnings of the dangers that such hydropower projects can cause must be heard loud and clear by the Government and its development partners. Due to the dam’s collapse, the suspected death toll is in its hundreds, a further 1,000 people are not accounted for, and tens of thousands have lost their homes. In a statement by Burma Rivers Network (BRN), the Coordinator, Mi Ah Chai stated, “the dam disaster in Laos must serve as a wake-up call for the Burmese government. They must immediately ensure stability of all existing dams and suspend construction of any new ones.”

A report, “Development or Destruction,” published by Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG) and Karen Rivers Watch (KRW) earlier this month warns of the “social, economic, cultural and livelihood impacts of hydropower development.” As the report highlights, 42 of the 50 planned hydropower projects in Myanmar are planned in ethnic nationality areas. Yet it is in these areas where the impacts could be most severe. Already, dam construction has exacerbated armed conflict, as the offensives by the Myanmar military near the planned Hatgyi Dam in Karen State demonstrate. Furthermore, the environmental, social and livelihood impacts, such as flooding of villagers’ land, land confiscation, and forced displacement are emphasized in the report.

The report is a timely reminder that if Myanmar continues to pursue a strategy of producing and exporting electric power to more powerful and energy-hungry neighbors, there remains a very real possibility of massively damaging impacts. The collapse of the dam in Laos demonstrates how it is the local communities that have to suffer if things go wrong. Similar to Myanmar, where many of the project agreements stipulate that most of the power produced from dams will go to China or Thailand, 90% of the power produced by the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy hydroelectric project in Laos is to be distributed to Thailand.

These dangers are being warned of and resisted by grassroots movements from the affected communities while being raised consistently by civil society to the Government and the financial backers of such projects, including multilateral development institutions. For example, the Save the Salween Network warned that communities would organize, protest and resist if the Mong Ton Dam Project in Shan State went ahead after learning of the project’s possible resumption. In December 2017, 300 villagers staged a protest to oppose the Naung Pha Dam in Shan State. The Save the Salween Network and BRN also released a statement in 2017 to the private sector arm of the World Bank, the International Finance Corporation, urging them to end plans for hydroelectric power projects in conflict-affected areas. These acts of resistance are widespread and are growing.

The KHRG and KRW report points out that Myanmar does indeed have huge energy needs and this needs to be addressed. As such they make recommendations to strengthen “national frameworks in order to provide greater social and environmental safeguards for rural ethnic communities impacted by hydropower dams.” More broadly, the management of natural resources, including rivers, must be interlinked with the peace process. This is outlined by Burma Environmental Working Group, who propose a “Resource Federalism” that “lays out a road map towards sustainable management of natural resources, an issue integral to solving the decades-long ethnic conflict in Burma.”

The parallels with the tragedy in Laos and Myanmar’s plans for hydroelectric power are obvious and this warning must be heeded. There must be a moratorium on all large-scale development projects in Myanmar, including the proposed dams, until there is a peace settlement based on the principles of ethnic equality and federalism. Furthermore, any such development projects must involve the affected communities in all aspects of planning and implementation, especially in decision-making, including the right not to consent. Otherwise, dams in Myanmar will only serve to further put at risk the conflict-affected communities whose land, livelihood, natural environment and even lives could be destroyed. Such destruction would inevitably have an impact on all other people and communities of Myanmar.

[1] One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.

Resources from the past week


Statements and Press Releases

Now or Never – Is Time Running Out For Rohingya to Get Citizenship?

By Burma Campaign UK

The Burmese Government Must Learn From the Dam Disaster in Laos

By Burma Rivers Network

HURFOM Report Shows Worrying Trend in Sexual Violence Against Children in Mon State and Mon Areas of Southern Burma

By Human Rights Foundation of Monland and Women and Child Rights Project

Victims’ Rights: Human Rights Abuses and The Persecution of Minorities in Northern Myanmar

By Refugees International

ျမန္မာ့တပ္မေတာ္မွ တအာင္းအမ်ဳိးသားလြတ္ေျမာက္ေရးတပ္မေတာ္၏ေဆးမွဴး အမ်ိဳးသမီး(၆)ဦးအား အစုလိုက္အၿပဳံလိုက္ လူသားမဆန္စြာ သတ္ျဖတ္ျခင္းအေပၚ အမ်ဳိးသမီးမ်ား အဖြဲ႕ ခ်ဳပ္ (ျမန္မာနုိင္ငံ)၏ သေဘာထားထုတ္ျပန္ခ်က္

By Women’s League of Burma



Burma Human Rights Guide

By Burma Campaign UK and Human Rights Foundation

Rohingya Citizenship: Now or Never?

By Burma Campaign UK

“A Girl’s Life was Destroyed”: Sexual Violence Against Children Continues to Rise in Mon State and Mon Areas of Southern Burma

By Human Rights Foundation of Monland and Women and Child Rights Project

Still At Risk: Restrictions Endanger Rohingya Women and Girls in Bangladesh

By Refugees International

Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.