Thai hunger for cheap energy throws lifeline to Myanmar

Key Issues: 

AFP 2 July 2006

Searching for cheap energy, Thailand has clinched controversial hydropower deals with neighboring Myanmar and thrown the impoverished military-ruled state an economic lifeline.

Myanmar, one of the world‘s poorest nations, is under a series of US and European economic sanctions imposed over the junta‘s human rights abuses and the house arrest of 61-year-old democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

But their effect has been weakened because neighboring China, India and Thailand are spending billions of dollars for a share of Myanmar‘s vast energy resources to solve their fuel problems at home.

Thai energy firm MDX Group and the junta in April agreed on a six-billion-dollar hydropower project to build a dam on the Salween River, the longest undammed river in Southeast Asia.

The Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT), the kingdom‘s biggest state company, also plans to build a hydropower dam worth one billion dollars on the river, which runs along Myanmar‘s eastern border to Thailand.

"Hydropower is cheaper than oil and natural gas. After the construction of dams, we don‘t have to pay costs for fuel. It‘s water. It‘s free," said an EGAT official involved in the project.

EGAT said the dam project was part of its efforts to diversify Thailand‘s energy resources. Over 70 percent of its electricity currently comes from natural gas, most of which is imported.

"It‘s too much right now. We cannot just depend on natural gas for our energy. We must diversify our energy resources as demand for electricity keeps rising," said the official, who declined to be named.

EGAT said it would team up with the China Sinohydro Corp., the biggest water conservancy and hydropower company in China, for the Myanmar project and they aimed to finish a feasibility study by early next year.

MDX said its dam, the biggest in Myanmar, would be ready in 2012, with electricity capacity to be upgraded to 7,000 megawatts later.

Thailand will receive 85 percent of the electricity from the MDX hydropower dam, with the rest going to Myanmar. EGAT said it would likely get some 60 percent of electricity from its dam.

But the projects have sparked opposition from environmentalists who argue such dams could destroy the ecological system of the Salween River, home to 7,000 species of plants and 80 rare or endangered animals and fish.

"The Salween River is one of the most pristine and unique rivers in Southeast Asia. If they build dams, it‘s going to be a huge ecological impact on the river," said Thai Greenpeace activist Tara Buakamsri.

The dam plans have also raised fears that the junta, which is accused of violating human rights and using forced labor, would use the projects as an excuse to forcibly displace ethnic minorities living around the river.

Rising in Tibet, the 2,800-kilometer (1,700-mile) river runs through Myanmar‘s restive eastern states of Shan and Karen before reaching the Andaman Sea.

The site for EGAT‘s dam is Hatgyi in Karen state, where the military government in February launched a bloody offensive against ethnic Karen rebels.

The area is littered with landmines, and an EGAT employee was killed in May after stepping on one while conducting the feasibility study in Hatgyi.

MDX‘s site for a hydropower dam is located in Shan state, where ethnic Shan rebels also battle the military.

According to Amnesty International‘s latest report on Myanmar, the government continued to displace hundreds of thousands of ethnic minorities, including Karen and Shan, from their homes as counter-insurgency measures.

Paul Sein Twa, a Karen activist from anti-dam group Karen River Watch, said the junta would use the hydropower projects for strategic purposes against ethnic minorities living along the river.

"If they build dams, they not only get huge incomes but also suppress ethnic groups," he said. "The projects only benefit the military government and the Thai companies. Not us."

An MDX official said some villagers had to be relocated for the dam project but the company would push for their resettlement "under international standards."

The official also rejected concern over the environment and human rights violation against ethnic minorities.

"What kind of damage? We are doing our best. Besides, Myanmar needs electricity and we are cooperating with them," he said. - AFP