HIMAL Volume 20 • NO 9 September 2007
By George McLeod
With a massive dam being constructed in Burma on one of the region's last major free-flowing rivers, it is not just the environment that is set to suffer.
“People are being tortured and killed on a mass scale,” warns Sai Sai, a member of Burma's Shan ethnic minority, currently living in Thailand as a refugee. “Tens of thousands of people are being forced from their homes at gunpoint, and entire areas made into free-fire zones.” For Sai Sai, who escaped from Burma in 1988 and now runs a human-rights group, the Rangoon government's construction of the Ta Sang dam marks a new level of violence and ethnic cleansing against the Shan. “About 400,000 people have been forced from their homes to make way for the dam,” says Sai Sai. “The Burmese army has orders to shoot on sight anyone entering the depopulated areas.”
Located on the Salween River, the last free-flowing Himalayan river of Burma, Ta Sang will eventually generate an estimated 7100 megawatts of power. Around 90 percent of this will go to Thailand, from where nearly all of the funding is coming. The dam will be massive: almost 750 feet tall, and costing more than USD 6 billion to build; when completed, it will be the largest hydroelectric project in Southeast Asia. For the isolated Burmese junta, Ta Sang will also bring in much-needed hard currency, which many believe will come at the expense of the country's ethnic minorities.
At the moment, not much is known about the Ta Sang project. As with many of the junta's large-scale plans, the construction of the dam is still largely shrouded in secrecy. At present, no one is allowed to visit a large swath of land surrounding the construction site – not foreigners, not journalists, not even the area's locals. The vast majority of what is known has been dug up by a handful of human-rights and environmental organisations, many of which are forced to rely on information provided by the state media and newly fled refugees in Thailand.
The lack of transparency extends right to the junta's own administration: despite the massive place that the Ta Sang project would appear to hold in the country's overall development strategy – as a source of both power and income – the government has released few details on how the dam fits into Burma's larger process of development. Indeed, although some information may be forthcoming from various multilateral lending agencies, a recent report on Burma by the International Monetary Fund dealt extensively with economic issues, but never once mentioned Ta Sang – making it clear that even IMF overseers have little idea as to Rangoon's overall development and energy strategies.
What is understood is the context in which those strategies are being implemented. Ta Sang is being constructed in the long-restive Shan state, where the Shan people, who share a distinct language and culture, have fought for an autonomous homeland since the early 1960s. The Shan State Army, the largest Shan militia group, still controls large areas of the state. According to David Mathieson, with the New York-based Human Rights Watch, clearing the way for the Ta Sang dam has involved large-scale military operations against Shan rebels and civilians. “Dozens of Burmese army battalions were moved into the area. Civilians were forced out of their villages into relocation sites around Burmese army camps, or into government-controlled towns,” he says. “Huge free-fire zones were created in the centre of the state… There are still large areas of Shan state where the Burmese army has a shoot-on-sight policy.”
Human-rights groups say that establishing such free-fire zones often means moving troops into an area to conduct search-and-destroy missions. When rebel units are driven out, the Burmese army carries out reprisals against villagers suspected of providing food or other supplies to militants. Able-bodied villagers are then taken to forced-labour camps, while stragglers are killed, say human-rights groups.
Mark Farmaner, who heads the UK-based Burma Campaign, visited Shan state in May 2007, and witnessed what he called a humanitarian crisis. “I met small children who saw their parents shot or beaten by the regime, and forced labour being used across the state,” he recalled recently. Farmaner also noted that thousands of villagers had been forced into the jungle, or onto mountainsides where they were unable to grow food. “The dam has led to increased human-rights abuses in the area, increased numbers of troops, assassinations and forced labour,” Farmaner warned. “The dam is being used as a weapon of war.”
Junta v Shan
Burma's regime, officially dubbed the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), stands accused as one of the world's worst human-rights abusers. The SPDC took power in a 1962 coup, and was eventually pressured to hold elections in 1990. The pro-democracy National League for Democracy won the elections by an overwhelming margin, but the junta nullified the results and imprisoned the party's leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. She has remained under house arrest nearly ever since.
The SPDC has been especially harsh towards Burma's ethnic minorities, and it stands indicted of perpetrating ethnic-cleansing campaigns against the country's Shan and Karen communities. “The general human-rights situation in Shan state is deplorable,” says Mathieson from Human Rights Watch. “There are two issues. One is human-rights abuses around the dam site, and one is remembering what happened 10 years ago in central Shan state: the largest forced-relocation campaign in modern Burmese history.”
It is difficult to reach the Ta Sang site, or to come by accurate and up-to-date information. A Thailand-based pressure group named Salween Watch reports that surveyors have already arrived in the area, and that construction is to be accelerated during the coming dry season. But according to Sai Sai, it is not just surveyors who have undertaken preliminary preparations; the Burmese army has already militarised the area. “Conditions have gotten much worse for the Shan,” he says. “People are not being allowed to live in their homeland.”
More than 500 refugees have reportedly been driven into Thailand during fierce fighting between the Shan State Army and the Burmese army as a direct result of the Ta Sang project. But unlike other ethnic minorities, as a matter of course the Shan do not receive refugee status when they arrive in Thailand – a fact that, in the past, some have put down to Thai fears of inundation. Instead, many Shan are sent back to Burma, where they are persecuted; tens of thousands more live and work illegally in Thailand. With the Ta Sang project ongoing, this number is expected to increase dramatically in the coming months.
Decades of erratic planning and economic isolation have left Burma debt-ridden and impoverished, its infrastructure in shambles. Burma's largest city, Rangoon, faces constant blackouts; for any visitor to the city, the effects of international economic sanctions are readily apparent. Many residents are reduced to selling pillaged spare parts and scraps.
A leaked report by the International Monetary Fund paints a bleak picture of the Burmese economy. Entitled “Staff Report for the 2006 Article IV Consultation”, the paper was never made public, possibly because its findings would have deeply embarrassed the junta. The Burma Campaign says most of Burma's government revenue is already spent on the country's 400,000-strong military. As if to highlight the bizarre mismanagement the junta has subjected the country to over the years, the IMF report notes that last year alone, the generals spent up to two percent of the national GDP on the absurd task of moving the administrative capital to the northern jungle town of Nay Pyi Taw. On the back of decisions such as these, Burma's debt totals 75 percent of the GDP, or greater than 13 times government revenue.
Burma's economic troubles were further exacerbated by sanctions the US imposed on it in 2003, which added to the stress created by restrictions long in place by the European Union. The deplorable state of the economy means that electricity is critical for the country, says David Steinberg, director of the Asian Studies programme at Georgetown University. While it is true that the money being spent on Ta Sang could be better spent on social programmes, and that human rights have not been respected, Steinberg says, “The supply of electricity to Burma is absolutely vital. Whatever factories are there can only operate four or eight hours per day – it isn't reliable. So why would you invest, even if there weren't sanctions?”
Indeed, Ta Sang is invigorating a debate over the current trade sanctions on Burma. On one side are NGOs such as the Burma Campaign, which believes that sanctions should be strengthened until democracy is restored. On the other side are an increasing number of academics and other observers, who believe that the sanctions are failing and should be abandoned. Burma's neighbours, particularly those involved in the current and planned dam projects on the Salween River, have been conspicuously quiet in this debate.
Even as the West has tightened economic restrictions on Burma, Steinberg points out, Asian countries have stepped in to take their place. Thailand's MDX group and China's Sinohydro Corporation are backing the Ta Sang dam, as well as four smaller dam projects on the Salween. China had originally planned to build a large dam on its own portion of the Salween River, but government officials cancelled the project in 2004 following an environmental-impact study. Beijing has since kept the results of that study secret. According to Pianporn Deetes, from Salween Watch, the Chinese are now merely exporting an environmental disaster across the international frontier.
Regardless of how Burma's neighbours have reacted, David Steinberg says that the West's sanctions approach has been faulty from the start. “When you pressure the [Burmese] government in this very public way, the only response that the government will give is to stand up to you. So why put them in that position?” he asks. “You have to pressure them, but the pressure has to be such that there is a graceful way out, so that they can give into the pressure without looking like they're giving in.”
Chinese, Indian, Russian and French companies are now investing heavily in Burma's energy sector, which also features some of the world's largest gas reserves. New Delhi's state oil companies were desperately seeking access to these reserves, until the tide seemed to turn in favour of Beijing earlier this year. Even Bangladesh is competing for access to Burma's reserves; after a string of attempts to import hydropower from Bhutan through Indian territory, Dhaka's interim administration sent a delegation to Burma in May 2007.
But the stepping up of Burmese ties with the surrounding neighbours only highlights the need for more pressure against the junta, says the Burma Campaign's Mark Farmaner. “The idea of the sanctions was to weaken it – to put pressure on it and to give the National League for Democracy a bargaining chip,” he points out. “They were never intended to bring the regime down. Every dollar less that the Burmese government has is a dollar that it doesn't have to spend on its war against ethnic minorities.” If sanctions are no longer effective in keeping money out of the junta's hands, there is clearly a need to find other methods.
Activists warn that construction of the Ta Sang dam will have immediate ramifications for the Salween's unique biosphere, both ecological and human. Beginning in Tibet, the 1700-mile-long Salween River stretches through Yunnan, Burma and parts of Thailand, before eventually emptying in the Andaman Sea. It is one of the 30 percent of the world's major rivers that remains free from dams. During its varied course, the river winds through areas of pristine wilderness that are sanctuary to a multitude of species. Activists are now warning that Ta Sang, Burma's first major dam, could be disastrous to the country's unique ecosystem as a whole. Burma has some of the world's last old-growth tropical forests, many of which are sustained by the Salween. The WWF says that the river supports 92 amphibian and 143 fish species, of which 47 are found nowhere else in the world. Part of the Salween was designated a World Heritage Site in 2003, and a 2007 World Wildlife Fund (WWF) report identified the waterway as one of the world's ten most vulnerable rivers.
The main threat to the environment would come from the river's transformation from a fast-flowing river to a sluggish river, thereby changing the ecology along the river valley. This, according to Salween Watch, will severely threaten fish breeding grounds and the unique wildlife of the river basin, which in turn will impact other life. The environmental group warns that the river could be “changed into a deep, slow/still moving water system …Decaying organic matter can [lead] to algae blooms, further oxygen depletion, and massive fish kills. When this happens, the water from dam reservoirs and directly downstream is often unfit for human and animal consumption for years after the project is completed.”
“This is especially troubling when we consider that there are so many alternatives for small-scale electricity generation,” says Pianporn Deetes, from Salween Watch. A report by the organisation says that instead of building mega-projects such as Ta Sang, Rangoon should be promoting decentralised, small-scale energy production. “Power from sugarcane, natural gas, solar and wind energy, agricultural waste and micro-hydropower plants are all examples of alternative methods for obtaining energy,” says Deetes. “Burma really doesn't need this dam.”
It is currently the upstream communities whose members are being persecuted, tortured, exiled and killed in preparation for the Ta Sang dam. Once the dam is completed, however, its repercussions will be felt throughout the country – as the energy begins to flow, as the money begins to flow, and as the Salween River slows down significantly.