Flow-on effect for Burma

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Sydney Morning Herald 5 November 2007

By Connie Levett

THE politics of water has helped the Burmese military ride out an international backlash to its repression of protesting monks, by tempering criticism from two important neighbours, China and Thailand.

The two countries are heavily involved in developing hydro-electricity schemes on two of Burma's biggest rivers, the Irrawaddy and the Salween.

Milton Osborne, a visiting fellow at the Lowy Institute who specialises in South-East Asian water politics, said the Thai Government was "relying on dams built on the Salween to fulfil Thailand's increasingly voracious need for power".

China's vested interest in water in Burma is highlighted in a new report by the Kachin Development Network Group, a non-government organisation. It says work has started on the first of seven Chinese-built hydro dams on the Irrawaddy.

"The dam will generate 3600 megawatts of electricity, most of which will be transmitted back to China," the report says.

It estimates 10,000 people will be displaced in northern Kachin state to make way for the dam. On the Salween, Thai and Chinese contractors have begun work on a dam at Ta Shan and are due to start construction on a second in December. Three more are planned.

China and Burma have a complicated relationship, Dr Osborne told a Lowy Institute briefing. "People describe Burma as almost a client state but that is misleading," he said.

While China was Burma's biggest arms supplier, Burma's waterways and road network offers China access to the Bay of Bengal, providing a potential alternative shipping route to the Strait of Malacca - the crowded waterway between Malaysia and Indonesia.

"Nothing of what has happened in Burma looks likely to affect China's relationship with Burma," he said.

While the Burmese hydro projects are receiving political attention because of the recent crackdown, Dr Osborne said water politics is playing out across the region, particularly around the 4800-kilometre-long Mekong River, to China's benefit.

"So you have the Mekong paradox, where the countries downstream, Vietnam and Cambodia, don't complain."

The Worldwide Fund for Nature has named the Salween and the Mekong in its top 10 global list of rivers at risk.