BANGKOK - A $6 billion hydropower dam planned for a site in Myanmar’s Shan state is drawing fierce opposition from locals who say it will flood an area nearly the size of Singapore, destroying 100 communities.
Ethnic Shan community groups and environmentalists are appealing for help to fight the “Mong Ton” project, one of five actively planned hydropower dams planned along the Salween River.
Some 16 Shan organizations issued a statement in Bangkok this week warning the project could rekindle civil war in an already unstable part of Myanmar by encouraging the government to send in more troops to secure the area.
The proposed 241-meter high dam would produce more than 7,000 megawatts of electricity, nearly all of it for export to China and Thailand.
If completed it would be Myanmar’s largest hydroelectric project and the tallest dam in Asia outside of China or India.
“Not many eyes are on this river basin,” noted Pianporn Deetes, Thailand campaign coordinator for International Rivers, an environmental watchdog group.
Dam Project Involves Australian Firm
The Shan, one of the ethnic groups involved in sporadic civil wars with the Myanmar government for decades, held several protests in April and May in an attempt to halt the environmental and social impact assessment being conducted by a large Australian infrastructure consultancy firm, Snowy Mountains Engineering Corporation (SMEC).
The Shan joint statement calls SMEC’s assessments process “simply a sham, aimed to rubber-stamp the Mong Ton dam plans, rather than objectively assess the project’s actual impacts.”
It alleges SMEC field surveyors last month “angered local villagers by only explaining the positive impacts of the dam, giving them ‘gifts’ which they saw as bribes, and persuading them to sign documents they didn’t understand.”
This allegedly occurred a month after Australian Federal Police raided SMEC International’s headquarters in New South Wales “as part of an investigation into allegations of foreign bribery,” according to an unnamed police spokesperson quoted on April 23 by the Cooma Express newspaper.
Australian investigators have not said whether the alleged wrongdoing involves the project in Myanmar.
Nine days after VOA initially queried SMEC for comment the company responded with a written statement saying that contrary to media reports it "has tried to engage with local Civil Society Organizations on numerous occasions, with limited success. Our EIA/SIA team will continue to present invitations to stakeholder groups to discuss the details of the Project at a mutually convenient time and place."
SMEC explained that if the project proceeds, the hydropower plant will produce more than 34 billion KW hours of electricity annually with generated power first meeting local demands and the surplus to be sold to neighboring countries. The company says these sales will provide money for Myanmar's government "to invest in the local economy."
China, Thailand Back $6 Billion Project
The $6 billion project involves China’s Three Gorges Corporation, the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) and Myanmar’s Ministry of Electric Power and International Group of Entrepreneurs (IGE), which is controlled by the sons of a powerful former industry minister, according to local media reports.
Myanmar, also known as Burma, has long planned to construct a dam in the area. A Japanese company conducted the first feasibility study in 1981. There was a groundbreaking ceremony held in 2007 although little work has been done since.
The dam is expected to take 12 years to build in a part of Myanmar riven by ethnic armies that have long fought against the central government. Shan state also accounts for the majority of Myanmar’s opium poppy cultivation.
Local environmentalists contend Chinese workers connected to the dam project have been in the area for years. Some of the Chinese workers were abducted in May 2011 and later rescued by a Shan army.
Since then, the area has been under heavy guard by thousands of Myanmar government soldiers and police, who sometimes fight with ethnic rebels. The Shan community groups say the security forces restrict access along a 32-kilometer stretch of the Salween, barring anyone not involved with the project.
The area that would be flooded, according to activists, has been largely depopulated since an anti-insurgency campaign in the late 1980’s sent 300,000 Shan villagers fleeing.
“The remaining rural communities continue to suffer from abuses committed with impunity by government troops,” according to the statement issued Tuesday in Bangkok by the Shan groups.
The Salween, one of the longest free-flowing rivers in the world, runs 2,800 kilometers from the mountains of the Tibetan plateau through China, Myanmar and Thailand before emptying into the Andaman Sea.
An additional 12 dams are planned further upstream in China.
Myanmar’s government has not publicly addressed the villager’s complaints, but authorities in the past have praised the Salween dam projects as benefiting the local populations, securing critically-needed electricity for Myanmar and leading to peace.
Critics say the real beneficiaries will be the wealthy elite in Thailand and Myanmar who stand to reap the profits from providing electricity to power the region’s rapid urban growth.