Hydropower Dams Fuelling Conflict in Burma

Chinese hydropower projects have been accused of exacerbating violent unrest in Burma. The dams in question are being built by Chinese companies with Chinese funding, and are intended to produce electricity in large part for export back to China. From Jonathan Watts in The Guardian:

Dozens of people in northern Burma have reportedly been killed in the clashes between government troops and the Kachin Independence Army. Thousands more are trying to flee across the border after fierce fighting erupted this month around the construction sites of two Chinese-financed dams in the region.

Amid growing fears that the conflict could escalate, the Burma Rivers Network said China’s massive hydropower investments had widened the gulf between the government – which wants to benefit from cross-border electricity sales – and Kachin independence groups, which fear the dams will bring environmental, cultural and social disruption.

“The conflict is closely related to the dams. The government has sent in troops because it wants to gain control of a region that hosts major Chinese investments in hydropower,” Sai Sai, of the Burma Rivers Network, told the Guardian ….

Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, China adviser at International Crisis Group, said: “Hydropower projects in Myanmar are fostering strong popular resentment due to their unequal benefit distribution and lack of transparency, as well as environmental damage and forced displacement of communities.

“Without addressing the negative impact of its companies China risks recurring instability on its border with Myanmar.”

The Burma Rivers Network provides more details:

Fighting broke out between the Burma Army and the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) last week at the Dapein No. 1 and 2 dams, which are being constructed by China’s state-owned Datang Company, breaking a 17-year ceasefire. Scores of people have died and 2,000 refugees have fled to the China border. Burma Army had brought in hundreds of troops to secure the Dapein dams located near strategic KIO military bases. Fighting has now spread and clashes broke out yesterday near the Shweli 1 Dam in northern Shan State ….

Last week Light Infantry Battalion 423 of the Burma Army was brought in to secure the Ywathit Dam site in Karenni State where a series of dams are also planned by China’s Datang on the Salween River and its tributaries. The Karenni armed resistance is active near the site and in December 2010 attacked a convoy of trucks transporting equipment to the dam.

In war torn Shan State, offensives against the Shan State Army-North near the Nong Pha Dam Site on the Salween River have caused thousands of people to flee their homes over the last three months. Last month, four Chinese dam technicians disappeared from the Tasang Dam site on the Salween. The Burma Army brought three battalions to the area to search for the technicians and provide additional security.

Reuters reports, however, that 28 other Chinese dam workers are being held by the government itself. Their safety is a high priority for Beijing, whose eagerness to be seen to protect its citizens abroad was demonstrated by the swift evacuation of over 30,000 Chinese nationals from Libya in February. Also from Reuters:

Aung Naing Oo, a Myanmar analyst and deputy head of the Thailand-based Vahu Development Institute, said the next few weeks would be crucial in determining if the clashes were about the dams or the broader conflict.

“The main issue here appears to be the security of these dams. All the stakeholders involved, the government, the Chinese, the Kachin — they have interests to protect,” Aung Naing Oo said.

“Low-level fighting has been going on for a year now and it’s only logical that at some point there would be a crisis. All that was needed was a little spark, a catalyst.”

See also reports of protests against Chinese dams by Burmese minorities, and an Economist feature on the Sino-Burmese border, both from late last year, via CDT.

June 16, 2011 8:41 PM
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