The dams on the Salween River in Burma are extremely controversial, due to the ongoing civil war against the ethnic people in the areas where the dams are planned, and the continuing rule of a military junta, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), that denies the most basic rights to the entire population. The dam plans are seen by many as being one of the strategies used by the military regime to gain foreign support and funding for its ongoing war effort. It is also viewed as a strategy to increase and maintain its control over areas of ethnic land after many decades of brutal conflict.

Thailand which has already exploited most of its natural resources and faces environmental destruction due to large dam projects and commercial logging, has been looking to neighbouring countries to meet its energy wants. The government shows little concern about exporting the environmental and social problems, while importing only electricity.

Thailand is already paying US$600 million a year to the SPDC and the multinational oil companies that invested in the Yadana gas pipeline from Burmese offshore gas fields ( see ERI Website ). The revenue from the gas sale is the major source of income for the regime. This money is used directly for military purchases and the expansion of armed forces, which is currently under sanctions from most Western nations. The Salween dams would be by far the biggest investment in Burma. Building even one of the dams would bring in a minimum of 5 billion investment dollars into the country. Although the country faces a major energy crisis, the Salween dams, like the gas pipeline, are not designed to supply electricity throughout Burma but almost exclusively for export.

The SPDC is trying to maintain an illusion of peace following a long process of pressuring and persuading some of the many armed opposition groups to join them in ceasefire agreements. However, the areas where the dams are to be built are precisely where the conflict remains most intense. Despite claims that peace rules in Burma’s ethnic states, the number of refugees flowing into Thailand has not decreased, and the Thai government is not allowing new arrivals to register for refugee assistance with the UNHCR. Since the Thai government aims to rebuild ties with the SPDC, it is keen to repatriate the over 140,000 refugees in border camps. The SPDC would like to see the refugees returned to their control in order to exert pressure on the armed groups, who have many family members among the refugees. Recent Thai orders for refugees to be moved from areas located near the planned dam areas to sites closer to the border show how the Thai government and the Burmese military regime are collaborating.

Thailand’s renewed push to construct the Salween dams emerges from a government that is aggressively promoting economic growth and increased energy consumption. The country currently has approximately a 40% oversupply of electricity, however, it is seeking dams and other energy infrastructure projects in neighbouring countries for its long-term expansion plans. This is based on uncertain demand projections, and without regard to sustainability.

The Salween hydropower projects are also being promoted in the context of a regional electricity support network with neighbouring countries, but it will greatly benefit Thailand as an industrial centre. The Greater Mekong Subregional Development Program, a network of governments supported by the Asian Development Bank, is being used to legitimize and raise funds for harmful development plans such as these.

China’s plans for development of dams on the Upper Salween River have recently come into the spotlight. There are plans for 13 mainstream dams in China alone ( see China plans 13 megadams on the Salween ). There are concerns that China, which has shown little regard for the huge impacts of its giant hydropower and other development projects, may also support the construction of dams on the Salween in Burma. China is already playing a key role in construction of large dams on other rivers in Burma.

Salween Watch considers the megadam plans on the Salween River to be part of an unsustainable development model that will have serious impacts on people’s lives and on the whole environment. The Salween dam projects disregard the well-being and concerns of the local people, and supports an exceptionally oppressive dictatorship in Burma.

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