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Burma, Emerging from International Isolation, Pursues Major Hydroelectric Plans

What a difference two years makes.

Since Burma’s junta in March 2011 allowed a nominally civilian government led by President Thein Sein, who had previously served as a general and then prime minister under the junta, Western governments and energy companies have been flocking to the previously isolated country. Hillary Clinton made the first visit by a U.S. Secretary of State to Burma, or Myanmar, as the junta relabeled the country, in December 2011 Newly re-elected President Obama followed suit in November 2012, during a brief several hour visit, underlining Burma's return to the world stage.

Prior to the Burmese junta’s relinquishing a modicum of power in the name of “democracy,” the only Western company willing to brave dealing with the junta and worldwide opprobrium was France’s Total, which had been in Burma since 1992, pre-dating international sanctions, operating the Yadana gas field.

Now? According to Minister Than Htay, speaking at the September 2012 2nd Myanmar Oil, Gas and Power conference, “Many multinational petroleum companies including Shell, BP, BG ConocoPhillips, Chevron and many others showed great enthusiasm to invest and keen interest to conduct upstream petroleum exploration in Myanmar’s petroleum sector.”

But the Burmese government has notable energy projects of its own beyond selling the country’s hydrocarbon riches to the highest foreign bidders, most of which involve the construction of massive hydroelectric projects to boost the country’s electrical output.

Late last month, Burma’s Deputy Minister of Electric Power informed Parliament that six dam projects on the Salween River in Shan, Kayah and Karen States had been approved for development. With a combined installed capacity of 15,000 megawatts, the sextet of hydroelectric projects include the Upper Salween or Kunlong dam, the Mai Tong or Tasang dam, the Nong Pha dam, the Mantawng dam, the Ywathit dam and the Hatgyi dam.

Who is going to pay for this massive undertaking? Five Chinese corporations, Thailand’s Electricity Generation Authority of Thailand (EGAT) International Co. Ltd and three Burmese corporations are poised to invest in the scheme.

The Salween River, which originates in the Tibetan Himalayas, flows for 1,740 miles through China’s Yunnan province into Burma and Thailand before emptying into the Andaman Sea. One of the last largely free-flowing rivers in the world and underdeveloped up to now because of its geographical isolation, the Salween River bisects one of Southeast Asia’s richest ecological regions and houses at least 13 indigenous groups including the Nu, Lisu, Shan, Karen, Pa-o, Karenni and Mon.

Well, progress is progress, but democracy is democracy, so some of those indigenous groups are making their feelings known. A scathing new 92-page study from the Karen Human Rights Group, “Losing Ground: Land conflicts and collective action in eastern Myanmar,” released last month, has laid out in grim detail the forced displacement of local people since 2011 by government and non-state actors for the new hydropower dams, military camps, plantations, “model” villages, gold, coal and antimony mines and the notorious Dawei-Kanchanaburi highway.

Related article: The Darker Side of Renewable Energy

Mincing no words, the report noted, “During the reporting period, villagers across six out of seven research areas described development-induced displacement or resettlement as a direct result of natural resource extraction and development projects. Villagers described explicit orders issued by military and civilian government officials for communities to relocate from targeted project areas, such as those to be developed for agri-business, infrastructure development or dams, and said that such orders were frequently accompanied by threats of violence for non-compliance.”


Around the area being developed for the 7,000 megawatt Tasang Dam, known also as the Mai Tong Dam in southern Shan State, since a scorched earth campaign was begun by the Burmese Army, over 300,000 people have been forcibly relocated from their lands including from areas around the planned Tasang project site, with systematic human rights abuses such as torture, killing, and rape committed against civilians by Burmese Army troops.

But business is business. Tasang’s investment will come from Thailand’s EGAT International Co., Ltd., and China’s Three Gorges Corp., with EGAT International Co., Ltd. hold 56.5 percent of the shares, with plans to invest $12 billion.

The only unresolved question left here, which is perhaps churlish to ask, is besides investors, what are the benefits to these projects to the local community? After all, you can’t appreciate a light bulb if you’re dead at worst, displaced at best.

By. John C.K. Daly of Oilprice.com

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