Burma: Dams feed ethnic conflict

‘The soldiers came to my house and said, “Starting now you cannot grow on the farms near the river,” and I asked him back: “Why?” He gave the reason that they will build the dam in that area. They confiscated the land from my farm, it was about 18 acres.’  Molo villager facing eviction.

On 30 September 2011, President Thein Sein announced an indefinite halt to construction of the 6000-megawatt Myitsone dam, on the Irrawaddy River in Kachin state, saying that public opposition to the Chinese-funded dam was overwhelming.

Perhaps the game has changed since the military rulers stepped into their civilian roles. But many remain sceptical. ‘We do not trust what the President has said about suspending the Myitsone dam,’ said a local affected by the dam, ‘we can see the workers and dam construction machines still at the site.’ For local communities, the stakes are high. The dam will displace around 15,000 people, mainly ethnic Kachin who revere Myitsone as the birthplace of their culture.

Currently, the Myitsone dam has only been halted until 2016, when Thein Sein’s term in office ends. But even if it is permanently shelved, it is only one of 48 dams currently in various stages of development in Burma. Twenty-five of these are ‘mega-dams’, with a capacity comparable to the Myitsone.

Most of the large dams are located in ethnic minority areas and many are in conflict zones. The fighting that broke a 17-year ceasefire with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in June was exacerbated by tensions over Chinese companies surveying future dam sites.

Ninety per cent of the power from these dam projects will be exported to Burma’s neighbours. Chinese companies are involved in many of the projects, but Burma has also signed agreements with Thailand, Bangladesh and India. The dams are expected to bring revenues of US$4 billion for the Burmese government. But according to Sai Sai of the Burma Rivers Network, the dams will not improve the lives of Burma’s ethnic nationals: ‘These mega-dams are fuelling further conflict, not benefiting the people of Burma,’ he said.

Loss of land, loss of life

The dams are proceeding without any proper consultation with ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples, and, for the indigenous communities, without their free, prior and informed consent. Compensation for their loss of land and livelihoods has been inadequate. In Karenni State, power plant-related development and militarization of the area saw 114 villages flooded; 12,000 people displaced; an estimated 18,000 landmines planted; local communities subjected to forced labour, sexual violence and extra-judicial killings; and prioritized water scheduling leading to crop destruction. Eighty per cent of the local population still has no access to electricity.

For years, the Burmese government has used anti-insurgency military operations to clear areas for dam projects. In 1996, for example, fighting in central Shan State led to the displacement of nearly 60,000 people, clearing the area for the Tasang dam on the Salween River. Since 2005, some 25,000 people in Karenni State have been forced by military offensives away from the Weigyi and Hatgyi dam sites.

More recently, in the case of the Shweli dams in Karenni State, villagers were ordered off their land by the military, given a three-year ‘grace’ period, with some small compensation. ‘The Government said it will give half the worth of land and property as compensation, but I absolutely do not believe that they will,’ one man from the Molo village said.

The very existence of some communities is under threat. The Weigyi dam on the Salween River will submerge the ancestral lands, cultural sites and means of livelihood of Yin Ta Lai people, of whom only 1,000 remain.

If the new Burma government is serious about heeding the voice of the people, it should halt all dam projects in conflict zones. Consultations prioritizing the protection of minority and indigenous peoples’ rights, coupled with the development and implementation of environmental policy and law (including land policy) based on international standards, is the only way any of these dams should proceed. Otherwise the dams could spell disaster for the affected communities. 

‘I have grown up in this village since I was born by drinking the water from the Shweli River. My livelihood is fishing which is related directly to this river. After we leave we do not know what we will do for our livelihoods or how to earn money to survive.' said a Molo villager facing eviction.

Nicole Girard

Photo: Tang Hpre. Creditr: Rebecca W.


For more information, look out for MRG's State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012 report (published 28 June).

No Associated files

Date: 19/06/2012




State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012
Culture and Tradition
Indigenous Peoples
Land Rights

Press Contact Information

Name: Sai Sai

Telephone: +66(0) 897 557 354

This website has been produced with the financial assistance of the European Union.
The contents of this website are the sole responsibility of Minority Rights Group International and can under no circumstances be regarded as reflecting the position of the European Union