Mekong Utility Watch

Thais buy into Shan rebel power play

South China Morning Post
December 21, 1998

A Thai dam builder has asked tribal Shan rebels in the Golden Triangle war zone if it can build a hydroelectric barrage across the Salween River. The Shan States Army has already given the developer, MDX, permission to survey the area, Shan sources say.

The moves will increase suspicions that one of the reasons Rangoon is so determined to crush the rebels is to gain a free hand to exploit the area’s natural resources.

The Burmese army has thrown hundreds of troops into the area in an attempt to knock out a faction of the Shan States Army that has been demanding autonomy. A third of a million people have been thrown off their land and hundreds killed.

Both Thailand and enterprises in the Chinese province of Yunnan have previously shown a keen interest in developing the Shan state’s hydroelectric potential.

Such enthusiasm has alarmed environmentalists, who have pointed out that the authoritarian Burmese Government is hardly likely to bother itself much with the impact on the environment.

Thailand signed a memorandum of understanding with Burma in mid-1997 to take 1,500 megawatts of hydroelectric power by 2010.

Burma’s ethnic rebels have a long history of squeezing taxes from Thai entrepreneurs logging and trading across the border. But although the money might be tempting, the risk is that the guerillas will find themselves in the same position as the Mon in Burma’s southern panhandle, Tennasarim.

The New Mon State Party agreed — under pressure — to allow an international consortium to build a controversial offshore gas pipeline across its territory. The deal allowed the Burmese army to flood the area with troops, effectively killing off lingering Mon resistance.

“The cash might look good, but the cost may be what hard-won liberty you have left,” one Shan exile said.

MDX, Ital-Thai and Japan’s Marubeni have teamed up to examine the hydroelectric potential of Burma.

But the biggest obstacle to the construction of any infrastructure project in the country is more likely to be the Asian economic crisis — which has seen demand for electricity slump — than any guerilla group.

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