Mekong Utility Watch

Hydro-powering the regime

June 30, 2004

Burma’s government has initiated a massive dam-building program. Yuki Akimoto, co-ordinator of the Burma Information Network-Japan, explores the potential ramifications.


The military junta that rules Burma, the State Peace and Development Council, or SPDC, has a strong predilection for hydro-power plants. Council chairman, Sr-Gen Than Shwe, who hails from Kyaukse, through which the Zawgyi River flows, is widely rumored to believe himself a reincarnation of King Anawrahta (r. 1044-1077). The long-dead Pagan-era monarch was a prolific dam- and canal-builder, particularly along the
Zawgyi, where he supervised the building of a series of weirs and canals to atone for killing his foster-brother Sokka-te.

Ancient kings were not required to rationalize their decisions. Nowadays the justification for damming rivers is electricity generation. The New Light of Myanmar reported on April 28 this year that Than Shwe addressed the National Electric Power Development Coordination Meeting and called for more dams (the generals regularly call for more dams and other projects as part of their “national development” effort).

Burma’s potential capacity for hydro-power is great, and the ruling generals know it. Burma’s major rivers run roughly north-south: the Irrawaddy, the Chindwin (chief tributary of the Irrawaddy), the Sittang and the Salween, the longest undammed river in Southeast Asia. For generations they have served as a lifeline to the country, used for
irrigation, rice cultivation, communication and transport. In recent years Burma’s extensive river system has been targeted for another use: large-scale hydro-power.

Although plans for dam construction on the Salween River have attracted the most attention among Burma-watchers, similar planning is underway throughout the country’s vast river network.

Hydro-power accounts for about one-third of Burma’s electricity production. At least four major hydro-power plants started operating in the last decade: Zawgyi No1 (commissioned in July 1995) and Zawgyi No 2 (commissioned in March 2000)-both in Shan State; Zaungtu (commissioned in March 2000) in Pegu Division; and Thaphanseik in Sagaing Division (commissioned in June 2002). Collectively, these plants generate 80MW of
electricity, about one-fifth of Burma’s hydro-power production. Large dams service all of these plants: Zawgyi Dam is 44.2 meters high;
Zaungtu Dam is 44.8 meters high and Thapanseik Dam is 32.9 meters high. Burma’s total installed capacity is about 1,200MW, only 400MW of which is from hydro-power. Sources such as Burma’s Ministry of Electric Power and the New Light of Myanmar indicate that the SPDC would like to build several dozen additional hydro-power projects in the future that would add over 25,000MW of capacity. Many of these projects would involve large dams.

Rush to Dam

Burma’s interest in hydro-power is driven both by the desire to export and domestic demand. With even Rangoon subject to daily blackouts, the need for domestic power is clear.

Many ongoing or planned hydro-power projects whose electricity is slated for domestic use are located in central areas of Burma-mostly between Rangoon and Mandalay. For example, there are a number of dams being built-or in planning-on the Sittang River and its many tributaries. The sites include Khabaung, Pyu, Kun, Bogata, Yenwe, Thaukyegat and Shwe Gin, with the potential capacity of each site ranging from about 20MW to
160MW and the dams about 52 meters to 77 meters high.

Further upstream on another tributary of the Sittang is the Paunglaung Dam, which reportedly is near completion at 131 meters high with an estimated capacity of 280MW. The regime plans to implement two more projects nearby-Upper Paunglaung and Nancho.

Construction is proceeding at Yeywa Dam just southeast of Mandalay, also planned to be over 130 meters high with an installed capacity of 780MW.

Concerns have been raised about the displacement of local residents, as well as the prospective submersion of an ancient Buddhist temple in the area. But the scale of the dams in central Burma is fairly modest when compared with planned hydro-electricity developments on the country’s borders.

The sale of electricity to neighboring countries is as important to the regime as is securing domestic power supply. The regime will get hard currency, while bordering countries will get cheap electricity free from the headache of dealing with the public debate and protests that would occur if the power projects were built at home.

Burma and Thailand are making plans to jointly develop hydro-power plants on the Salween River, which runs through eastern Shan State in Burma, and along the Thai-Burmese border. The power is to be exported to Thailand. In the early 1990s, about ten potential sites were identified through preliminary studies that were commissioned by energy authorities in Thailand and Burma and conducted by Japan’s Electric Power
Development Company, or EPDC.

A feasibility study is underway for the development of two of these sites, Weigyi and Dagwin. Estimates indicate that these two export-oriented projects will, if completed, have generating capacities of 4,540MW and 792MW, with dams 168 meters and 49 meters high,

In 1997, the two governments signed a Memorandum of Understanding, or MOU, under which Thailand agreed to encourage the purchase of up to 1,500MW of electricity from Burma, including hydro-generated power, by 2010. There also are reports that progress is being made with respect to a hydro-power project for export at Tasang in Shan State, which would involve a 168 to 180-meter high dam and potential generation capacity of
3,300-3,600MW (recently SPDC capacity estimates for this project jumped to 7,110MW).

Japan’s EPDC has already conducted a feasibility study at the Tasang site. In December 2002 an MOU purportedly on the project was exchanged between the military regime and MDX, a Thai company. The content of the MOU has not been made public, however, and the exact status of the Tasang project is unclear.

In western Burma, just inside the Indo-Burmese border, runs the Chindwin River, where several potential dam sites have been identified that are likely to service export-oriented hydro-power plants. The sites include Thamanthi, Mawlaik, Homalin, and Shwezaye.

The Price to Pay

The World Commission on Dams has found that large dams can cause irreversible harm to the environment-tens of millions of people have been displaced around the world because of dams. It also found that large dams built to deliver hydro-power tend to perform below
expectations. Some developed countries have simply stopped building large dams and have started decommissioning existing ones, while looking into alternative options for generating and saving energy. In developing countries, too, plans to build large dams are often met with strong opposition.

But Burma’s regime seems determined to repeat the mistakes of its neighbors, which have prioritized investment in large-scale energy supplies regardless of the consequences.

The political and social conditions in Burma compound the negative impact common to large dam projects in developing countries. Burma has all the factors needed to bring about the worst-case scenario. The country lacks a sound socio-economic infrastructure, the rule of law and mechanisms for public participation. Burma’s environmental regulations
are weak, and those that exist are not enforced effectively. And then there is the military: in Burma, development projects typically involve an increase in the military presence in the targeted area, which leads to greater human rights abuses.

Sites are identified and studied without consultation with surrounding communities, troops are brought in to “secure” the area, people are ordered to move at gunpoint, then villagers are taken as forced unpaid laborers. Burma has a tradition in this regard. The building of
Baluchaung No 2 hydro-power plant in Karenni State, which was completed in 1960, led to the forced relocation of local residents. Today the area is surrounded by landmines. Dam projects since have entailed the displacement of local residents.

The International Labour Organization reported that villagers were required to contribute labor to the Zawgyi Dam. Human rights abuses and environmental damage have been linked to projects along the Sittang, and forced labor has been reported in connection with dam construction at Shwe Gin.

Forced labor also has been documented at the dam project at Thaukyegat, which is likely to result in the forced relocation of residents in the area of its reservoir. More recently, independent Burmese media reported that four villages were ordered to be relocated and villagers’ land confiscated to make way for a dam on Paday Creek, a tributary of the

Given the difficulties in obtaining detailed, reliable information about such abuses in a secretive, authoritarian state like Burma, these few documented cases may be only the tip of the iceberg. Serious concerns have been raised about the well-being of the environment and local residents near the projects on the Salween. The prospective dam at Tasang, for example, would mean the flooding of the gorge for 230 km upstream. There are reports that soldiers guarding the Tasang site forced local residents to porter and build military

The Chiang Mai-based Kachin Post reported in June 2004 that if the  planned Myitsone, Kachin State hydro-project is built, “5,000 houses from 30 villages will be sunk and 8,000 people will become homeless.” Additionally, 18,000 arable acres, forests and natural resources will be submerged. The dam will destroy the Mali-M’mai confluence, which is
regarded as the Kachin cultural heartland.

Financing the Dammed

Although the Burmese government currently does not receive any public multilateral development financing for hydro-power development, it has found other sources of funding, especially from Asian countries. In the absence of multilateral financing, bilateral assistance from Japan and China and investment by private companies from Japan, China, and Thailand have supported the regime’s efforts to build large dams.

In 2002 the Japanese government promised to rehabilitate Baluchaung No 2 hydro-power plant through its Official Development Assistance. This plant accounts for a large part of Burma’s installed hydro-power capacity. Japan has shown a particular commitment to developing hydro-power in Burma, and a number of prospective dam sites have been
identified and studied by Japanese government agencies and companies.

Apart from the EPDC, mentioned above, other Japanese firms have been involved with studies relating to potential dam sites on the Salween and elsewhere.

In August 2001, the Kansai Electric Power Company, or KEPCO, contracted with Burma to provide technical assistance for developing 12 hydro-power plants, including at least five sites on the Sittang-Yenwe, Khabaung, Pyu, Bogata and Shwe Gin. In its FY2003 business plan, KEPCO stated that it was negotiating with Burma about conducting feasibility studies for additional projects. The firm’s involvement in the Shwesaryay and Myitsone projects has been reported within the last year.

Moreover, between 1980 and 2000, Nippon Koei Co conducted pre-feasibility or feasibility studies for sites at Yeywa, Tasang, and Yenwe. In 2000-2001, Tokyo Electric Power Services Company, or TEPSCO, a subsidiary of Japan’s largest private electricity firm, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, conducted a feasibility study of the Shweli hydro-power project in Shan State. If and when Japanese ODA to Burma is fully resumed, Japanese companies will be well positioned to begin helping the regime with large-scale dam construction.

China is also a major player in promoting Rangoon’s hydro-power development. China’s Export-Import Bank has provided financing for at least three hydro-power projects-Thapanseik, Mon Creek, and Paunglaung-and has expressed an interest in the Salween Hydro-power Project. It also has been reported that loans from China will be used to
buy equipment for the Yeywa project.

Chinese companies such as China International Trust and Investment Corporation, or CITIC, and Yunnan Machinery and Equipment Import and Export Corporation, or YMEC, have been involved in the development of many hydro-power projects, including Mone Creek in Magwe Division, Shweli, Zawgyi No 1, Zaungthu, Thapanseik, and Paunglaung. It also has been reported that China National Machinery and Equipment Import and
Export Corporation, the same company that has been involved in building China’s Three Gorges Dam, has expressed an interest in working on the Weigyi and Dagwin projects.

Thailand has been working on the Weigyi and Dagwin projects on the Thai-Burmese border. The Myanmar Times recently reported that the Burmese government intends to establish two hydro-power plants to supply electricity to the industrial zones near Hpa-an and Myeik that are planned to be developed under Thailand’s Economic Cooperation Strategy, or ECS. For dam sites on the Chindwin River along the Indo-Burmese
border, the regime is reportedly looking for assistance from Indian companies.

It also bears mentioning that the Asian Development Bank, or ADB, to which Japan is one of the largest financial contributors, includes the controversial Tasang site in its “Master Plan” for regional power interconnectivity, under which electricity generated by  hydro-power plants in Burma, China and Laos will be consumed by Thailand and
Vietnam. While not providing direct financial assistance to Burma because of the current political situation, the ADB, like the Japanese government, may be waiting for what it believes will be a more propitious time to begin assisting the regime to develop large-scale
hydro-power projects.


Rangoon has been able to secure funding for the development of large-scale hydro-power in Burma, so the construction of major dams has been proceeding at an accelerated pace. If the regime’s ambitions are even partly achieved, many large dams will be built in coming years-and not just on the Salween, but on the Irrawaddy, Sittang and Chindwin rivers.

The lack of meaningful public participation in development decisions and widespread human rights abuses inflicted by Burma’s military are likely to increase the ecological and social problems commonly associated with large dams built in developing countries, while revenues from electricity exports will bolster the incumbent regime.

Yuki Akimoto is a co-ordinator of the Burma Information Network-Japan. She is also editor of a forthcoming report: “Tragedy of the Two Lands: Damming the Last Free River in Southeast Asia.”

Categories: Mekong Utility Watch

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