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Hydropower Dams Fuelling Conflict in Burma

Recent fighting near the Dapein and Shweli hydropower dams in northern Burma shows how the buildup of Burma Army troops to secure deeply unpopular Chinese dam projects is fuelling conflict.

Fighting broke out between the Burma Army and the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) last week at the Dapein No. 1 and 2 dams, which are being constructed by China’s state-owned Datang Company, breaking a 17-year ceasefire. Scores of people have died and 2,000 refugees have fled to the China border. Burma Army had brought in hundreds of troops to secure the Dapein dams located near strategic KIO military bases. Fighting has now spread and clashes broke out yesterday near the Shweli 1 Dam in northern Shan State.

In Kachin State alone, nine giant dams are being planned or constructed by Chinese companies, including Myitsone, the first dam on Burma’s lifeline, the Irrawaddy River. The fighting at the Dapein dams follows a recent public warning letter by the Kachin Independence Organization to China’s government that civil war may break out if construction of the Myitsone Dam proceeds. Repeated appeals from various sectors of society to halt the Myitsone Dam have been ignored.

Mega dams in Burma have severe negative social, economic and environmental impacts while the majority of electricity generated is exported to neighboring countries or used by the military. Most of the dams are located in ethnic states and allow the expansion of Burma Army control into these areas.

Last week Light Infantry Battalion 423 of the Burma Army was brought in to secure the Ywathit Dam site in Karenni State where a series of dams are also planned by China’s Datang on the Salween River and its tributaries. The Karenni armed resistance is active near the site and in December 2010 attacked a convoy of trucks transporting equipment to the dam.

In war torn Shan State, offensives against the Shan State Army-North near the Nong Pha Dam Site on the Salween River have caused thousands of people to flee their homes over the last three months. Last month, four Chinese dam technicians disappeared from the Tasang Dam site on the Salween. The Burma Army brought three battalions to the area to search for the technicians and provide additional security.

“The root causes of social conflict in Burma have not been addressed and despite the formation of a new government, the country is still under the mismanagement of a military regime” said Sai Sai, coordinator of the Burma Rivers Network. “These mega dams are fuelling further conflict, not benefitting the people of Burma.”