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ERI Calls for Regional Support to Stop Salween River Dam Projects in Burma at the Mekong Region Waters Dialogue

At a recent conference in Laos concerning water governance in the Mekong Region, ERI and other members of the Salween Watch coalition made sure that the human rights and environmental abuses surrounding dam projects on the Salween River in Burma were not easily washed over.

ERI and its partners drew attention to the human rights abuses, ranging from rape to forced labour, by the Burmese military, who support and profit from these projects. ERI also interrogated the role of large international financial institutions in supporting irresponsible development and propping up Burma’s military leaders.

The coalition called for greater regional cooperation to stop the damming of Burmese rivers. Finally, the coalition advanced a positive, feasible alternative: Democratic participation by affected communities, starting with greater transparency on the part of private companies, governments, and international financial institutions.

EarthRights International attended the Mekong Region Waters Dialogue – Exploring Water Futures Together conference held in Laos, July 6-7.  The dialogue brought together a diverse group of over 100 stakeholders from State, civil society, multilateral development banks, NGOs, and businesses operating in all six Mekong countries- Burma, Cambodia, China, Lao PDR, Thailand, and Vietnam.

During the roundtable discussions, ERI and other Salween Watch coalition representatives, discussed the pressing human rights situation in Burma along the Nu/ Salween/ Thanlwin River and emphasized the immediate need for different actors in the region to concerted action to stop the dams before further human rights and environmental abuses take place.

Salween River near the Hat Gyi dam siteDuring roundtable discussions on hydropower development trends in the region and private sector involvement in water development, ERI brought to the table points about the lack of good governance principles relating to the Salween River Dams.  All of the dam projects planned for the Salween fail to meet the standards established by the World Commission on Dams, particularly those related to open and transparent decision-making. To date there has been no environmental impact assessment completed or made publicly available for the dams planned in Burma.  The projects also fail to meet the basic principles of distributive justice, which calls for the fair allocation of resources among diverse members of a community, as well as basic principles of sustainable development, and other rights-based approaches.

A member of the Salween Watch coalition presented during the law and government assessment panel on how preparation for the Salween River dams has already caused suffering for many villagers in Burma and how political and financial support from Thailand and China for dams in this war zone amounts to direct complicity in the Burma Army’s oppression of the peoples of Burma. She also explained the situation regarding the systematic use of rape by the Burmese Army in the Salween River area.

ERI also attended roundtable discussions at the conference discussing the role of the World Bank, Asian Development Bank (ADB), and Mekong River Commission in regional water use and development.  During these sessions ERI raised the issue of the Asian Development Bank’s re-engagement with Burma through the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) program and how it is now providing the military regime with regional technical assistance grants.  In another roundtable discussion on the ADB’s North-South Economic Corridor this question was raised again. 

Some NGO participants raised the issue of the potential of uneven development in the region due to GMS program initiatives that would further marginalize the poor living in the Mekong region.  One former ADB staff explained that theoretically the GMS program would not cause uneven development through providing the metaphor of “In a rising tide, all boats are lifted.”

However, in the case of Burma, this metaphor needs qualification: “In a rising tide, all boats are lifted, unless one does not have a boat to begin with, and then some are likely to drown.” ERI representatives were quick to point out that similar projects in Burma have only benefited a small, well-connected minority, who receive all the profits and employment opportunities, while riverside communities experience greater misery: Forced relocation, loss of livelihood, and human rights abuses. Without transparent governance and greater community participation, there is no reason to think that the new dam projects will depart from this pattern.

Given that Burma is considered a failed state in terms of most political, economic, military, and social indicators, it is highly unlikely that Burma will be able to prevent exploitation from other actors in the region resulting from greater regional connectivity.