Burmese villagers say they are being misled on Tasang Dam project
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Burmese villagers say they are being misled on Tasang Dam project

Local people and civil society organisations (CSOs) in Burma (Myanmar) are demanding a halt to the building of a dam in southern Shan State, accusing the Australian company hired to do impact assessments of bribery and malpractice.

The planned Tasang Dam in Mong Ton Township on the Upper Salween River will be the largest of seven dams planned for the Salween River in Burma.

At 228 metres it will be the highest dam in Southeast Asia. At 262 square miles (678 km²), the dams floodplain will cover almost the same area as Singapore. It will stretch almost to the Chinese border, nearly two-thirds the length of Shan State, dissecting much of the state into two parts.

The Australian Snowy Mountains Engineering Corporation (SMEC) was hired to carry out social and environmental impact assessments (SIAs and EIAs) for the project.

The way the impact assessments were carried out has angered locals.

Villagers told S.H.A.N. News reporters that SMEC employees carrying out the assessments on May 21 had tried to bribe them and did not properly explain the project to them.

Sai Sai from Hway-Aot Village said: “Local residents from Mel-Kin and Mauk-Salee villages were given a packet of snacks and a shoulder bag, they were then forced to sign [a document that gave] their approval. Because the company told villagers they must sign they signed. The company did not properly explain the project to villagers so they did not understand about the project.”

SMEC employees also did not give villagers proper information about the negative impacts of the project and they even lied to youth groups from Mongton and Ponparkyin townships telling them that there would be no negative effects and refused to answer any questions.

Yein Naunt from a Mongton based youth group said: “When we met with them we asked them what would be the good and bad effects of this project not just in this area, but in the whole area of the project and to explain them to us before we answered their questions, so they gave us company brochures and explained the project to us. When the villagers had learnt about the project they wanted to ask them [the survey team] questions but they told them they could not answer any questions.”

SMEC did not even bother visiting four of the villages they were supposed to carry out assessments in. One of their employees gave the excuse that: “We could not get there because they did not show up on our GPS.”

They also claimed that the authorities had told them they could not go to a Wa village in the Hway-Aot area due to “security reasons”, but that was not a problem because according to the employee: “The Wa village heads told us that they will not reject [the project].”

SMEC also cancelled an April 30 public meeting and a May 20 EIA/SIA in Kunhing, which is in the flood plain area, because 300 villagers were protesting against the dam project.

A month earlier in Australia federal police raided SMEC’s head offices in New South Wales as part of an investigation into foreign bribery according to the Cooma Express Newspaper on April 23. Neither the Australian police nor SMEC have said whether the bribery investigations involve the Tasang Dam project.

Sixteen Shan CSOs called for the dam building to be immediately halted and issued a statement at a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand in Bangkok on June 9.

It said: “It is becoming apparent that SMEC’s EIA/SIA process is simply a sham, aimed to rubber-stamp the Mong Ton dam plans, rather than objectively assess the project’s actual impacts. Despite promising to hold “comprehensive” public consultations in impacted townships, SMEC has since last month cancelled all public consultations at the township level, instead only holding closed-door meetings with government officials, for example in Loilem and Tachilek. This appears to be a deliberate strategy to avoid facing community protests against the dam.”

The statement also pointed out that much of the potential flood area was depopulated in a massive anti-insurgency campaign carried out by the Burma Army from 1996 to 1998, which forcibly relocated 300,000 people. The remaining people suffer abuse from the Burma Army and there are still frequent clashes between government and ethnic forces in the area, the most recent being a clash between the Burma Army and the United Wa State Army (UWSA) in Mongton on June 4.

In the last 20 years the number of Burma Army battalions posted near Mongton has increased fourfold to 39. Since last October there has also been heavy fighting as the Burma Army has made a concerted effort to push ethnic armed groups in Shan State back east of the Salween River.

The Burma Army also guards the dam site and a 20-mile stretch of the Salween around the site is now out of bounds to everyone except people working on the project. Since early this year over 60 Chinese engineers have been staying at the dam site and carrying out hydrological and geological tests.

The Tangsan Dam is a joint project between China’s Three Gorges Corporation, the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT), and Burma’s Ministry of Electric Power and International Group of Entrepreneurs.

It is expected to generate 7,110MW of power, 90 percent of which is earmarked to go to Thailand.

At 1,749 miles (2,815km) long the Salween River is the longest undammed river in Southeast Asia, for the time being at least.