China’s recent decision to exclude the Nu River in China (also known as the Upper Salween) from their dam-building program highlights Beijing’s contradictory support for dam projects downstream in the ethnic states of Myanmar.
Dr. Yu Xiaogang, a key figure in the campaign to stop dams on the Nu and founder of the Green Watershed NGO, told The Diplomat, “This is the first time that the government‘s Five Year National Energy Plan has excluded all 13 dam projects on the Nu River.” (Called the Nu River in China, the same body of water is known as the Salween in Thailand, and the Thanlwin in parts of Myanmar).
The Chinese decision confirms the victory of communities, environmental groups, and scientists who have campaigned for more than a decade to keep the Nu flowing free.
But downstream there has been no visible change in Chinese policy, in spite of sustained opposition from ethnic groups, and mounting question marks over the location of these controversial mega-projects in Myanmar’s conflict zones.
China and its hydro-power corporations are lobbying the new and inexperienced Myanmar government to continue with five mega-dam projects approved by the previous regime in 2013.
In Shan state, investment and construction of the 7,100 MW massive Mong Ton dam is being undertaken by a partnership of Three Gorges and Sinohydro, both Chinese firms, and EGAT International Thailand. Further south in Karen state, the 1,365 MW Hatgyi dam is another Sinohydro-EGAT partnership.
If the dams are to be built under the 2013 terms of agreement, 90 percent of the electricity generated would be exported to China and Thailand. But China’s energy requirements have changed with a world-wide economic slowdown. Yunnan province has reported an energy surplus for the last two years
Sun Yun, a Senior Associate with the East Asia Program at the U.S.-based Stimson Center, confirmed this surplus, “China’s Yunnan province suffers major overcapacity in power generation and could potentially turn into a supplier of electricity to Myanmar.”
Myanmar has only 30 percent of its population hooked up to the national electricity grid one of the lowest rates among countries in the region.
Sun has concluded Beijing’s commitment to these dam projects is no longer based on Chinese energy needs: “No, the domestic energy need is not the key.”
The Two Faces of China Along the Salween
It is striking that in Yunnan province, China has been speaking a different language of development, since they have taken dam-building on the Nu off their energy agenda.
Yunnan provincial leaders are now focused on new national parks, and developing the Nu River Gorge as “The Grand Canyon of the East.” In 2016, the Yunnan provincial and Nu Jiang prefecture government decided to create two national parks in the Nu River Basin – the Nu Jiang Grand Canyon National Park, and the Dulong Jiang National Park – in order to protect local ways of life while boosting tourism as part of a development strategy that links ecological protection to poverty alleviation.
This is exactly the kind of development strategy advocated by anti-dam ethnic groups downstream along the Lower Salween, where Chinese diplomacy and investment displays a completely different face, and still wants to push ahead with hydropower.
The Karen National Union (KNU), with the backing of an extensive local network of village representatives, have declared an innovative Salween Peace Park based around a wildlife sanctuary.
Kesan (the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network) has combined traditional knowledge skills with specialist ranger training to ensure their people maintained effective anti-poaching patrols, with back up from the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), the armed wing of the KNU.
Closer to the Myanmar-China border, ethnic Shan are campaigning to protect their uniquely beautiful 1,000 Islands in Shan State, which would be inundated by the gigantic Mong Ton dam.
The key factor that led to the suspension of all dams on the Nu within China was the danger that large-scale dam construction could trigger an earthquake in the volatile seismic zone along the Salween.
According to Chinese engineer and geologist Dr. Fan Xiao, the Nu River flows through earthquake prone areas, raising the risk of a natural disaster. Earthquakes or landslides from earthquakes can cause dam collapse, or dam overspill, threatening the lives of countless people downstream.
The same earthquake fault line runs from the Upper Salween and across into Myanmar, affecting all the Chinese dam projects downstream. So far the Myanmar Earthquake Committee has not been consulted by at any stage by Myanmar’s Ministry of Energy or by the new National League for Democracy (NLD) government.
Green Watershed founder Yu Xiaogang, in a documentary interview, expressed deep concern that the same earthquake risks were also faced by people downstream. Yu urged that “Myanmar, the downstream country, must consider this earthquake risk to their people” when deciding on the dam projects.
The Complex Myanmar-China Relationship
Myanmar’s sudden suspension of the Myitsone dam on the Irrawaddy River in 2011 angered not only CPI, the Chinese company involved, but also shocked the government in Beijing. China, the world’s biggest dam-builder, saw this as an unprecedented snub and loss of face.
In reporting on the decision, Chinese media mostly ignored the great historical and cultural importance of the Irrawaddy River in the history of Myanmar.
Aung San Suu Kyi, the state counselor (de facto head) and foreign minister of the new government in Myanmar, has made rebuilding good relations with China one of her top priorities, while at the same time enjoying support from the United States and the European Union.
The new government is seeking substantial investment in new roads, railways and many other sectors. China, in spite of its close links to the former military junta, is still viewed as indispensable partner in development together with Japan and Western governments.
The new government has also been counting on Chinese support in the on-going peace process, to end of the region’s longest civil wars with a comprehensive peace and political settlement.
At the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Professor Zhang Jifeng has explained China’s interests in Myanmar: “It is [Myanmar’s] geographically strategic position, providing China access to the Indian Ocean that makes it even more important in China’s energy diplomacy landscape.”
This complicated web of diplomacy between the two countries has created an almost complete disconnect between the ecologically bright future that beckons for the Nu flowing through China, and the more troubled prospects for the same river as it courses its way through the conflict-ridden ancestral lands of ethnic peoples in Myanmar struggling to protect their indigenous rights, culture livelihoods, and traditional way of life.
Civil society and ethnic groups are feeling frustrated and excluded by Suu Kyi’s closed door diplomacy, and absence of democratic debate inside the ruling NLD party.
Sai Khur Hseng from the Shan environmental NGO Sapawa complained that ethnic groups have been excluded from the government’s inner circle of policymakers. “The Suu Kyi government’s Salween policy is kept secret. She does not hold any press conferences and there is no dialogue with ethnic groups.”
With the NLD government lacking any strong environmental experts among her top advisors, Suu Kyi is most unlikely to bring up the “Yunnan ecotourism model” in her meetings with Chinese leaders, much less the discrepancy between that project and China’s activities downstream.
If Myanmar was to stake out the moral high ground — insisting on ethical investment, green energy, and ethnic rights — it would expose Chinese contradictions on the Salween. But Suu Kyi’s preoccupation with not upsetting China, and not sending the wrong signals to foreign investors, suggests that her Myitsone and her Salween policy will err on the side of conservatism. For now, there are no clear policy alternatives to the Chinese strategy.
Tom Fawthrop is a freelance journalist and film-maker based in Southeast Asia.