From Scorched Earth To Flooded Earth

The Generals' Dam On Burma's Salween River

A village near Inle Lake, Myanmar (Hartfried Schmid/Flickr)

Salween Watch and Norwegian Burma Council, Submission to the World Commission on Dams, March 31, 2000. This paper was prepared by Christian Moe of the Norwegian Burma Council in close collaboration with members of the Salween Watch coalition.

For more information, contact: Salween Watch

The Salween Dam Plans: In Brief
Ethnic Minorities At Risk in The Shan State
Impacts on Indigenous Ethnic Groups
Forced Labour in Construction Phase
Militarization and Abuse
Displaced Persons
Inadequate Resettlement and Reparations
Impossibility Of Public Participation and Consultation
Conclusions and Recommendations



A heavily indebted military dictatorship building a mega-dam in the same area it is carrying out 'ethnic cleansing' of the indigenous population: It sounds like Latin America in the 1960s, but it may soon become reality in 21st-century Burma. The plans for a major dam on the Salween in Burma's Shan State are a throwback to the brutish past of dam construction. Forced relocation is already going on in the area, forced labour will likely be used, and there can be no meaningful consultation with the population terrorised by the military. The planned Salween Dam will be everything the World Commission on Dams was formed to ensure that dams are not. Unlike Guatemala's Chixoy dam and other tragic mistakes of the past, however, it is still avoidable.


The Salween Dam Plans: In Brief

There have been many plans to dam the Salween river at various locations. Currently, the most advanced project is for a dam near the Tasang crossing between Murng Pan and Murng Ton in southern Shan State (see Map: Annex II).The feasibility study has been completed and surveys are now underway for a Definite Plan. The prefeasibility study specifies that the planned dam would be a 188 m high concrete-faced rockfill dam, with a head of 142 m and a stated full supply level of 350 m above sea level. The reservoir would then stretch back over 230 km from the dam wall, flooding an area of at least 640 sq km, as well as inundating the lower parts of three significant tributaries. Three quarters of its 3,300 MW installed capacity would be used to export power to Thailand. Related projects include the construction of high-voltage transmission lines. Though the developers deny it, water diversion from Burma to Thailand is also a possibility, and seems a more likely motive than energy exports, since Thailand is currently experiencing an energy glut. The dam would be built by GMS Power Public Co. Ltd. of Thailand, at a cost of at least 3 billion USD. Lahmeyer International (Germany) and Electric Power Development Corporation (Japan) are among the consultants.

Ethnic Minorities At Risk in The Shan State

Shan State is the largest of the seven ethnic states in Burma, with a population of about eight million, half of which are ethnic Shan. Other groups include Burmans, Pa'O, Akha, Lahu, Palaung and Wa. The Shan states have traditionally remained independent under their own rulers. When Burma achieved independence, Shan leaders agreed to join in the Union of Burma, in return for constitutional guarantees including the right to secession. Conflicts arose between the Shan and the central government, and in 1958 the first of several Shan rebel groups was formed. Some ethnic leaders sought a peaceful, political solution, but these were brutally suppressed by the military goverment that seized power in 1962, leading to decades of war. The Shan State Army South (SSA) is still fighting Burma's military goverment.

Burma's governing SPDC junta, one of the most brutal dictatorships in the world, has especially targeted ethnic groups with its oppressive policies. Continued insurgency in the Chin, Kachin, Mon, Karen, Karenni and Shan states and the Tenasserim Division has been met with the repression of civilian villagers under the government's "four cuts" counter-insurgency strategy. In particular, the military government has used forced relocation of villagers, on a scale and in a way tantamount to crimes against humanity, to deny resources to the resistance forces. Since large-scale forced relocation began in 1996, 1,400 villages in the Shan State have been relocated, forcing 300,000 people to leave their homes, and driving at least 100,000 of them into Thailand as refugees.

Impacts on Indigenous Ethnic Groups

Forced Labour in Construction Phase

There is abundant evidence showing the pervasive use of forced labour imposed on the civilian population throughout Burma by the authorities and the military for a wide variety of purposes, including infrastructure work (ILO 1998:§528). Forced labour is imposed on men and women, children and the elderly; it is accompanied by gross human rights violations, work conditions are poor, and compensation rare. This violation of international law led the 1999 International Labor Conference to exclude Burma from almost all activities of the ILO. Recent reports (ILO 2000, DoL 2000) show that no improvement has taken place. In fact, the situation with regard to forced labour may be worsening, particularly in the ethnic minority areas.

Note, first, that forced labour has been widely used on large infrastructure projects in Burma in the 1990s, most notoriously on the Ye-Tavoy railroad, on the Loikaw railroad, and in connection with the Yadana pipeline (ERI/SAIN 1996). Second, forced labour involving hundreds or thousands of workers has been used at previous major dam and irrigation projects, including one in Shan State, the Nam Wok (Mong Kwan) dam project near Kengtung, completed in 1994 (ILO 1998: §447 and note). Third, there is already forced labour near the planned dam site: Army battalions forced villagers to work for periods of up to two weeks at Tasang throughout 1998, splitting rocks which were then sold by the army (DoL 2000).

In conclusion, construction of the Tasang dam and associated infrastructure is highly likely to involve the massive use of forced labour.

Already, there are reports of a military build-up at the Tasang dam site, which has recently been fortified by units from four infantry batallions (nos. 330, 332, 518 and 520) and by eight motorboats patrolling the river (S.H.A.N. 1999b).

If built, the dam and power transmission lines would have to be guarded against possible sabotage by insurgent ethnic armies. The real and alleged security needs of the project will lead to further militarization of the area and serve as a pretext for increased counter-insurgency measures in the area. The military goverment may see this as an advantage, as it would be able to suppress resistance to its illegitimate rule for the 'legitimate' reason of protecting foreign investments.

In Burma, a stronger military presence is tied to a pattern of increased gross violations of human rights, and will exacerbate the hardships suffered by the population. As noted by the UN Special Rapporteur: "In the ethnic areas, the policy of establishing absolute political and administrative control brings out the worst in the military, and results in killings, brutality, rape and other human rights violations which do not spare the old, women, children or the weak" (UN 1999b: §54).

Displaced Persons

For estimates on numbers of diplaced persons by village, click here to see an annotated map (PDF file). Data based on: Dispossessed: Forced Relocation and Extrajudicial killings in Shan State, Shan Human Rights Foundation, 1998.

Displacement of the population in the dam area is already underway due to militarization and the "four cuts" relocation campaign. Massive forced relocation in eight townships of the Shan State, affecting over 300,000 people to date, was started by the Burmese army in 1996 after a reorganization of the Shan armed resistance. Villagers are typically given a few days' warning to move to a relocation site, on pain of being shot. From 1997, the junta extended the relocation program to new areas, encompassing both sides of the Salween as well as its Nam Parng tributary upstream from the planned dam, and including Murng Pan township, which forms the western side of the Tasang dam site (cf. SHRF 1998). Further displacement will occur as people flee the hopeless living conditions in relocation camps, the increasing abuses of the military, and the burden of forced labour, which is frequently cited by Burmese refugees in Thailand as a motive for leaving their home country. Three quarters of the Shan refugees interviewed by Amnesty in February 1999 had been forced to act as porters for troops (AI 1999).

Flooding the villages will make this situation irreversible. In Kun Hing and Murng Paeng townships alone, nearly 10,000 households, or at least 50,000 people, have been forcibly relocated. At least a third of the relocated villages in Kun Hing township are directly on the banks of the Salween's Nam Pang tributary, which will be flooded, and perhaps most of the relocated villages and one relocation site in Murng Paeng will be affected by the dam, as far as one can make out from a map study (see Annex III.) There is little data on the number of people who have not been relocated, but will be affected by flooding.

To the refugees and internally displaced persons from the banks of the Salween, the planned dam would drown their hopes of ever going home. The military government may well count it as a benefit, rather than a cost, if the project involves massive displacement of the civilian population, and if sites that have already been forcibly relocated are made permanently uninhabitable.

Inadequate Resettlement and Reparations

Conditions in Burmese relocation centers have been described as "life-threatening" (DoL 2000), with no or inadequate housing, sanitation, safe drinking water, food, and medical care. Unemployment and diseases are major problems. In Shan State as elsewhere, the army has been systematically killing villagers caught outside the relocation sites (SHRF 1998).

Relocated people do not benefit from compensation. Instead, they are sitting targets for continued extortion by the authorities and military. They are both particularly exposed to demands for forced labour (AI 1999), and particularly vulnerable to this burden, since they have had to leave their fields and become wage laborers (UN 1999a: §42).

Impossibility Of Public Participation and Consultation

The likely impacts of such a large dam would be severe (including flooding of arable land, reduction of biodiversity, destruction of livelihoods, riverbank erosion, saltwater intrusion in the Salween delta around Moulmein city, increasing the serious earthquake risk, spreading of water-borne diseases, etc). A thorough impact assessment, based on frank and open consultations with all affected groups - those in Shan State as well as the variety of affected ethnic groups downstream from the dam - would certainly be needed.

However, the planned Salween Dam represents an extreme case with regard to public participation and consultation in dam projects: the case where no such exercise is possible or, if undertaken, can be meaningful, due to the pervasive climate of fear created by the authorities' gross oppression of the affected population. Hence, any environmental or social impact assessment would necessarily be incomplete.

It would also be a first. If any environmental impact assessments have been carried out in Burma, they have not been made public. Also, generally speaking, there is no framework within which an EIA could be useful: The rule of law does not function in Burma, the constitution has been suspended, the military junta rules by decrees which are executed arbitrarily and without transparency, and the whole field of environmental regulation is severely underdeveloped (cf. ERI/SAIN 1996).

In short, an impact assessment would lack the necessary input from affected groups, may never be made public, and the military government may ignore it - or, worse, may embrace negative social and environmental impacts as part and parcel of its own strategy to stamp out ethnic-based resistance.

Though opposition to the dam plans cannot be openly voiced inside Burma, it is known that some organizations representing the ethnic groups of the area are rejecting the dam plans. Representatives of the various political parties in the Shan State that contested the 1990 elections and representatives of the Shan ceasefire groups met in 1999 (specific date and location withheld), agreeing unanimously to oppose the building of the dam at Tasang and any other plans to build dams on the Salween River in Shan State (SSO 1999). In mid-October last, a visiting reporter found people in villages along the Salween living in fear of the dam plans (S.H.A.N. 1999a).

Conclusions and Recommendations

We conclude that:

  • Current plans and studies for the dam are not transparent.
  • Any social or environmental impact assessment carried out for the developers will be a sham Etrue consultation with the affected peoples and independent evaluation of the environmental impact is simply impossible under the present military rule.
  • If built, the dam will make irreversible the forced relocations of tens of thousands of people, and both directly and indirectly cause the displacement of many more, aggravating the already critical situation with regard to refugees from and internally displaced persons within Shan State.
  • Like any other infrastructure works in Burma, construction of the Salween Dam is highly likely to entail the massive use of forced labour and an increased incidence of human rights violations.
  • The problem of "dictators' dams" is not yet history. It must be addressed by other measures than those deemed appropriate in democratic countries under the rule of law.
  • We therefore recommend that
  • All information surrounding the studies, funding, and building of the Salween Dam at Tasang should be made public immediately. All information should be made available in local languages, not only English.
  • The WCD should recommend that an independent committee be appointed to investigate the current plans for the dam. The committee should include representatives of affected people as well as NGOs.
  • No institution, whether private or public, should consider funding dams or other large infrastructure projects in Burma before a democratically elected, representative government is in power. This should also apply to export credits, investment guarantees and other schemes for risk coverage. All ODA agencies, export credit agencies etc should follow the lead of the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank in not funding projects in Burma. Relevant organisations, such as the ILO, the UN, the OECD and ASEAN, should pass appropriate resolutions to this effect.
  • Foreign companies that engage in such projects should be liable to be denied access to projects funded by the World Bank. The Bank should institute a policy to this effect.


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