By Guy Dinmore
Myanmar, March 31, 2016
Having assigned herself four cabinet portfolios – Foreign Affairs, Education, Energy and Electric Power, and the President’s Office – Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will find her in-trays overflowing when she finally steps through the doors of her ministries.
Civil society organisations, in general steadfast supporters of the National League for Democracy and its leader, have not been idle in pressing their demands, many in critical areas combining overlapping aspects of her multiple ministerial posts.
Yesterday the NLD received an appeal by three prominent CSOs in Shan State calling for the immediate halt of construction work that has already begun on the controversial Upper Yeywa dam on the Myitnge (Namtu) River, as well as plans to build three others.
Their calls for a moratorium on major infrastructure and mineral projectsfollow similar appeals this month by groups in Kachin State campaigning against the Myitsone dam project and Hpakant jade mining, activists in eastern Myanmar lobbying against dams along the Thanlwin (Salween) river, and others in Rakhine State opposed to oil and gas extraction.
What all these demands share in common – and this may explain why the NLD leader has chosen both the Foreign Affairs and Energy/Power portfolios – is that major infrastructure projects lie close to or inside conflict zones and involve powerful foreign backers, including China, Thailand, Japan and Western governments.
At the same time Myanmar has a growing need for energy – barely one-third of villages have access to power – and hydropower plays a large role in plans to expand generation capacity.
“For Nay Pyi Taw to push ahead with large dams in conflict zones, against the wishes of local ethnic communities, is thumbing their noses at the peace process,” said Sai Khur Hseng of Shan Sapawa, one of the three groups launching yesterday’s appeal.
“If the new NLD-led government wants to build peace, they must immediately halt the dams on the Namtu and other rivers in ethnic conflict zones,” he said.
The Upper Yeywa dam, planned to be completed in 2018, is particularly controversial. Last month more than 200 residents of Ta Long village – whose homes, pagodas and famed citrus groves are to be submerged – signed a petition against the project, saying they had never been consulted. They insist they will never move.
“The townships of Nawngcho, Kyaukme and Hsipaw, where dams on the Namtu are being planned, are still active conflict zones, where Shan and Ta’ang resistance forces operate, and where fighting has escalated in early 2016,” the report says.
The report, also co-authored by the Shan Human Rights Federation and the Shan State Farmers Network, is particularly scathing of those donor governments who are directly involved in the peace process while their companies wade in before conflicts are settled.
“They [the dam projects] also reveal the hypocrisy of foreign donor countries, such as Norway, Switzerland and Japan, who are showcasing their support for the ‘peace process’ but whose corporations are opportunistically partnering with Nay Pyi Taw to profit from resources in ethnic conflict areas before peace has been reached,” the report says.
Norway’s state-owned SN Power is singled out for its reported involvement as the “main developer” of the Middle Yeywa dam with a planned capacity of 700 megawatts. SN Power yesterday said it was “working in close cooperation with the Ministry of Electric Power with the objective of identifying the feasibility of this potential hydropower development on the Myitnge river”.
The NLD has set the peace process and “national reconciliation” as a priority, recognising that a stable peace is key to economic development for the whole country, not just border zones. But the party has said little on the controversial projects it has inherited from U Thein Sein’s government, although there have been indications Daw Aung San Suu Kyi might try to renegotiate rather than scrap some ventures.
“We hope she is up to the challenge and not as isolated from the ground as she seems,” said one aid worker involved in Shan State who asked not to be named. “She will not be spared by state/ethnic civil society if she steams ahead with these projects.”