Drowned Out: The Tasang Dam and its Impacts on Local Shan Communities and the Environment Print E-mail
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Tuesday, 01 September 2009 00:00

1. The Salween River

The Salween River begins in the Tibetan Plateau and passes through China’s Yunnan Province before running through Burma’s Shan, Karenni, Karen, and Mon States. At one stretch, it forms the border between Karen State and Thailand. The river basin is one of the world’s richest temperate regions in terms of biodiversity, and sections of the river in China and Thailand have been designated important ecological and cultural treasures.1 The river basin is a transition zone between the Indo-Chinese and Sino-Himalayan sub-regions, the forests along the Salween is unique in its biodiversity, housing a wide range of flora and fauna similar to those found in northern India, the Himalayas, and Indochina. In addition, the basin is one of the most fertile areas in the world for teak. Here, teak grows in higher density than in other area in Southeast Asia.2

The communities on the Salween have lived in relative harmony through the centuries, peacefully practicing their traditional vocations and sustainably using their forest and water resources. In Burma, various ethnic nationalities such as the Shan, Wa, Pa-O, Palaung, Akha, and Lisu, depend on the Salween for its abundant natural resources for their livelihoods. About 100 species of fi sh that swim through the river and its tributaries support vibrant fishing communities and are an important source of food, and the surrounding forests are full of wild game, fruits, plants, and timber. The livelihoods of the locals, however, have increasingly been threatened by civil war, human rights abuses, logging, and now, the impending construction of several proposed mega-dams on the Salween. One of those projects, building the Tasang dam in southern Shan State, has already broken ground, with 60 large foundation pillars erected.3 Presently, the Salween still remains the longest river in Southeast Asia that has yet to be dammed, but when completed, the Tasang dam will destroy the last remaining stretches of teak forest in Shan State and irreversibly alter the livelihoods of nearby villagers.


2. The Shan People

There are more than 20 ethnic groups in Shan State, including the Palaung, Pa-O, Kachin, Wa, Akha, Lahu, and Kokang Chinese. The Tai—a close relation to Thais and Laotians—make up the largest group, accounting for about 70% of the total population of Shan State.4 Tai people originally migrated west and southwards from present-day Guangxi and Guizhou Provinces in China and other areas south of the Yangzte River, settling in modern-day northeastern India, Thailand, Laos, northern Vietnam, and China’s Hainan Island. Another group of Tai followed the Salween River into Shan State’s high plateau, finally settling in valleys on both sides of the river around 650 B.C.5

By the 13th century A.D., the Shan ruled all of Burma,6 but in 1604, fell under indirect Burman rule.7 In 1887, the 30 or so Shan States became protectorates under British rule, and then unified as the Federated Shan States in 1922, a region recognized as separate from Burma proper. When Burma achieved independence from the British, the Shan States agreed to join in the Union of Burma in exchange for constitutional rights and the right to secede after 10 years. Conflicts soon arose, however: The Burmans invaded in 1952 under the pretext of fighting nationalist Kuomingtang forces from China, and the first of many Shan rebel groups formed in 1958. Some Shan leaders pressed for a diplomatic, political solution, but in 1962, the Burmese military staged a coup and abolished the Constitution, leading to decades of oppression, conflict, and resistance.8

Although they generally identify themselves as “Tai” (sometimes spelled “Dai” or “Dtai”), the British called them Shan during the colonial period. To this day, Burmans commonly refer to them as “Shan,” and they are widely known internationally by this name.9 In this article, in most cases “Shan” refers to the Tai, but may include members of other ethnic groups in Shan State. No precise numbers exist, and estimates of the population of Shan State range from seven to ten million.10 Before 1996, there were approximately 60,000 people living in 280 communities in the rural village tracts adjoining Tasang. These tracts were prosperous agriculture areas. Most people were farmers, planting seasonal crops in fertile valleys between mountains thickly forested with teak.11


3. Conflict and Displacement

The Shan State Army South (SSA-S), an armed rebel group which was formed in 1996, continues to struggle against the Burmese military regime (State Peace and Development Council, or SPDC) for a free Shan State to this day.12 To suppress the resistance movement, the military regime has taken brutal anti-insurgency measures. From 1996 until1998, the Burmese army forced more than 300,000 villagers from 1,500 villages in eight townships in central and southern Shan State to relocate to “strategic hamlet” sites.13 The stated purpose was to deprive the Shan State Army-South of a support base, recruits, intelligence, and supplies. The relocation program was extended to both sides of the Salween River, Nam Pang River, and Mong Pan Township. In addition, extrajudicial killings, rape, and systematic extortion are routinely used by the Burmese Army to systematically weaken support for the resistance and lower morale. The military regime also has made extensive use of forced labor to porter supplies and to work on infrastructure and development projects.14

Many of the villagers displaced by the relocation program are corralled in relocation sites, where conditions are hazardous to human health and well-being. In 2000, the US Department of Labor found that conditions in these forced relocation villages were “life threatening.”15 In these camps, clean water, food, housing sanitation, and health services are largely lacking or completely nonexistent; and many relocated people face diseases and high unemployment.16 The people receive no compensation. Rather, they form a controlled and pacified pool from which SPDC soldiers can routinely and mercilessly extort money and forced labor.17

Areas cleared by the relocation program were declared “free-fire zones,” and many villagers who tried to return to their villages and farms to collect food or possessions were killed on sight.18 No longer able to feed themselves, hundreds of thousands of Shan have abandoned their traditional livelihoods and have fled to Thailand, or are surviving in the jungles as internally displaced persons (IDPs).19 In 2008, there were an estimated 135,000 IDPs in Shan State.20 As of early 2009, several thousand have returned and were living upstream of Tasang although there has been no official announcement that they are allowed to do so. Thus, the villagers live in the uncertainty of being forced out again or killed on sight.21

In Thailand, the government has not allowed shelters to be established for the those fleeing from Shan State.22 As a result, many Shan have had no other choice but to enter Thailand’s unskilled labor force working in low-paying dirty, dangerous, and difficult jobs to support themselves and their families. Many of these workers do not have legal status in Thailand and are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. In spite of this, Shan people continue to enter Thailand to escape the SPDC’s repressive policies and systematic human rights abuses.23


4. Traditional Livelihoods

“The Salween River sustains the rainforest which supports the survival

of different kinds of animals. The forest not only protects us from natural

disaster and climate change but also provides cool shelter for people and


– Shan woman in exile24

Villagers Travelling

Villagers from the area affected by the Ta Sang Dam travelling from one village to another

The Shan have well-developed traditional agricultural, irrigation, and forest management systems that have for centuries provided them with food security, income, and a well-protected natural environment on which they could depend for future needs. In the past 50 years, however, centuries of indigenous practices have become undone by civil war, human rights abuses, and development-induced displacement.

Villagers in the Tasang area in southern Shan State traditionally grow both wet and dry rice, fish along the river, hunt, and maintain home gardens to support their livelihoods. The forests running alongside the Salween (known locally as the Thanlwin) are rich in wild foods such as mushrooms and bamboo shoots, household building materials such as teak, ironwood, and hardwoods, and herbal medicines. All of these are essential in providing basic needs, security, and well-being for local communities. Depending on the river and nearby natural resources requires intimate indigenous knowledge such as fish and wildlife migration patterns and their preferred seasonal habitat, cultivating native seed varieties, wood species selection and traditional wood carving techniques to construct riverboats, and so on.

Farmers sell their surplus paddy and vegetables and maintain local agricultural biodiversity by saving local seed cultivars. Villagers also sell locally-caught fish and wildlife and herbal medicine and other non-timber forest products collected nearby. Traditional woven dresses, cotton cloth, fiber, yarn, bamboo baskets, mats, and chairs are also sold for income.

Shan Weaving

Traditional Shan weaving technique (Photo: Sapawa)

Traditional cotton preparation

Traditional preparation of cotton to make pillows, beds, and yarns (Photo: Sapawa)

Agricultural Practices

In lowland valleys, wet rice cultivation is the mainstay of Shan livelihoods. In the beginning of the rainy season, farmers plow their paddy fields with a harrow-toothed log. Rice seedlings are propagated in July and planted in August. Irrigation using traditional small-scale dams and canals occurs in September, and the fields are drained in October, before November harvesting. Many Shan are Buddhists with some animist beliefs. For every harvest, they supplicate to the nats, or spirits, for a good harvest.

Farming is heavily dependent on indigenous knowledge, such as looking at the colors in the sky to predict when the rains will come, what kind of weather the upcoming season will bring, or knowing how to deter pests. For example, during the transition from summer to the rainy season or even after the rains have arrived, a sky with a reddish background is a telltale sign that rainfall will be less than usual, giving farmers time to prepare irrigation works. Traditional belief holds that when the white ant in winged stage comes out of the ground and starts flying, the rains will stop. By looking at the color of the moon, the formation of tamarind fruit, and the growth patterns of leaves, villagers can foresee what the coming weather and temperature will be. Farmers protect crops from insects and by filling bamboo rods with dry grass, leaves, and oil dregs and burn them near fields at night. Birds are discouraged by scarecrows.

To ensure reliable food security and a healthy, nutritious diet, families also practice seasonal rotational mixed planting in the valley floor and on hillsides, with some also planting dry rice on sloped land. Shan people also grow in plots behind their houses for consumption and sale. After the rainy season, a variety of vegetables and fruit are grown, including garlic, onion, potatoes, peanuts, sesame, watermelon, sugarcane, and different kinds of beans. Polyculture provides habitat for butterflies, bees, fruit flies, dragonflies, and birds, all who help with pollination. Rice is stored for year-round food supply. Vegetables and fruit are eaten, bartered for other crops, or sold to nearby villages to buy basic staples like oil and salt.

The fabric of Shan agricultural communities is held together by a rotational communal labor system called Oao Kure Kan, which means “take each other hand in hand.” Farmers help each other, lending labor during rice harvests. Labor is paid back in turn, or a small portion of the harvest is given, however the latter is less common. In the fields, the work atmosphere is very relaxed and convivial as single men and women sing to each other, a customary practice called Hayt Gorm Tal Kan. For lunch, people pool together portions that each person brought for a communal meal.

Village agriculture

Agricultural Practices: villagers in the community give each other a hand to plant their rice fields

In the past Shan farmers fertilized their lands with cattle and buffalo dung, bringing higher yields than conventional fertilizer use. Recently, many farmers have begun replacing their livestock with small tractors and using chemical fertilizers and pesticides. This transition has greatly increased the cost of production and brought associated health and environmental impacts. As more and more farmers realize the flaws of chemical farming, some farmers are rediscovering and reviving traditional organic cultivation practices.

Irrigation System

As mentioned earlier, wet-rice farmers use handmade weirs to irrigate their paddy land. Repairing and maintenance of these small check dams is done every one to three years before the rainy season. Every household is obligated to send one household member to participate in this process and contribute materials such as bamboo, stone, chain, and hardwoods.

A villager with expertise and experience in making and maintaining the communal dam is elected as a Kel Pai, or irrigation head, to oversee the process of dam building and flood control and is responsible for supervising the equitable distribution of water through a series of canals. Some communities also have a locally elected Zoom Kel Pai, or irrigation committee, to look over water management.

Traditional irrigation dam

Traditional irrigation dam in southern Shan State, built in 1985

Taditional water powered mill

Traditional water-powered mill

Irrigation canals, which are no more than 30 centimeters in width, must be closely regulated. Each one is used to water farmland of five acres or smaller. The dam leader distributes water to upstream users first, because they are higher, so runoff from upstream farms can flow out exit spillways to downstream users. When farmers upstream get enough water, they must close their canals so that downstream farms can be irrigated. Sometimes, farmers forget to close their canal or intentionally leave it open to harvest their crops before others. If an individual is found to have tried to take more water than is allotted to them, they lose their place in the water rotation until downstream farmers have received their water shares. If the dam leader does his or her job well, at the end of the harvest, farmers contribute some of their paddy to the leader as compensation.

Water is also harnessed at a small-scale level to thresh rice, grind beans, press sugarcane, pound nuts and sesame for oil production, and power small electricity generators. Shan communities living beside the Nam Pang, Nam Sim, and Nam Teng, tributaries of the Salween, use ingenious traditional waterwheels and bamboo pipes to bring water inland to irrigate gardens and farmland.

Small hydroelectric generator

Small hydroelectric generator in a village

Traditional water wheel

Traditional water wheel for water supply in Nam Pang (Photo: Sapawa)

Environmental Protection

Shan people have traditionally established community forests and rules for forest-use, which protect local tree species and wildlife habitat. Forest-use rules help conserve water resources and forests. For example, custom forbids villagers from cutting down trees in the upper reaches of rivers. The deforestation of these areas reduces the water retention capability of watershed areas, leading to drought in the dry season and floods in the rainy season.

Spirit shrines demarcate domains of forest spirits and conserved forest areas. Community forests have two zones. The inner zone is strictly protected, while limited resources can be collected from the outside buffer zone. Only select tree species can be used for firewood such as tree-fern (Migh Guat), chestnut tree (Migh Kor), and others. Hunting takes place in the deep forest, but hunters are allowed to kill only one wild pig per hunt. Killing small wildlife like birds, squirrels, pangolins, and rabbits is prohibited. In addition, hunters promise the forest spirits that they will leave the forest after three days, even if their hunt is unsuccessful. Each person in a hunting party is allowed to use only one forest resource. For example, one person can gather firewood, another can collect water. The Shan believe that if this rule is violated, the transgressors will die in a confrontation with a tiger, snake, or other dangerous wildlife. Moreover, hunters collect firewood from dry branches, never cutting down trees.


5. The Tasang Dam

Tasang used to be a small ferry town on the Salween River in southern Shan State. It served as one of the major crossing points on the river, linking Mong Pan Township in the west and Mong Tong Township in the east. Other nearby townships include Mong Paing, Kun Hing, Keng Tawng, and Lang Kher. According to local legend, if one looks up at the mountainside at Tasang, one will see the likeness of an elephant’s head and trunk. Because of this, the mountain was called Loi Jang, or “Elephant Hill,” and the ferry crossing was called Ta Jang, or “Elephant Dock.” Burmans misspelled Ta Jang as “Tasang,” and now “Tasang” is widely used. In 1998, a bridge was constructed across the Salween River, and the ferry port has since developed into a trading hub.

The SPDC has been eager to harness the country’s hydropower potential not only for domestic consumption but for export to Thailand, China and India.25 The main purpose of building the Tasang dam is to export electricity to Thailand, and feasibility studies began in the 1990s.26 If built, the Tasang dam will be the highest dam in Southeast Asia, standing at 228 meters, with an installed capacity of 7,110 megawatts. The dam will cost at least US$6 billion to build,27 but the Tasang and the other dams planned on the Salween will generate income for the Burmese regime when they begin producing electricity.28

Companies currently involved in the dam building project include the state-owned Myanmar Electric Power Enterprise, Thailand’s MDX Group, China’s Gezhouba, Sinohydro, and China Southern Power Grid companies, and British corporation Malcolm Dunstan and Associates. Foundation work began in November 2007, 13 kilometers north of the Tasang Bridge.29


6. Social and Environmental Impacts of the Tasang Dam

“The Tasang dam in Shan State represents an extreme case of lack of public

participation. The military junta’s record on this issue is consistent. They

will abuse or kill anyone who dissents.”

– Sai Win Pay, elected and exiled Member of Parliament from Shan State30

While the Tasang dam is expected to bring significant income to the Burmese regime and its business partners, local communities are bearing and will continue to bear the brunt of all the negative social and environmental impacts. The decision-making about the construction of the dam has not been participatory, and there are serious concerns about the environmental and cultural destruction the dam will cause. In addition, large-scale development projects in conflict areas in Burma often lead to systematic human rights abuses by the army troops that are sent in to “provide security” for the project.31 Finally, there is no plan for resettlement or compensation for affected villagers.32

No Opportunities for Participation in Decision-Making

Like the other dams planned on the Salween River, decision-making regarding the Tasang dam has been shrouded in secrecy. Many environmentalists are questioning the need for the dam in the first place, as Thailand consistently over-estimates its energy demands and is currently experiencing an energy “glut.”33 But there has been little effort to inform or consult the public about the dam itself, construction plans, or its impacts. An estimated 5,000 villagers live in the projected flood zone but they have not been informed or consulted about the dam plans or the likely impacts of dam construction and operation. Neither the Burmese military regime nor the Thai government has publicly released environmental impact assessment reports.34

Since 2006, MDX has been carrying out limited public relation activities to garner support, providing free medical and dental services in villages in Mong Ton Township. Other than this, there is no mechanism for dispute resolution or for villagers to voice their concerns. As most of the energy generated is slated for export to Thailand, local communities will virtually gain nothing while facing negative environmental destruction and shattered livelihoods. Opposition to the dam plans cannot be openly expressed in Burma. At a meeting in 1999, however, representatives of several political parties that contested in the 1990 election and Shan ceasefire groups unanimously agreed to oppose the building of the Tasang and other dams on the Salween in Shan State.35

Destruction of the Environment and Ways of Life

“If the dam is constructed blocking the river, not only will the Salween

River stop flowing, but so will Shan history. Our culture will disappear as

our houses, temples, and farms are flooded.”

– Shan refugee, 200036

In 2000, the World Commission on Dams found that large dams generally have “extensive impacts on rivers, watersheds[,] and aquatic [areas, which] in many cases, have led to irreversible loss of species and ecosystems.”37 If built, the Tasang likely will cause similar impacts as well as destruction of local traditions and ways of life. The dam would fragment the region’s fragile ecosystem, lessen nutrient and water flow downstream, and hurt local biodiversity. Likely deforestation would lead to soil erosion and greater flood damage. Additional expected impacts are riverbank erosion, flooding of fertile agricultural lands, saltwater intrusion at the mouth of the Salween, higher spread of waterborne diseases like malaria, and increased earthquake risk.38 Villagers living downstream of Tasang would also be challenged by altered river flows, especially in estuaries. Such changes would disrupt the traditional fishing and agricultural practices of locals.39

Already, many ceasefire and local militia groups, logging companies, and individuals with connections to the military regime are engaging in logging activities in the 870 square kilometer dam reservoir.40 Local commanders of the Burma Army are profiting from the sale of logging permits. The United Wa State Army (UWSA) became heavily involved in selling timber to the Chinese, although it has acknowledged that this was “the biggest mistake [they have] made,” resulting in the destruction of their environment.41 Teak is being cut down in large swaths and shipped to Chinese and Thai markets.42 Deforestation continues unabated, destroying forests that local people have depended on for centuries as sources of food, shelter, and medicine.

Map: teak trade routes

Figure 1: Teak trade routes in Shan State43 (Shan Herald Agency for News)

Map logging areas

Figure 2: Logging concession areas around Tasang, 2002 – 2006 (Sapawa)

West of the Salween River, Asia World founded by drug lord Lo Hsing Han built roads between 2001 and 2004, enabling logging operations to move in and clear-cut the thick teak forests in the area.44 In 2006, locals reported than less than 10% of the original teak forest around Keng Tawng remains. The surviving teak is located in remote valleys where transportation is difficult.45 Most of the logs are transported to Rangoon for export, but some have been transported illegally across the Salween, and then up to the China border via Pang Sang, the headquarters of the UWSA. Some logs are also floated down the Salween and then transported to Tachilek for sale to Thailand.46

As the forests around Keng Tawng have been depleted, larger timber enterprises like the Shan State South Company moved northeast to log the forests in Keng Kham and Sai Kao, areas along the Nam Pang River in Kun Hing Township. Areas around Mong Pan have been heavily logged as well. Locals reported that at the pace of deforestation observed in 2006, forests in these areas will be gone in a year.47 As of early 2009, only a few strands of forest remain.

East of the Salween, extensive logging has taken place since 1988 in forests along the eastern banks of the Salween in Mong Boo Long and Mong Ton by the Thai Sawat Company. A new road built by Asia World in 2005 has allowed loggers to enter formerly inaccessible teak forests in Mong Boo Long and Mong Ton. Logging has since become even more aggressive.48 Logs from areas between Mong Karn and the Hsim River are transported to Tachilek for export to Thailand under the cover of night with tight security.

In addition to unsustainable logging, other problems have already arisen. A large number of migrants have come into the area to fill the demand for construction workers. The workers cut down trees for firewood, fish with electric shocks or poison near Tasang and Sala villages, and pollute their surroundings with excessive garbage. Mining for dam construction has dirtied water sources, and less water is available to locals as some streams such as the Mea Mok are blocked to supply electricity for dam workers. These added assaults on the environment puts further stresses on resources on which locals depend. Some villagers have left their traditional occupations of farming and craft-making to become low-paid construction workers. After being introduced the material trappings of a cash-based economy, the perceptions and desires of these villagers change. Many have expressed their desire to leave their traditional livelihoods in favor of unskilled labor positions. This shift further adds to multiple factors already pulling communities and traditions apart.


7. Militarization and Human Rights Abuses Near Tasang49

Heightened military presence in Burma is inextricably linked to a pattern of human rights abuses committed against civilians. As Mr. Rajsoomer Lallah, a former UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar stated, “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.”50 The Tasang Dam site is located in middle of the main conflict zone. The areas west and northwest of the dam site are of particular strategic importance, as armed Shan resistance groups are active. The SPDC has been increasing the number of the Burma Army troops and military bases in the Tasang area since 1996, even after depopulating and clearing the area out through with a forced relocation program. In 1996, there were only 10 battalions in the townships next to the dam site. Today, there are 30, not including engineering, medical and other supply units (see Figures 10 and 11). On average, each battalion has about 50 soldiers. The actual and alleged security needs for building the Tasang dam will undoubtedly lead to continued militarization of the area and “serve as a pretext for increased counter-insurgency measures in the area.”51

Map Burma army before 1996

Figure 3: Burma Army Deployment around Tasang before 1996 (Sapawa)

Map Burma army after 2006

Figure 11: Burma Army Deployment around Tasang in 2006 (Sapawa)

Light Infantry Battalions (LIB) 332 and 520 of the Burma Army are in charge of security around the dam site. Their presence has resulted in numerous cases of abuses and violence committed against civilians, including extrajudicial killings, beating and torture, disappearances, and extortion. In February 2005, four villagers gathering leaves in the forest were shot dead by troops from LIB 520. In the same month, ten villagers from Pa Khaa village were accused of stealing guns and taken hostage by troops from LIB 332. A million kyat was extorted from locals for their release. In September 2005, three villagers from Ho Phaai Long village in Mong Pan Township were conscripted as guides and later killed by troops from LIB 332. In January 2006, people in all Mong Pan Village Tracts and in the town of Mong Pan itself were forced to grow physic nut/castor-oil plants by LIB 332. A 76 year-old man died while gathering plants.52

From January to November 1997, 319 villagers in Kun Hing Township, located north of the dam site, were killed. This included massacres of 29 villagers at Sai Khao Village and 27 civilians at Tard Pha Ho. On July 9, 2006, SPDC soldiers from LIB 524 interrupted a Buddhist ceremony in Na Khao, accusing village elders of supporting the Shan resistance and arresting and torturing them. On the same day, five women were seized from the village and forced to serve as porters.53 Furthermore, land has been confiscated from villagers to construct military buildings and offices of dam builders.54 Throughout 2008, SPDC troops continued to loot and confiscate belongings and property of people who were forcibly relocated or were away from their homes.55

The pervasive use of forced labor by the SPDC in connection with development projects is well documented throughout Burma. Thousands of villagers toiled on the Ye-Tavoy and Loikraw railroads, major dam projects in Pegu Division and Arakan State, the Nam Wok (Mong Kwan) Dam in Shan State,56 and on ancillary infrastructure for the Yadana and Yetagun pipelines.57 Forced labor is “imposed on men and women, children and the elderly; it is accompanied by gross human rights violations [including rape, beatings, and killings], work conditions are poor, and compensation rare.”58 Forced labor is so savage and inhumane that the International Labour Organization has called on its constituents, including the Thai Government, to refrain from financing projects in Burma that may involve forced labor.59 Keeping consistent with this practice, forced labor is being used in connection with the Tasang Dam.60 Reports of Burmese army troops using forced labor likely will increase as the building of Tasang Dam proceeds.

In addition to these abuses, women are vulnerable to sexual violence. Shan human rights groups documented the rape of about 300 women by Burma Army troops within a 50 kilometer radius of the Tasang Dam site between 1996 and 2001. Sexual violence has continued: On May 18, 2006, a group of SPDC soldiers from LIB 246 gang-raped an 18 year-old girl from Pang Nim, Kun Hing Township, while she was tending buffalo.61 In 2008, newly arrived IDPs near the Thai-Burmese border reported that Burma Army troops continued to rape Shan women and girls.62

Displacement is ongoing, as people flee the horrible living conditions in relocation sites and military abuses in other areas near Tasang. Even more people will flock towards Thailand if the dam is built and the reservoir is filled with water, although accurate figures are impossible to obtain given the difficulties of safely performing field surveys.63 The filling up of the dam reservoir also would crush any hope that IDPs and refugees who fled to Thailand may have about returning to their homes. But these are not concerns of the SPDC: If the Tasang area is depopulated, flooded, and permanently inhabitable, the SPDC may count it as an additional anti-insurgency success.64


8. Conclusion

Traditional forest and water management techniques have effectively preserved the local environment and provided food security and well-being for Shan traditional fishing and agrarian communities living along the Salween for hundreds of years. Local resources have been sustainably used to support livelihoods. Extensive customs and beliefs have protected the biodiversity of the forest, and rice cultivation depended on the wise use and equitable sharing of water. Decentralized, small-scale traditional use of water for irrigation, milling, and electricity generation purposes have proven a workable long-term solution to Shan people’s development needs. The Tasang Dam project has taken the exact opposite of this approach. Economic benefits accrue to a powerful elite, and locals are left with no means to rectify the various deprivations and injustices that they have faced. Thousands are eking out a meager existence in hiding, devoid of basic services like healthcare, education, and meaningful employment.

In addition to a multitude of environmental impacts, human rights abuses and displacement have forever destroyed the rhythm of traditional Shan livelihoods. The lack of consultation with the customary stewards of the forests and rivers in Shan State and total blatant disregard for their well-being is shocking and tragic. Under current SPDC policies that have little consideration for the environment, it is proving extremely difficult to safeguard the rich biodiversity in the Salween Basin on which thousands depend for their livelihoods.


9. Recommendations

Respect Local Management Systems: The Burmese Government and industrial companies must recognize the value of traditional water and land management systems. This includes irrigation infrastructure and biodiversity maintenance efforts that have evolved in harmony with local conditions and are more sustainable than large hydropower or irrigation projects in the long term.

Respect Rights to Life, Land, and Livelihood: All authorities must respect local stakeholders’ rights to life, land and livelihood. Forced labor, land confiscation without compensation, armed robbery, sexual assault, and other abuses must end.

Prior Informed Consent and Participatory Approach: The government must obtain the prior informed consent of stakeholders prior to project implementation. People must be allowed to participate in project planning without fear, threat, or discrimination.

Full and Open EIA Process: A proper Environmental Impact Assessment process undertaken by an independent third party should be conducted with full participation by interested parties to provide project information to the public. The SPDC claims that an EIA has been written for the Tasang dam. If so, it must be released to the public for comment and modification without delay. If no EIA exists, work on the dam must stop and an open EIA process must begin before any more work is started. The EIA needs to consider the social, ecological, hydrological, and geological impacts of the dam, and include mitigation and compensation processes. It must also address the needs of the local communities as well as the maintenance of biodiversity and culture.

Return and Compensation of Displaced Villagers: People forcefully displaced by the SPDC around the dam site and flood zone since 1996 must be allowed to return to their lands in peace. They should be compensated for their years of lost income and livelihoods.

No Dams of War: Large dams have significant military, political, and economic implications for local people, and construction of large dams in a war zone is particularly inappropriate. Planning for and construction of the Tasang dam must be suspended until there is a peaceful settlement to the ongoing conflict.

Effectively Address Earthquake Hazard: There is a severe risk of major earthquakes in the Salween-Nu River basin where 18 colossal dams are planned. Tasang dam is the largest of these, so the government must draft and disclose safety measures to reduce the risk of earthquake damage. There must also be an effective warning system for local people in both China and Burma.


About Shan Sapawa Environmental Organization (Sapawa)

Sapawa works along the Thai-Burmese border and inside Burma to promote environmental protection and human rights in Shan State, Burma. Sapawa was established in 2003 by Shan alumni of EarthRights School and the Shan State School for Nationalities Youth who had become increasingly concerned at the environmental situation in Shan State. Sapawa’s vision is a just and peaceful Shan State free of environmental destruction and exploitation. The mission of Sapawa is to empower Shan communities to protect their rights and livelihoods, and preserve their natural resources, and to expose the destruction of the environment and human rights violations occurring in Shan State to local peoples as well as the international community, in order to find ways to prevent such violations.

Email: shansapawa@gmail.com



1 Salween Watch et al., The Salween Under Threat: Damming the Longest Free River in Southeast Asia, 2004, pp.13-14.

2 Ibid.

3 Kwarn Lake, “Chinese Dam Builders set up 60 Pillars for Tasang Dam,” Shan Herald Agency for News, 16 Jan. 2008, at: <http://www.shanland.org/oldversion/index-2024.htm>. Last accessed 31 Jan. 2009.

4 Freedom for Shan State, “Shan State,” at: <http://shanstatenews1.googlepages.com/2006091501>. Last accessed 13 Apr. 2009.

5 Bertil Lintner, Foreword to Inge Sargent, Twilight over Burma: My Life as a Shan Princess, 1994, pp. xv – xvi. See also, Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization website, “Shan People,” at: <http://www.unpo. org/content/view/7905/140/>. Last accessed 12 Apr. 2009.

6 UNPO, supra note 5.

7 Lintner, supra note 5, p. xvi.

8 Christian Moe, Salween Watch and Norwegian Burma Council, “From Scorched Earth to Flooded Earth: The Generals’ Dam on Burma’s Salween River” (Joint submission to the World Commission on Dams, 31 Mar. 2000, at: <http://www.asiasource.org/asip/salween.cfm>. Last accessed 16 Apr. 2009. [Hereinafter “Moe”]. See also, UNPO, supra note 5.

9 Surehope, “About the Shan: Identity,” 2006, at <http://surehope.net/about_the_shan/culture.asp>. Last accessed 12 Apr. 2009.

10 UNPO, supra note 5. See also, Mai Song Kha website, “All About Shan People,” at: <http://www.maisoongkha.com/allaboutshanpeople.html#>. Last accessed 12 Apr. 2009.

11 Shan Sapawa Environmental Organization, Warning Signs: An Update on Plans to Dam the Salween in Burma’s Shan State, 2006, p.20 [hereinafter “Warning Signs”].

12 Jane’s World Insurgency and Terrorism, “Shan State Army- South (SSA-S) (Myanmar),” 27 Mar. 2009, at: <http://www.janes.com/extracts/extract/jwit/jwita040.html>. Last accessed 15 Apr. 2009. See also, Jarmtoon, “Shan State,” 2003, at: <http://jarmtoon.myweb.hinet.net/mainfi le/intro-shan.htm>. Last accessed 15 Apr. 2009.

13 For details about the forced relocation program, see Shan Human Rights Foundation, Dispossessed: A Report on Forced Relocations and Extrajudicial Killings in Shan State, Burma, April 1998. See also Moe.

14 Amnesty International, “Myanmar: Atrocities in Shan State,” 14 Apr. 1998, at: <http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/ASA16/005/1998/en/e22f5c7f-daea-11dd-903e-e1f5d1f8bceb/asa160051998en.html>. Last accessed 15 Apr. 2009.

15 US Department of Labor, “2000 Update on Forced Labor and Forced Relocations,” cited in Moe, supra note 8.

16 Moe. See also, Dispossessed, supra note 13.

17 Moe.

18 Ibid.

19 Warning Signs, pp. 20-21.

20 Thailand Burma Border Consortium, International Displacement and International Law in Eastern Burma. Oct. 2008, p. 21.

21 Warning Signs, pp. 24-25.

22 Shan Women’s Action Network (SWAN) website, “About Us: General Background,” at: <http://www.shanwomen. org/>. Last accessed 12 Apr. 2009. Thailand does not recognize refugees, and even the camps on the Thai-Burmese border for the Karen and Karenni from Burma are not offi cially refugee camps but “temporary shelters.”

23 Ibid.

24 EarthRights International. “Fatally Flawed: The Tasang Dam on the Salween River,” 2001, at : <http://www.burmainfo.org/eri/FatallyFlawed.pdf>. Last accessed 16 Apr. 2009. [Hereinafter “Fatally Flawed”].

25 Yuki Akimoto, “Hydropowering the Regime,” The Irrawaddy, June 2004.

26 The Salween Under Threat, supra note 1 at 46.

27 Warning Signs, p.5.

28 Fatally Flawed.

29 Shan Herald Agency for News, “Chinese dam builds set up 60 Pillars for Tasang Dam,” 27 Jan. 2008, at: <http://shanland.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1809:chinese-dam-builders-set-up-60- pillars-for-tasang-dam&catid=90:environment&Itemid=287>. Last accessed 10 Apr. 2009. Burma Environmental Working Group 127

30 Fatally Flawed.

31 Fatally Flawed.

32 Moe.

33 Fatally Flawed.

34 Denis D. Gray, “Burma Dam Plan Causes Flood of Concern,”10 Jun. 2006, at: <http://www.terraper.org/ media_view.php?id=69>. Last accessed 16 Apr. 2009.

35 Shan State Organization, “Meeting Position on the Plans by the Burmese Military Regime to build a dam on the Slaween River in Shan State,” 10 Sept. 1999, at: <http://burmalibrary.org/docs/SW04.htm>. Last accessed 16 Apr. 2009.

36 Fatally Flawed.

37 Fatally Flawed.

38 Moe.

39 Burma Rivers Network website, at: < http://www.burmariversnetwork.org/dam-projects/salween-dams/tasang. htm>, last accessed Sept.9, 2009.

40 Warning Signs, pp. 17, 24, 25.

41 World Rainforest Movement. “Burma: Forests for Export to China”. World Rainforest Bulletin. No. 82. May 2004. <http://www.wrm.org.uy/bulletin/82/Burma.html>. Last accessed 16 Apr. 2009.

42 Phu Murng, “No More Teak Forest in Shan State,” Shan Herald Agency for News, 7 Mar. 2006, at: <http://www.shanland.org/oldversion/index-2037.htm>. Last accessed 15 Apr. 2009.

43 Ibid.

44 Clearcutting is a logging practice in which most or all trees in a harvest area are cut down. Many environmentalists see it as unnecessary destruction of habitat.

45 Warning Signs, pp. 17.

46 Warning Signs, pp. 17.

47 Warning Signs, pp. 18.

48 Warning Signs, pp. 18.

49 See generally, Warning Signs, pp.13-14.

50 Interim report on the situation of human rights in Myanmar prepared by the Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights in accordance with Economic and Social Council decision 1999/231 of 27 July 1999, para. 54. Transmitted to the UN General Assembly’s 54th session, 4 October 1999 [A/54/440]. United Nations, Economic and Social Council, Commission on Human Rights: Geneva, 22 January 1999.

51 Moe.

52 Warning Signs, pp.13-14.

53 Warning Signs, p.14.

54 Warning Signs, p.12. See also, Burma Rivers Network, supra note 39.

55 Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, U.S. Department of State, 2008 Human Rights Report: Burma, 25 Feb. 2009.

56 Fatally Flawed.

57 EarthRights International, Total Denial Continues: Earth Rights Abuses Along the Yadana and Yetagun Pipelines in Burma, 2000, pp.23-37.

58 Moe.

59 Fatally Flawed.

60 Sapawa Interview, June 24, 2009.

61 Warning Signs, p.14.

62 2008 Human Rights Report, supra note 55.

63 Moe.

64 Moe.

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