A view from upstream of Malaysia's Bakun dam, in the inland of the eastern state of Sarawak on Borneo island, December 11, 2003. (Bazuki Muhammad/Courtesy Reuters)
This is a guest post by Prashanth Parameswaran, a former researcher at the Project 2049 Institute, who is currently conducting research on dam projects in Southeast Asia.
These past few weeks have not been good ones for large dam projects in Southeast Asia. Big hydropower projects have been caught in a web of unsafe corporate practices, fierce political violence and simmering regional tensions.
On June 9, another round of fighting erupted in Burma’s northern Kachin state, where Chinese companies are building a series of dams to power southern China. Dozens were killed, hundreds of Chinese workers were evacuated, and thousands of civilians fled the affected area. The political wing of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), an ethnic minority armed group in Burma which has clashed repeatedly with the government, has also fiercely opposed the construction of a large dam in Myistone, a culturally and ecologically sensitive area. In fact, the group sent an open letter to the Chinese government in March to stop the dam’s construction, warning of the risk of civil war.
It is not clear what exactly prompted this latest outbreak of fighting. Some claim that the Burmese government wants to ensure that the project is built so it will receive hundreds of millions in annual power sales, while others contend that the military is using it as a pretext to exert control in the northern areas which have resisted its control. What is clear is that the dam projects are exacerbating internal conflict due to concerns regarding the distribution of benefits, damage to the environment and displacement of local populations.
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