Reporting on Dams in Dictator-Run Countries
Building a dam is not a crime, but governments in Southeast Asia don’t want journalists to watch too closely. Sometimes local people get hurt in conflicts with government officials or developers, as pieces of land are transformed into the architecture designed to block a river’s passage. Countries in mainland Southeast Asia, notably Communist-run Laos and military junta-ruled Myanmar (formerly Burma) have the potential to utilize their mountainous geography and abundance of rivers for hydropower development as a way to boost their cash-strapped economies.
These two slow-growth economies didn’t want to create a huge amount of electricity for local consumption. Instead they planned to build a series of dams to provide power for the more advanced Thai economy, which is not able to move ahead with any proposed hydroelectric projects at home due to strong objections from environmentalists and local residents. Most of Thailand’s dams were built when it was ruled by military regimes in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Pak Mun Dam, the most recent one build there in the 1990’s and sponsored by the World Bank, is now under pressure from local residents and civic groups to be decommissioned due to social and environmental damage it is causing while generating little power. Because of this, the state-run Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) would dispatch its engineers to build dams in the rivers of its immediate neighbors, Laos and Myanmar, whose ample natural resource remains untapped, said the EGAT Governor Kaisri Kannasutra. In a recent interview, the governor did not mention that building dams in neighboring countries is easier than in Thailand since there is no strong civil society to oppose or monitor the negative impact of the projects. It’s also difficult for journalists to cover the dam construction there.
In 1996, Thailand signed a memorandum of understanding with Laos to purchase 3,000 megawatts (MW) of electricity from dam projects to be built there by 2008. Two small dams, Theun- Hinboun (214 MW) and Houay Ho (126 MW), have already been plugged into the Thai grid system. Next comes the Nam Theun II (1100 MW), the biggest and perhaps most controversial hydro-project in Southeast Asia.
Despite heated debate over excessive supply in Thailand’s power system from the Laos projects, the kingdom is still looking for more supply from Myanmar, whose series of five dams in the virgin Salween River is being seriously discussed with the Thai purchaser and potential developers.
Thai electricity consumers know very little about these huge deals with their neighboring countries. This is due to limitations on news coverage and inadequate information supply from the concerned parties. Very few people in Thailand—or anywhere else in the world—have solid information about the impact of these dams on local residents who are mostly ethnic minorities and who, to some extent, continue armed struggle for their autonomy. Usually, the reservoir created by the dam displaces people who live along the river, but these people are given no chance to bring their concerns to a wider audience since media in these countries are under state control. Those who work in the news media usually are not authorized to publicize much more than the beautiful flowers, colorful butterflies, and bright future ahead when the dams light the lamps.
Nam Theun Dam Project
The Nam Theun Dam has a long history. The Mekong Secretariat, a regional body that oversaw utilization plans for Southeast Asia’s longest river, the Mekong, identified its hydropower potential in the 1970’s. Between 1989 and 1991, a feasibility study was done by the United Nations Development Program. The name “Nam Theun” was publicized in 1993 when an Australian company sent a one paragraph press statement to media offices in Thailand saying that it signed a pact with the government in Vientiane (the capital of Laos) to develop the project. Nobody got excited at this notice, since the signing was reported as investment news without detail.
Journalists in Thailand still had no clear idea where the Nam Theun River was—or what the consequences of this project might be—until a nongovernmental organization led by conservationist Witoon Permpongsachareon acknowledged that at least two dams would be built on a tributary of the Mekong River called Nam Theun, which runs from the eastern mountains through Nakai Plateau down to the Mekong, the natural border with Thailand.
Backed by studies done by Western academics and environmentalists, Witoon supplied information to journalists indicating the dam would affect a huge area. It would deforest one of Laos’s virgin forests and displace many thousands of people. Furthermore, the Nam Theun II project would not be a normal dam—blocking a river and installing a turbine at the bottom—but it would be a trans-basin dam, diverting water from the Nam Theun River to flow through its turbine before releasing it to another river called Xe Bang Fai. This meant that some 40,000 people in Xe Bang Fai basin would also be affected.
At the beginning, Vientiane refused to allow any news media access to the construction site as it commissioned a military-run Bosilat Pattana Khet Phudoi company to deforest the inundated areas. I, along with other Thai media, sat on the Thai bank of the Mekong where we watched trucks take logs to supply sawmills in Thailand. Log traders were quoted in many stories as saying that “deforestation of Nakai Plateau clears way for Nam Theun Dam.” By 1994-1995, reporters managed to sneak into the site to confirm the vast deforestation, as well as report related stories about corruption among officials in illegal timber-logging trade. This prompted angry replies from Vientiane, and soon journalists in the Indochina section of my newspaper at that time were blacklisted in Laos. The list was not announced, but our visa applications were rejected without clear reason time after time.
Strong criticism from conservationists about deforestation and corruption led officials at the World Bank to force the Lao government to restructure the project management and to withdraw the military-run company from the project. The concession was handed over to an Electricite de France-led international consortium. Then the project faced a long delay between 1997-1998 following the Asian economic crisis. Still, the World Bank needed to be involved in the project since the Lao government requested financial support, and developers wanted to cut down on their political risk with a guarantee for breach of agreement or nationalization by the Communist regime. But the bank would not extend its support without receiving consensus from international donors regarding the project’s social implications, environmental protections, and the government’s strategy for poverty reduction.
To have transparency, in accordance with the bank’s requirement, the government and project developers organized press tours to the site in 2002 and 2003 for Bangkok and Hanoi-based journalists to see the areas and talk with some “guided-to-speak affected villagers.” The World Bank also organized consultative workshops in Bangkok, Tokyo, Paris, Washington and Vientiane, in which journalists and civic groups were invited to have some input.
These days journalists are allowed access to the dam’s construction site but only with a Lao official guide, and they also need to pay the Lao Ministry of Foreign Affairs service charge of $100 for an accreditation card and $20 per diem for each accompanying official. To try to sneak into Laos without permission can result in a journalist easily getting arrested and, if that happens, only “money language” is likely to help, unless your government has influence over Vientiane.
In the late 1970’s, Global Infrastructure Fund, a political and business association in Japan, proposed building a series of dams on the virgin Salween River. A survey in 1981 indicated two possible locations, one in Myanmar’s Shan State, the other in the lower basin of the river in Mon State.
Many private investors are eager to tap the hydroelectric potential of the Salween, which runs from Tibet through the eastern part of Myanmar before reaching the Gulf of Mataban. Since the early 1990’s, the military-run government of Myanmar has granted permission to many groups to conduct feasibility studies, but these failed to make progress due to the river’s inaccessibility. Living along the banks of the river are strongholds of many rebellious minorities who have waged an armed struggle for independence, or at least autonomy, since Myanmar was freed from being a British colony in 1948.
Some of these potential investors tried to make a deal with the junta and the rebels to clear areas for the construction. I once met a group of Thai investors standing in line to talk with a leading opium kingpin, Khun Sa, about the Salween project when I interviewed him in 1994. They wanted Khun Sa’s Mong Tai Army to secure the area for experts to conduct field survey, but the opium lord did not have the chance to do so before he forcibly surrendered to the government in January 1996.
In 1997, the project was raised again when the Thai government signed a memorandum of understanding to purchase 1,500 MW from Myanmar. But the Asian economic crisis intervened again. The project began anew in 2003 when a private investor agreed to develop a dam on the Salween, at a place called Ta Sang. (Meanwhile EGAT proposed a joint investment with its Myanmar counterpart to build a series of five dams on the Salween. Thailand wanted to develop something like Itaipu—a megahydroelectric project jointly owned by Brazil and Paraguay. The EGAT project is still only on paper.)
Ta Sang’s developers began field surveys as the junta deployed troops to the west bank of the Salween to secure the site, though it is still not totally safe since several insurgent groups remain active. Government troops have removed thousands of minorities from the area to unknown destinations, and some hill tribes migrated to Thailand.
The Salween projects regularly are written about in Thai newspapers. But most of the quotes are from the mouths of Thai officials and conservationists, as well as documents we can find. Very few journalists can get to the proposed site to see and talk with affected people due to ongoing fighting. Myanmar’s blacklist of journalists—of which my name is on the top—is not a key barrier for coverage since the junta cannot effectively control the border. Sneaking across the border means confronting armed fighting at times, so my reporting trips to the area are often postponed after news of fighting. We have no clear information about the number of people affected by this project since EGAT and the Ta Sang developers have offered no exact figure. But the Thai-based conservationist Southeast Asia River Network has said some 2,000 households would be affected from the Ta Sang project. The number affected by EGAT’s proposed series of dams remains unknown.
Unlike Laos’s Nam Theun, international financial institutions could not be involved in the Salween project due to sanctions against Myanmar over its suppression of democracy and human rights violations. This means no international organization is there to monitor the construction, as well as its social and environment impact. EGAT Governor Kaisri said Chinese investors will be joining the Salween projects. China, which has political influence over Yangon, has demonstrated its own harsh handling of affected communities with its Three Gorges Dam, which displaced 1.9 million people in its construction.
Of course, building a dam to generate electricity is not a crime but, in many cases, what happens during its construction appears to be. Illegal deforestation and forced relocation—perhaps without monetary compensation—and the environmental impact of constructing dams are topics routinely covered in countries where news reporters are able to function effectively. In this region of the world, many dams are being built, but those who should be watching are kept away, and the people are being kept uninformed.
Supalak Ganjanakhundee is a senior reporter at The Nation in Bangkok, Thailand.