Challenges of Social Movements for a Healthy Than Lwin River

Challenges of Social Movements for a Healthy Than Lwin River

Let's Free Flows Nam Khone

(Than Lwin or Salween River)

I shall pass through this life but more any good, therefore,

that I can do

The green world and peaceful life that I am able to create for the new generation!

Let me do it now

Let me not defer or neglect it

I would like to embrace and deliberate peace to the world while I live

For I shall not pass this way again

Only with enthusiasm can find the goal

Let mother Nam khone gives nourishment to my heart

To achieve my goal

I need an extra strong spirit and courage plus further supports from you,

the free flowing river that runs deep

let me say that I got a perfect life

because of what the river has done for me

So Mom continues to flow deep and wide

You are the spice of our life!

…Shining …(2006)

“I am Pairot, Karen ethnic, living along the Salween River. I prefer to identify myself as Salween Citizen rather than according to the country I belong to. We Karen people are living along Thai and Myanmar side of  the river. We know no frontiers. The Salween River means everything to me, my family, my community and our culture. While people in the city regard the river as a source of energy, we see the river as an essential part of our life.” (Pairot, Thailand)

Than Lwin River is a transboundary river originating from the Tibetan mountain range in China. It flows through Thailand before entering into Myanmar, passing through Shan, Kayah, Mon and Karen States and ending its journey in the Andaman Sea. The river is called Nu Jang in China, Salween in Thailand and Than Lwin in Myanmar. From the source to the sea, it supplies food, creates culture, and shows off its natural beauty to ethnic minorities along the way. Therefore, the Than Lwin River is known as Ethnic River and also regarded as a lifeline of ethnic minorities.  

Than Lwin River under threat

While the Than Lwin River offers a lot to the ethnic minorities, the people in the city want to use the river for energy production to foster economic growth. Inside Myanmar only five dams have been proposed to be build on the main stream of Than Lwin River: Kunlong dam, generating 1400 Mega Watt , Nong Pha Dam (1000 MW), Mong Ton Dam (7110 MW) in Shan State, Ywathit dam in Kayah state (4000 MW) and Hat Gyi dam in Karen State (1360 MW). Mong Ton dam would be the biggest dam in Southeast Asia with a water reservoir the size of Singapore. According to a the fact sheet of SMEC, the project’s Environmental Impact Assessment consultant, the dam will be 241 meters height and the reservoir 641 square meter large. 45% of the electricity will be exported to China, 45% will be sold to Thailand and only 10% will be for domestic use. The dam developers are China Three Gorges Project Corporation, Sinohydro Corporation, China Southern Power Grid, Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT), and International Group of Entrepreneurs Co.

Potential Impacts of Mong Ton Dam

Mong Ton dam has a very high potential to pose big risks in terms of social and environmental impacts both for upstream and downstream areas of the dam site, that would be irreversible. Water is essential for the everyday life of people living in the river basin as it not only provides livelihood, but also a cultural bond between communities. Some people’s livelihoods and income depends mainly on fishing. For them, changes in the ecosystem endanger the survival of the river’s fish stock and thereby also their lives. Here the water, the air, the soil, the forest, the people and the animals are interconnected. When one element is removed from the ecosystem, everything is impacted. Vulnerable groups such as women and children will suffer the most from changes. One lesson learnt from Myanmar’s mega development projects (such as Myitsone dam, Hat Gyi dam, Mong Ton dam, mining projects, oil and gas projects), is that affected communities, and especially women ,  have had not enough opportunities for meaningful participation and did not receive adequate information regarding their relocation and compensation. In the past, increased militarization and conflicts have been related to hydropower projects, and caused human rights abuses (Karen River Watch, 2014). More than 100 cases of sexual and gender based violence against ethnic minority women by military have been documented (Women’s League of Myanmar, 2014).

Also, building a large hydropower dam is the slowest option to install energy generation capacity, taking many years to complete. Even if all the energy were used in Myanmar, and not exported to neighboring counties, it still could take ten years from now before power could be supplied. Obviously that would not solve the current energy crisis.

As long as  there is no policy that guarantees gender equality and good governance during the development processes, justice for women cannot be achieved and the over-exploitation of natural resource is unavoidable.

The Grassroots Movement along the Than Lwin River in Shan State

It is argued, that there are four factors that influence the degree of participation by a community: 1) the political environment, 2) local power structures, 3) previous contact and interaction with development agencies, and 4) traditions, including cultural rules and norms of social behavior. Arising challenges  concern issues of empowerment, benefit sharing, efficiency, and sustainability in natural resources management.  

The political environment is one of the key factors that influence the people’s participation in the decision making process. Even though, the natural resources are a common property, yet, the local people are excluded from their management. For example subsistence use of the forest is limited, because the  natural resources are state’s property. Moreover local people lack knowledge of how to conserve and protect their environment in collective action.

From our working experiences on the ground, the negotiating power of locals with the authorities is low. Local people have been living under the oppression of the military government for several decades, even though the situation is currently better than it has been in the last few years. However, there are no civil society and community based organizations yet to initiate and facilitate community empowerment or development. Due to the lack of leadership and awareness of human rights, the local people's negotiating power is too weak to achieve self-determination regarding community development and social movement.

Previous contact and interaction with development agencies is also considered a very important factor in participatory development processes. The people living along the Than Lwin River, where the Mong Ton dam is proposed to be built, lack opportunities to interact with the outside world. It is difficult for them to get the support from other networks, and work as a team to protect and promote resources. Having grown up in a war zone, people tend to be more serious, sensitive, lacking trust and unity among themselves. Since there is lack of initiative to work as a team and a lack of information and relationships with the other parts of the world, local people tend to be ignorant about broader social, and political, environmental issues. 

Traditions, cultural rules, social value and behavior norms are also among the influential factors for community participation in decision-making processes. In the Than Lwin River Basin people find everything they need for their livelihoods in the forest, the river, and the soil. Therefore, the natural resources are the lifeline of the local people. However after six decades under military rule, the lack of traditional rules and customary law to ensure  environmental protection, also the forest have been deforested for firewood.

Significant weaknesses of civil society along the Than Lwin River basin are 1) limited awareness of their individual/ collective rights and 2) a lack of powerful leadership to protect their resources.

Concerns of Than Lwin River’s Citizens

“In fact, the current electricity supply in Thailand is sufficient to cover demand. The capacity and reserve margin of electricity we have right now is more than is needed. Currently, electricity from Mong Ton dam is not essential for Thailand.” (Lao Fang,Thai lawyer)

“[Even] without the dam on the Nam Khone river, we have sufficient electricity  supply in this area. 90% of the electricity outputs will be sold to Thailand and China. Let's say, if we have 100 Kyats, 90 are given to others, then the local people will keep only 10.” (Na Sae Monk , Kun Heng Township)

“They discussed that if the dam on the Nam Khone River is built our place will be flooded. Actually itt doesn't even matter if we are flooded or not. In one of the implementation stages of the project we definitely have to move out. Already now, even though there are not many military and government officials yet, we have to inform them, when we are collecting food and hunting in the forest just two miles surrounding our village. We do not agree on proposed project and will not accept it to be built.” (Local villager from Wan Sala Village, Mong Ton Township)


In her book ‘Participatory exclusions, community forestry, and gender: An analysis for South Asia and a conceptual framework’ (2001) Bina Agarwal argues that achieving effective participation could shift a situation from a lower level to higher levels, with levels defined by people's mobilizing skills and active involvement throughout the processes. In accordance with Agarwal's statement and a bottom-up approach,  capacity building  is needed for local communities. This should include leadership skills; human rights and environmental protection; conflict resolution skills. It would be an effective way to improve meaningful participation by allowing local people to actively participate in a right-based natural resources management.

Since the people-elected government came to power in 2011, a number of laws, rules and regulations have been amended, including the Environmental Conservation Law, which was approved on 30 March 2012; and the Environmental Impact Assessment Law, which was approved on 29 December 2015. The implication of the laws and policies ensure 1) a meaningful consultation and inclusive participation; 2) disclosure of relevant information; and 3) social and environmental responsibility of the development project. With political will and existing laws and regulations, civil society has to find a way enforce laws and regulations on the ground. Furthermore, the role of civil society is also very important in balancing power-relations between the government and local communities through good governance and law enforcement.



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