As Myanmar painfully emerges from decades of international isolation, it represents Southeast Asia’s last great hydro power frontier. Tim Sharp reports on how Japan is beginning to establish a strong presence in this sector

HUMANITARIANISM is being used by Japan to establish a strong presence in Myanmar’s burgeoning hydro power sector. After Tokyo cracked open the global de facto ban on bilateral assistance to Myanmar in mid-April – by quietly agreeing to reward political liberalisation within the country with a US$28.6M grant to rehabilitate the 168MW Baluchaung 2 hydro power plant – Kansai Electric Power announced on 3 August 2001 it had signed a consulting contract with Myanmar to assist feasibility studies, design and construction of up to 12 hydro power projects over the next five years.

Baluchaung 2 is Myanmar’s largest hydro power plant (the next largest is Kinda at 56MW), and was built by the Japanese in the 1960s as part of war reparations. It now needs urgent turbine refurbishment to maintain output.

Although the grant raised hackles all over the world, not least among human rights, environmental activists and US Secretary of State Colin Powell, it was brokered by United Nations special envoy Razali Ismail to reward Rangoon for pursuing reconciliation talks with opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. It also had UN and US blessing.

‘We are not going here alone,’ a Japanese official said at the time. ‘This hydro power plant provides electricity to 20% of the nation, including many hospitals. In that way we may classify this as a humanitarian project.’

This could almost be true. Myanmar’s Ministry of Electric Power (MEP) lists a total fleet of 15 grid-connected power stations in 2000 – seven hydro and eight gas turbine. Baluchaung 2 represents almost 17% of total installed capacity of just over 1000MW. All seven hydro plants contributed 21% (959GWh) to total energy generated in 1999-2000 (4508B kWh).

But it is also true that, as Myanmar painfully emerges from decades of isolation, it represents Southeast Asia’s last great hydro power frontier. Although its plans will be constrained in the short term by limited demand, it has 29 hydro power projects totalling 14,098MW in various stages of development. Up to 100,000MW could be built.

It is not clear which of these projects Kansai Electric Power will work on. However, they will likely be drawn from the ‘planning’ list as substantial work has already been done on the ‘advanced’ projects.

This is particularly true of the Salween river projects along Thailand’s western border. These include, working north to south, the Tasang, Ywathit and Hutgyi schemes.

What is clear from the furore the Japanese grant created is that all these projects will come under intense human rights and environmental scrutiny. EarthRights International’s (ERI) response to the grant – a statement of ‘proposed principles and scope for human rights and environment survey’ sent to Japan’s Foreign Ministry on 26 July 2001 – is a good example of what is to come. The statement assumes that the exact size and purpose of the grant depends on a forthcoming survey mission to Baluchaung. It is this that ERI wants to influence. ERI details ten topics it believes require investigation during the survey. These are:

• Military presence and current/potential human rights abuses at and around Baluchaung.

• Forced labour.

• Forced relocation.

• Agriculture.

• Electricity to local villages.

• Landmines.

• Sustainability of repairs.

• Electricity distribution in Rangoon and Mandalay.

• Position of the Karenni on the Thai-Burma border.

• Alternatives.

Reference is twice made to the World Commission on Dams’ (WCD) strategic priorities.

ERI then suggests eight principles on which the survey itself should be based. These are no military involvement, access to villages and individuals, independent interpreters, guarantee of safety for interviewees, appropriate survey team, conditions under which the survey can be suspended, complaints mechanism and disclosure of information.

Very clearly, Myanmar is keen to develop its hydro power resources which seem likely to play a significant role in its re-integration into the wider world. Is Japan ready?
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