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A collaboration between Chiang Mai-based Eureka films and DVB‘s investigative documentary team, “Mega Dams on the Thanlwin” explores a subject that has excited strong passions in Burma in the past, but which in this case has gone barely noticed outside of the affected area: the construction of mega-dams to supply neighboring countries with electricity.
Working with a skeleton crew in Karen and Mon states last year, filmmaker Tom Fawthrop interviewed activists, academics, and local people who stand to have their lives changed by Chinese-backed hydropower projects along the Thanlwin River, also known as the Salween.
The film specifically focuses on the Mong Ton Dam project in eastern Shan State. The proposed mega-dam will produce 34.7 billion kilowatt hours of energy per year — most of it for export to Thailand and China. Environmentalists estimated that the floodplain caused by the dam will displace between 200,000 and 300,000 civilians.
Downstream in Karen State there has also been strong mobilization against another huge dam — the US$2.6 billion Hatgyi Dam, which has an installed capacity of 1,360 megawatts. Altogether five dams had been approved by the previous government.
Large-scale dams have long been a flashpoint of controversy across the country. For many citizens, they have come to represent both official corruption and the impunity and undue influence Chinese companies have across the nation. During his first year in office, former President Thein Sein froze construction on the infamous Myitsone Dam project in Kachin State in the face of fierce public opposition.
“The Salween is one of the last great rivers of the region that has still not yet been dammed,” said Fawthrop.
“I would hope that after watching this film that many people would be amazed that the gigantic Mong Ton dam — a mega-dam project that will flood such a vast area of Shan State — could be approved by the last government, without any serious debate about how it would impact millions living along the Salween.”
Speaking to DVB, Fawthrop said one of the most illuminating interviews was with the celebrated Chinese environmentalist Dr. Yu Xiagang, who led the charge against similar dam projects along the sections of the Salween located in China’s Yunnan Province.
“China decided that their own damming of the Salween in Yunnan Province was ‘too dangerous to proceed’ in 2004, because of earthquake fault-lines and the risk that dams may trigger or could be seriously damaged by a new disaster,” said Fawthrop.
“The Salween in Burma shares a similar earthquake-prone geology and seismology to Yunnan in China. This was a very strong point made in our film by Burmese earthquake experts. If the dams on this very important river are not safe for Chinese people, how can the risk ever be deemed acceptable for citizens of Burma?”
While many of those interviewed in the film firmly reject large-scale projects like the Mong Ton Dam, Fawthrop said they were also quite knowledgeable and optimistic about the possibilities of small-scale hydropower projects and green energy based on solar panels and wind power.
“The documentary is also alert to the country’s urgent needs for more energy, especially the rural population,” he said. “Many people we interviewed were against mega-dams but consider hydropower OK if the dams are small, and the local communities give their approval. But several experts urged the new government to launch green energy installations using solar power as the fastest way to deliver energy to rural communities.”