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Rethinking Burma’s waterways through Foucault’s biopolitics

Perspectives on Burma’s waterways have been polarised into two competing positions: focusing on developing its vast hydropower potential and advocating for local communities’ needs and concerns. Burma’s great rivers and their tributaries provide its people with livelihoods, food and transport channels, and are an important part of the national and local cultural heritage, as well as the nation’s natural heritage. As such, the development plans that are being proposed for the country’s waterways often incite political discussions at both national and regional levels. The numerous, often large-scale projects will fundamentally change not only the physical landscape, but also the way of life for hundreds of thousands of people living near the waterways.

U Aung Myint, a member of the National Energy Management Committee and the founder of the Renewable Energy Association of Myanmar, describes the country’s vast hydropower potential to me as “a special gift” thanks to Burma’s topography, hydrology and climate. Yet he is highly critical of the current plans and says the hydropower sector in Burma requires much better social and environmental impact assessments and should shift its focus from facilitating energy exports to benefiting local communities.

In Burma, most hydropower dam projects are located in ethnic areas and have often been associated with an increased military presence and various forms of injustices done to the local community. Pascal Khoo Thwe, a Padaung ethnic dissident writer, shares his personal experience of the impact of the Mobye Dam in Karenni State in his book “From the Land of Green Ghosts”: “[T]his dam feeds water to the hydro-electric plant connected with the very Lawpita Waterfall that occupied my childhood imagination and which supplies electricity to half of Burma. Phekhon was granted the status of a township — and got no electricity,” he wrote.

Hydropower dams fundamentally change the ecology and morphology of the river, and the relationship between the waterways and the people living around it. Displacement of the local population is one indication of the dramatic impact dams can have on people’s lives. A 2016 report by Physicians for Human Rights surveyed 80 of the 8,000 individuals forcibly evicted from villages to make way for the Upper Paunglaung Dam in southern Shan State, which powers the capital, Naypyidaw. The report shows staggering increases in poverty and negative effects on mental health. A collective experience of deprivation of livelihoods and other necessities, including access to clean water, is the direct result of the state decision.

The contrast between these findings and official narratives could hardly be starker. In The Global New Light of Myanmar, Burma’s state media, a celebratory coverage of the Upper Paunglaung Dam’s opening in late 2015 is complemented with photographs showing an aerial view of the dam and former President Thein Sein being greeted by local residents in colourful ethnic attire and holding Burma’s national flag. The article details the significance of electricity supply to satisfy the surging demand from factories and industrial zones, but there is no mention of the villagers who have been forcibly displaced. State media frequently covers hydropower dams on its front page, and the news stories evince the narratives of hydropower dams to bring “modernity,” “development,” and “industrialisation” to the country.

In Burma, socially constructed ideas for development of waterways currently empower some and victimise others, particularly in the case of hydropower, where local communities often shoulder the costs and “the nation” gains the benefits.

This essay doesn’t argue against current development projects in Burma; everyone has a right to prosperity and a dignified life, and achieving this through development is a crucial task ahead for the people of Burma. Yet, a critical approach to the state-centric development plans and the narratives that dominate policy and planning can foster public debate and participation. Looking through the prism of bio-politics can illuminate the implications of development and its links to the sophisticated power that is exerted over individuals and societies in Burma. This, I argue, is particularly timely in the context of Burma’s ongoing political and economic transition. Below I will set out some theoretical concepts used by political scientists that arguably apply in the case of Burma’s waterways.

Due to their strategic importance, waterways are often referred to by policymakers and academics as “geopolitical.” Water infrastructure, such as large-scale hydropower dams, water diversion schemes and canals, have been important to geopolitics in various historical contexts. “Geopolitics,” or “geopolitik,” was first coined by Rudolf Kjellén, a 19th century Swedish political scientist, who viewed states as organic forces that grow, live, and die in a spatial domain, with geographical spaces becoming a centre of political contention. In a geopolitical framework, states are the main actors contesting material and non-material power over space.

Considering rivers through the prism of geopolitics provides useful insight in helping us perceive waterways as a scene of internationalised contestation of power. For instance, the controversial Chinese-backed Myitsone dam on the Irrawaddy River is viewed by some in Burma and abroad as a strategic project allowing Beijing to exert power over its neighbour.

However, the state-centric perspective of geopolitics overshadows the struggles of local communities and minorities as they contest development plans for waterways. I argue these deserve greater attention. In this context, “biopolitics” can provide a helpful perspective for the politics between people and state.

Biopolitics is a concept coined by renowned 20th century French philosopher Michel Foucault to address the interplay between a population and “new” forms of power arising from new institutions, such as medicine, education, correctional systems and the state army in recent centuries. These are forms of power that operate to “foster life or disallow it to the point of death” rather than maintaining a more basic, ancient sovereign power over life and death, in a form of monopoly on violence. In modern society, tightened control of a population is enabled by regulating physio- and social environments as well as allowing or limiting an individual’s choices.

Biopower, a mode of power, in essence refers to new levels of power that go beyond the political, economic and legal spheres. Such power is made possible by highly sophisticated technologies and systems that can both control and enable the collective and the integrity of the individual. Authorities and agents who control a population through influencing their life expectancy, birth control and other measures of public health are exercising a form of biopower.

Water is constantly exchanged between individual bodies and the socio-physical environment, thus the usage and regulation of water is a subject of biopolitics. Karen Bakker writes that, “Framing water as biopolitical implies a link between the constitution and consolidation of political and economic power, on the one hand, and the control of socio-natures, on the other.” Water, as a biological vector that can spread disease, is biopolitical in so much as the control and management of water has a direct impact on the well-being of individuals. As a result, equitable access to water remains a focus of modern public health, subject to public debate. Kooys and Bakker illustrate how the narratives of “modernity” were used to execute biopower of water over the population through the case of Dutch colonial management of water systems in Jakarta, which were deliberately segregated with a then state-of-the art piping system built for “Europeans” and traditional water supply for the “natives.” The water supply system under colonial management facilitated the provision of clean, disease-free water to some, which enabled certain segments of the population to live. Access to clean water is vital to sustain lives and a lack of it has the detrimental effect of “disallowing life to the point of death.”

Burma is now at a historical junction, with a traditional society meeting rapid-paced development. The country is ethnically, culturally, linguistically and religiously diverse — a fact that offers criteria for categorisation along these lines forming a basis for regulatory biopolitics. The country’s ethnic conflict and six-decades-long civil war is as much about power and rights over natural resources, including waterways, as a conflict about political rights.

The development plans for Burma’s waterways, especially for economic purposes, offer a clear illustration of what could be described as an attempt to govern the ethnic minority population through biopolitics. A number of energy master plans drafted since 2013 guide the government in a process of increasing the electricity generation capacity in response to the anticipated increase in demand. According to the Ministry of Electricity and Energy, 63 percent of Burma’s current electricity supply comes from the hydropower stations in ethnic minority areas, and the current generation capacity of 3,158 megawatts (MW) from hydropower is bound to increase to 8,896 MW by 2031. An immense disparity between the population living in areas under government control and “border areas” is hidden behind the ambitious plan. At present the national electricity grid covers only one-third of the population in big cities and townships, and excludes most of the rural areas and border regions.

The current plan is to complete the expansion of a national electricity grid by 2030 with a $400 million loan from the World Bank. Expansion of the national grid to the entire country would be a costly and long-term effort, thus it may take a long period of time for the communities to receive the benefit of hydropower development. As a short- and medium-term solution, a number of experts have been advising the government to endeavour to enhance off-grid electrification on a small-scale, especially in rural areas, which requires a bottom-up approach for its successful implementation.


In recent years, activists from a dozen community-based and non-governmental organisations in Burma have challenged this state narrative, generating a strong counter-discourse on the development of the country’s waterways. Environmental activists in particular have been enjoying improved freedom and opportunity to engage with local communities in remote parts of the country. Their counter-narrative emphasises local livelihoods and ownership, rivers as cultural and natural heritage, and autonomy and self-determination of ethnic minority groups. “Communities across the country have long voiced opposition to dams on the Irrawaddy and Salween rivers. Multiple reports by local ethnic organisations have detailed the environmental, social and political impacts of damming these rivers,” said Save the Salween Network and the Burma Rivers Network in a joint statement in January 2017.

Resistance against biopower manifests itself in the forms of counter-narrative and collective actions. For instance, a recent documentary on the massive Mong Tong Dam being planned in eastern Shan State reflects a people-centric, conservation-focused perspective. The 30-minute film captures the astonishing natural beauty at the confluence of the Pang and Salween rivers. Through the documentary, the voice of villagers, and their narrative of loss and hardship, gets amplified.

The civilian government of Burma has been given a strong political mandate to bring peace and development to the country. So far, the political changes appear to have had no effect on the government narrative on waterways, while resistance to this development-oriented narrative remains strong. Burma’s robust and diverse civil society is a valuable asset for the country, providing inclusive and critical narratives from their invaluable experiences working with local communities.

Many environmental activists I have met in Burma have expressed varying degrees of frustration over the lack of inclusion of civil society in policy discussions over waterways. Their demand is that public consultation with local communities should not be treated as a procedural requirement in the project cycle, but that discussions with civil society should take place on the policy level. In particular, many want a moratorium on waterways development in ethnic areas until there is a nationwide peace accord. I cannot say what policy instrument or process would best support creating a new narrative that is inclusive of all stakeholders in Burma but, as a first step, there should be open discussions so the old narrative can be challenged.

Kyungmee Kim is a PhD candidate at the Department of Peace and Conflict, Uppsala University. Her dissertation examines the impact of dams in Burma’s civil war and civilian-ethnic armed group relations.

This story was originally published by Tea Circle, an Oxford forum for new and emerging perspectives on Burma during its political and economic transition.


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