British firm attacked over Burma dams: the Observer

Above (top) the Salween river basin as it passes through Karen State in Southeastern Burma; and above (below) a group of demonstrators protest against the Ta Sang project in Shan State.

Here's my latest venture into the world of hackery at the Observer:
The British construction company that helped to build two dams in Burma has been condemned by human rights campaigners amid reports that the projects led to the forced relocation of villagers.
Malcolm Dunstan and Associates, a Devon-based family-run firm, has been involved in concrete construction on the Yeywa dam in central Burma and the Ta Sang project on the Salween river in the north-east of the country. The projects, which will generate electricity for Thailand and China, have been targeted by human rights activists after reports that thousands of villagers had been removed from floodplains and opposition ruthlessly crushed.

A bit of background:

Malcolm Dunstan and Associates (MD&A) is involved in a “joint venture” with the Myanmar Electric Power Enterprise, Thailand's MDX group, and several Chinese firms operating inside a country Amnesty International has called “a prison without bars”.

MD&A have been working on the Ta Sang project in central Shan State in north-east Burma, but the consortium has faced difficulties commencing construction since the “opening ceremony” in 2007 as the site is located in the heart of an area beset by an insurgency that has been waged for over 40 years.

The ruling military regime, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), aim to build five hydropower dams on the Salween River as part of an Asean plan to create a single energy grid for Southeast Asia, along with backing from the Asian Development Bank.

The Salween stretches from its heights on the Tibetan plateau in the north, where it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, along the border with Thailand to the Andaman Sea in the south.

It is the longest free-flowing river left in South-east Asia and a haven for rare flora and fauna.

The 7,110 MW Tasang Dam is the biggest of the five dams planned for the Salween River.

It will flood an area containing over 100 villages, however, only about 3,000 villagers remain after the army’s ‘scorched earth’ policy of the late 1990s drove many into hiding.

The campaign of terror continues to claim victims and thousands spill across the borders into China and Thailand every year.

In less than three years, from 1996 to 1998, the army and their militias forcibly relocated more than 300,000 people from their villages in the hills into easily-controllable areas surrounded by landmines.

Rather than move to 'relocation villages', a euphemism for slave-labour-camps, many fled into the jungles or to Thailand. Initial surveys for Tasang began in earnest soon after.

Most of the electricity generated from the Salween dams will go to Thailand and most of the profits reaped by the regime into the coffers of the generals in Naypyidaw – the SPDC’s garrison-capital.

Military tension has escalated in recent months in Shan State as the Burmese regime has been putting pressure on the United Wa State Army to transform into a “Border Guard Force”.

Abuses linked to anti-insurgency campaigns are also on the rise.

As well as profiting financially from the dams the junta stands to benefit strategically as they will make it increasingly hard for groups at war with the regime such as the Shan State Army and Karen National Liberation Army to continue their resistance.

MD&A also constructed the Yeywa dam in central Burma, near Mandalay, along with Swiss company Colenco, and various Chinese firms.

A number of villages in Yeywa's floodplain were, reportedly, forcibly relocated by the army without notice or compensation as a direct result of Yeywa.

Eastern Burma is a mosaic of distinctive tribes but many consider themselves part of larger groupings like the Karen, Shan, Mon, and Karenni.

Its inhabitants rely largely on subsistence farming and the rich soils the Salween nurtures.

According to the Foundation for Ecological Recovery, the flooding will threaten the habitats of at least 235 wild species integral to the environment including many found only in Burma, like the White-eyebrow gibbon.

Campaigners risk their lives to collect petitions from villagers against the dams and educate locals on the situation.

In some areas rumours were spread that they would receive free electricity and there have been prior instances when people only discovered their homes would be flooded when water reached their doorstep.

There is emergency need here,” said Sai Sai, Coordinator of Burma Rivers Network, an organisation that campaigns to stop the damming of Burma’s rivers.

We would like to call on our neighbours,” he added, “the international community and all investors to stop building the dams so we can ensure transparency and accountability.

[The companies] must recognise the right of the people to social justice and sustainable development.”

For further reading see Roots and Resilience - a report from Burma Rivers Network - and Salween Watch. Here's an article I wrote from the border on the situation in late 2008 for

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About Roots and Resilience

Radical: about the inherent fundamental roots of an issue.
Investigation: a detailed inquiry or systematic examination.

I'm currently working as an independent researcher and freelance journalist for a number of organisations. In 2008 I reported from Thailand and eastern Burma where I worked with the Karen National Union. I have had my work published in the New Internationalist magazine,, the Observer, and many other websites and newspapers. I've lived in Japan and travelled extensively in Europe and Asia.

I intend to go back to university next year to study Human Rights Law as it is in this field that my passion for attempting to make sense of the world was first kindled; so Roots will, in part, be a reflection of this background and take shape as such. I do not intend for it to solely be a place of academic reflection, however, and I will also use it as a place to comment and analyse current affairs and post interesting bits-and-bobs I find. This may take the form of longer essay-like pieces, but more often I will post shorter snippets and ideas, pictures and videos. My main interest is in the establishment and protection of human rights, particularly the Middle East, and Southeast Asia (and Britain!). But I also have a deep interest in Latin America and central Africa. So my posts will echo this, but, will not be limited by it. I also have a focus on refugees, refugee law, and the asylum system, so it is likely that an emphasis on forced displacement, refugees, internally displaced persons and migrants will also come through.

I chose the name 'Roots and Resilience: Radical Investigations in deep politics, law and language' for a variety of reasons: I use the term radical to mean to get to the roots of something, to unearth its true meaning, and this is what I want to do. To do this I will investigate by studying the roots in detail. And, perhaps, discover where they lead and where they source nutrients. Investigation in journalism is dying (there are still valiant pockets of life), and in its place is left a depth-less recycling and re-branding of 'content'. Whatever happened to news?

Politics is often seen as something that happens 'over there', something removed from daily life, where only a handful of cultured technocrats possess the skills to operate its levers. I don't think this is the case. This politics is insane, and has been proven so time and time again, most recently by way of the most catastrophic collapse of the world economy since 1929, the development of increasing layers of overlapping and interrelated global crises caused by wars and their inherent and broad destructive power, increasingly capable and organised criminal networks that operate in both the 'illicit' and the 'licit' economy, and the (now irreversible) prospect of devastating climatic changes that are already causing havoc for societies in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Our democracy is malfunctioning. Every few years people vote for leaders from a small selection of interchangeable brand-names, none of whom have the interest of the indigent in mind when in office no matter what ideological webs are woven to get there. Einstein said it, and I agree: "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting results."

The term "deep politics" is credited to Peter Dale Scott who wrote that:
'Deep politics' is defined as all those political practices and arrangements, deliberate or not, which are usually repressed rather than acknowledged. A 'deep political system' is defined as one which resorts to decision-making and enforcement procedures outside as well as inside those sanctioned by law and society.
I'm a firm believer in the power of the Rule of Law in society, but, only when that law is applied justly. This is something else that is -- once again -- in fashion: the government routinely flouts (and reinvents) law for political purposes, imprisoning those it deems 'a threat to the public' without recourse to fair trial or, sometimes, even legal counsel. By doing so they mock centuries of legal tradition stretching back to the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215 that established Habeas Corpus. This has to stop or we risk what's left of our democracy advancing further towards a technological and psychological tyranny. I think the way we can reclaim the system and 're-imagine' and re-mould it is through organised and persistent action and discourse among the people. The task at hand, then, will require a great deal of resilience on the part of people everywhere. There is no other way.

Language is included because it is possibly the most important aspect of the current malaise. Career politicians, corporate leaders and 'operators', the judiciary, the military and bureaucrats, and, of course, the hacks and TV talking-heads (barring a few brave souls) are professionals at using language to eviscerate the truth. To gut it and replace it with what can only fairly be described as bullshit. Bullshit is what binds it all together.

Roots and Resilience, September 2009